A Penn student filed a class action lawsuit against the University demanding tuition and fee refunds for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. The outcome of the lawsuit could affect all Penn students who paid tuition during this time period.
Master's student in the Graduate School of Education Asha Smith filed the lawsuit on April 30, but Penn has rejected the basis for the case. Smith's complaint follows a series of similar class action suits filed by students against schools across the United States who have shuttered campuses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Smith is seeking prorated tuition and fee reimbursement from the University. The lawsuit cited the lack of in-person instruction, access to on-campus facilities, extra-curricular student activities, and face-to-face interaction with professors and peers that contribute to “the college experience.”
“I felt like the only place that I could have redress and really be heard is in a courtroom,” Smith told The Daily Pennsylvanian in an interview. “There [are] a lot of students who are not feeling heard by the universities, and unfortunately Penn is one of those schools who have not taken student concerns very seriously.”
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an emailed statement to the DP that Penn believes the lawsuit to be "misdirected and wholly without merit."
“In these very challenging times, Penn has always made, and continues to make, the health and safety of our community our highest priority, while continuing to provide the best and highest quality academic experience, consistent with public health requirements, for our students,” MacCarthy continued.
Although Smith is the lead plaintiff, the outcome of the case may affect most of Penn’s student body, due to the breadth of the suit's proposed Class, or group directly affected by the case's allegations. In this suit, Class members include all people who have paid tuition and fees on behalf of students who were enrolled in courses this past semester, but did not receive in-person instruction.
Representing Smith is the South Carolina-based Anastopoulo Law Firm, a firm that is also representing numerous other students at universities across the United States who have filed similar complaints against their schools, such as Boston University, Columbia University, Cornell University, and Drexel University. Like Smith, these students are suing for tuition compensation due to a loss of in-person academic experiences.
Smith's attorney Roy Willey wrote in an email to the DP that his firm has filed approximately 15 such cases nationally.
The Anastopoulo Law Firm also set up a website inviting students whose colleges have closed campus to fill out a brief form so attorneys can investigate potential legal action against schools that are not offering tuition and fee refunds.
“All of us are in this together, and this isn't just about me," Smith said. "This is about setting a precedent that says schools value their students in more than just their word, they value their students with their financial priorities as well."
The University announced on April 9 it would offer prorated housing and dining reimbursements, but has not announced tuition refunds, despite appeals from students.
Smith said she thinks Penn can afford to reimburse students for tuition in some capacity, referencing the University’s financial ability to continue supporting employees and refusal to apply for or accept CARES Act assistance. Her lawsuit cites Penn's estimated endowment of approximately $14.7 billion.
“What I do know is that Penn can certainly afford to compensate all of us, employees and students alike,” she said.
But despite its large endowment, the University is making budget adjustments to account for losses due to to the virus.
Provost Wendell Pritchett and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli sent an email to the Penn community on April 13 detailing Penn’s budget plans for fiscal year 2021 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. They wrote the University will institute a hiring freeze, pause capital projects, and urge reductions in discretionary spending — such as travel and entertainment expenses — in order to maintain the majority of staff positions.
Vice President for Finance and Treasurer MaryFrances McCourt did not share the specifics of how the University's endowment may be affected by the pandemic, but said "if you just look at all the financial markets, nothing would point to the endowment being up."
Beyond Penn, other colleges and universities across the country are facing massive revenue losses after suspending on-campus operations. After offering refunds for unused room and board fees and canceling in-person activities, schools are facing weaker endowments and expect lower fall enrollment from students facing travel restrictions, financial burdens, and psychological impact from the pandemic.
Smith said she imagines the lawsuit will force Penn to be more attentive to students' needs.
“My hope is that it will force them to reconsider how to take care of their students,” Smith said about the lawsuit. “That's all this is about, is remembering that we're all actually going through these circumstances, but students are really struggling right now."