Student Opinion: Students Sue the UC System For Virtual Learning Refunds

By Liam Benedict

In the United States, people from many walks of life have had their plans for the future dashed by COVID-19. People have lost out on highly anticipated family reunions, vacations, weddings and funerals. But by far the biggest impacted group, in terms of plan cancellation, belongs to the class of 2020, my own cursed generation. 

Thousands upon thousands of my fellow classmates and I lost out on our senior celebrations. We did not get to walk across the grand stage with our diplomas, waving to the hundreds of parents in the audience. 

I picked up my diploma in a drive-through. 

Without a tender, fun-filled goodbye, my classmates and I were sent off to the next stage of our education: College. 

The deep emotional pain of being deprived of our long-promised college experience may never heal. Unfortunately, the unimpressive education and high financial costs of attending school at this moment sting even more than that. 

Given this, some students have decided to act on this pain, and seek financial restitution by suing many colleges across the country, especially ones in the UC System. 

Many of the lawsuits are aimed at UC universities, such as UC San Diego. But the trend is wide-reaching as it ranges to private colleges and even monolithic Ivy League schools dealing with cases. 

To be clear, it is not that the plaintiff is upset that the universities have decided to end in-person classes due to COVID-19. It is in the best interests of everyone’s health that such in-person meetings are avoided. It is the fact that the quality of education has decreased, and yet the costs haven’t. 

I, for one, feel that the plaintiff’s actions are perfectly justified. There are several legitimate grounds for the lawsuit.

One of the many plaintiffs is, in fact, a UC Davis student: Clair Brandmeyer, a junior psychology major. She feels that students are owed at least $1,100 for some of the things students are not being allowed to use. 

Claire points out in the ABC 7 news article that many students are still “paying for library fees, for the in-campus gym, paying for the pool, paying for all these things that we would normally get to use on campus.” But not anymore. With those resources no longer available, the costs need to be changed in order to reflect that. 

Another student at UC Irvine, sophomore Rosie Oganesian, has started the petition “No Students Left Behind,” urging universities to lower tuition fees during the pandemic. Her exasperation is clearly expressed in the Spectrum News article, where she explains, “I am so stressed. It’s so difficult to study online… It’s just frustrating to see how if it’s all online if we can’t go to class, we still have to pay for those amenities that we’re not using.” 

Although the gracious spirit of Oganesian is admirable, several students do not think it is enough to enact real change. That is why the lawsuit continues to increase substantially in scale. 

Another side of the issue is that students feel their degrees are worthless now that they are partially online. 

Haley Martinez and Matthew Sheridan are UC San Diego students leading a suit against their school, arguing that they are not receiving what they paid for, and thus the university is unjustly enriching themselves. After all, the students have stated they “contracted and paid for an education, not course credits,” reports the Los Angeles Times. 

The evidence is provided by UC San Diego themselves. There, a master’s degree in healthcare informatics costs $1,580 per unit for on-campus classes, while the online classes cost $925 per unit. The students are also receiving fewer hours of instruction and days of classes than promised, according to the lawsuit. 

If these cases go through, they could have big effects on the college world. There are a few class-action lawsuits going on already. The LA Times reports that if more of the cases facing the UC system are certified as class actions, they could involve nearly 750,000 students and millions of dollars. 

Representatives from the school systems have argued that the schools are forced to spend more during COVID-19; and I don’t doubt that they’re right. 

However, many people doubt the direness of the school’s finances.

Moze Cowper, a partner of the firm leading one of the class action lawsuits, says that the universities can afford a reduction. As Spectrum News reports: “A lot of those folks are racking up major tuition and student fee bills that by the way, [add] insult to injury. They are going to end up paying interest on for the next 25 years.” 

Ultimately, I just want the universities to do right by their students. I know they can’t give back everything the class of 2020 has lost, but they should at least try to lessen our financial suffering as we continue to push onward during this pandemic. 


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12 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    I am glad to hear this perspective. I would need much more detail to form an educated opinion, but I can see no justice in charging students for resources & amenities they cannot use, hours of instruction they are not receiving, and ultimately degrees that are potentially of lesser value than those received prior to the pandemic.

  2. Eric Gelber

    Seems to me a first step here would be a State Auditor investigation to identify the costs (e.g., mitigation efforts) and savings (e.g., salaries) to the UC and CSU systems resulting from the pandemic. From that one can begin to discuss reparations to students, including the need, if any, for additional legislative appropriations.

  3. Keith Olsen

    Let’s take this a step further.  Are grade school students getting a good and thorough education with home learning and lack of access to school classrooms, labs and amenities?   Are homeowners getting their value out of their school parcel taxes?  Should  homeowners be entitled to a refund on a portion of their school parcel taxes?

    1. Ron Oertel

      Good question (and underlying point).

      I’m not sure that there’s been any “layoffs” or “cost reductions” at either UCD or the local school systems as a result of the pandemic.

      Nor would I know if there should be, or what exactly the larger impacts of doing so would be. I don’t know what condition the state itself is in.

      1. Ron Oertel

        But, we do know that (other than non-resident students – who pay the FULL cost), the cost of student education at UCD is significantly subsidized. Resident students themselves only pay a portion of their costs, to begin with.

        And of course, students (and their parents) pay NO cost, to local school systems. (Other than the costs that all property owners pay.) In fact, they get significant tax breaks. But, I digress.

  4. Ron Oertel

    Was this written for amusement (from the article, itself)? Or, am I just an insensitive jerk? (Don’t answer that.)

    Without a tender, fun-filled goodbye, my classmates and I were sent off to the next stage of our education: College.
    The deep emotional pain of being deprived of our long-promised college experience may never heal.

    Given this, some students have decided to act on this pain, and seek financial restitution by suing many colleges across the country, especially ones in the UC System.

  5. Ron Oertel

    Quoting myself:  . Resident students themselves only pay a portion of their costs, to begin with.

    Actually, that’s not totally correct, either.  I was curious, so I thought I’d look this up (as of a couple of years ago):

    Roughly 57 percent of UC undergraduates from California pay no tuition.

    https://news.berkeley.edu/2018/08/22/uc-system-reaching-an-existential-tipping-point-new-paper-concludes/#:~:text=Roughly%2057%20percent%20of%20UC%20undergraduates%20from%20California%20pay%20no%20tuition

  6. Ron Oertel

    The article above notes that the UC system is at a “tipping point”, but proposes “more revenue” as a solution.  (Now, where that revenue will come from is another question.)

    Perhaps the entire UC system will ultimately need to pursue more online options (on a permanent basis), as other employers are now doing.  But, don’t expect them to do so “willingly”.

  7. Tia Will

    From conversations with my science high school teaching daughter, I can address one aspect of cost. While teachers may appear to be doing less through online instruction, this is far from the case. First, they were given one week’s notice in her district of the change to all distance learning. At least for science teachers, this prompted a complete revision of the lesson plans for some subjects. Not all students have access to the internet at the time of the regularly scheduled lessons and thus must essentially be privately tutored with no compensatory pay. Same is true of reaching parents for parent-teacher conferences.

    I offer no solutions beyond the obvious need to rethink how we assign value to work done outside the home vs remote work for many different situations, both private and public.

    1. Robb Davis

      Tia raises good points here about workload for teachers.  In the past 10 months I have moved an entire course from an in-person, interactive one to one that was asynchronously taught (due to time zone differences), I have created a fully online synchronous class (with people in multiple time zones), and adjusted four individual lectures/presentations into online format.  This is a tremendous amount of work—especially moving into asynchronous mode.  It is basically like creating a new course—especially if the original one was highly interactive.  Teaching is only a part of what I do but the shift has been very time consuming.

      I see complaints about online courses being cheaper than in-person courses at some schools.  I am not sure that is the case at UC Davis but teacher and TA time is not cut—much more time is being spent on teaching.  Indeed, I will go a step further and say that the amount of time I and others spent this summer learning how to move content online was amazing, transformative and… many, many hours of work. In the end, I think it has made us all better teachers and I have learned how to draw in expertise and examples from across the world in what I teach in ways I would not even have considered in an in-person class.  But it took time.

      But there is another point here.  Students across the country are not just paying tuition.  They are paying fees (addressed in the article) for an array of services (buses, rec fields, rec facilities, student group support, etc.) that many are not and cannot use at distance.  This is a problem but not one with easy answers either.  While you could argue that the fees should be dropped and staff laid off, there is also a cost to doing that and “re-hiring” and re-establishing” positions when in-person learning is again possible will be costly.

      I don’t know the best way forward.  All units are examining cost savings and reductions.  It is a challenging time. I am not yet ready to give up on the idea that there are some real advantages to resident education at the University level but maybe it is a luxury we can no longer afford.

  8. Alan Miller

    Have any students considered not giving ripoff UCs their money?  Enough students don’t think the UC system is worth giving money to, UC will drop their prices or reform.  You keep giving them your money for this outrageous tuition and then sue them to get your money back – seems like an extra unnecessary step.  Try a college that gives value for money.  They are all online now, so the sky’s the limit.

  9. Alan Miller

    Or, am I just an insensitive jerk? (Don’t answer that.)

    You’re safe, RO.  Here’s the response from a true insensitive jerk:

    People have lost out on highly anticipated family reunions, vacations, weddings and funerals.

    I know I was looking forward to that highly-anticipated funeral.

    But by far the biggest impacted group, in terms of plan cancellation, belongs to the class of 2020, my own cursed generation. 

    Having had an older brother in the generation that were drafted for Vietnam, I’m not feeling a whole lot of sympathy for your generation’s particular curse, especially since the virus barely kills anyone in that age-group.

    Thousands upon thousands of my fellow classmates and I lost out on our senior celebrations. We did not get to walk across the grand stage with our diplomas, waving to the hundreds of parents in the audience.

    In the 60’s, 50,000 college-age Americans didn’t get to enjoy those things either, nor the remainder of their lives, because they were killed in SE Asia.  And talk about systematic racism, the draft was a doozie for that – and there’s no refuting that fact.

    But hey, this is coming from an insensitive jerk and sourpuss who didn’t give a carp about my UC degree or the stupid grad ceremony to the point that I voluntarily never walked the ‘grand stage’, whatever the f–k that is.

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