Two students are suing the University of Maine and the state’s public university system, saying they were entitled to a partial tuition refund last semester when the coronavirus forced campus closures in March, leading to the remainder of the semester being entirely online.
The lawsuit from Hunter Stewart and Nehemiah Brown is among more than 100 that university students across the country have filed, claiming that educational institutions failed to provide the services they charged for during the pandemic and owe their students refunded tuition.
In the lawsuit they filed Thursday, for which they are seeking class-action status, Stewart and Brown say that all 21,000 University of Maine System undergraduate students are entitled to a prorated refund of the tuition and other mandatory fees that they paid their universities last semester. The students should not have had to pay after classes moved online because of the decline in overall quality of the education they received remotely, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit does not specify an amount the students should be refunded, but classes shifted online about halfway through the spring 2020 semester.
The University of Maine System did issue refunds for a portion of resident students’ room and board fees last semester, but did not refund any tuition or fees associated with services such as the use of recreational facilities and on-campus amenities such as libraries.
Maine’s public universities did not refund tuition because the university system delivered classes online and allowed students to finish the credit hours for which they had signed up, University of Maine System spokesperson Dan Demeritt said.
“We cannot comment further on pending litigation but stand by our record of safely continuing academic instruction for our students through the pandemic,” Chancellor Dannel Malloy said Friday.
The lawyers representing Stewart and Brown did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
UMaine charges undergraduate students slightly more than $1,200 in non-tuition fees every semester. This includes a $1,031 unified fee that covers operation of student centers, career services and the cost of academic transcripts. Other fees include a recreational fee of about $146 and a student activity fee of $46.
“The university breached its contract by failing to provide the promised in-person and on-campus live education as well as the services and facilities to which the mandatory fees pertained throughout the semesters affected by Covid-19, yet has retained money paid by plaintiffs and the class for a live in-person education and access to these services and facilities during these semesters,” Stewart and Brown said in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit demanding tuition refunds comes as the University of Maine System has faced large losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. The system estimated its short-term losses last semester from shifting classes online and refunding room and board fees at $20 million.
Then, in July, the system’s trustees passed a new budget with a projected shortfall of $5.69 million. The system also anticipated more than $20 million in coronavirus-related costs this school year from a combination of lost revenue from canceled events, a shortened period in which students are on campus and new costs for coronavirus testing and other safety measures.
This fall, students paid 80 percent of the typical room and board fees for the semester since the university system will be closing campus again and transitioning to remote learning after Thanksgiving.
Gov. Janet Mills has also cut $2.25 million in state funding for the university system as part of a larger package of coronavirus-related cuts across state government.