Skylar Watkins, a film major at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has four studio classes this semester, and they just haven’t been the same since all instruction moved online due to the coronavirus.

The 21-year-old Nashville native says she doesn’t have the equipment she needs to do the work. One professor, she said, told her: “Film something, and you’ll pass.”

It’s not the kind of educational experience she feels is worth the tens of thousands of dollars in tuition she is shelling out, she said. She wants at least half her money back for the spring semester.

Around the country, students at dozens of colleges, from Columbia to the University of California, Northwestern, and the University of Florida, to local colleges including Temple and Drexel, are launching change.org petitions, seeking refunds. Watkins and her roommate started one that has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

Other students have resorted to lawsuits to recoup tuition and fees; the South Carolina-based Anastopoulo Law Firm has filed suit against Drexel University and the University of Miami. The lawyer representing students said more legal action is coming.

Skylar Watkins, a junior at the University of the Arts, started a petition, seeking a partial refund in tuition and fees for the spring semester because online classes don't offer the same quailty as those held on campus.
Courtesy of Skylar Watkins
Skylar Watkins, a junior at the University of the Arts, started a petition, seeking a partial refund in tuition and fees for the spring semester because online classes don't offer the same quailty as those held on campus.

“We are currently investigating dozens of cases across the country, including in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia,” said lawyer Roy Willey, noting the firm’s website for fielding complaints, collegerefund2020.com. “There is some product being delivered that has a value, but it does not have the same value of what students paid for.”

But some experts say the complainants will have a tough case to prove, given that the universities have maintained instruction, taught by the same faculty. Most traditional colleges charge the same for online and on-campus courses, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Savingforcollege.com, a guide to saving and paying for college.

“A college certainly should give a refund if they have to cancel the class,” he said. “But if they move it to an online format, it’s a much more difficult case.”

Drexel, which enrolls about 24,000 students, declined comment on the lawsuit, but defended its course delivery.

“The university remains committed to providing students with a challenging and engaging academic — and social — experience, utilizing an array of creative digital tools to keep connected to their professors and to each other,” said spokesperson Niki Gianakaris.

Tuition and fees for first-year students at Drexel exceed $54,000; costs differ in subsequent years because most students work co-op jobs and don’t pay tuition during that time.

Many universities have provided refunds or future credit for room and board after forcing most students off campus last month and moving instruction online. Drexel has said it won’t charge room and board for spring term, which started last week.

But colleges have held fast on not refunding tuition, noting that students can still learn remotely and get credit for the work.

“We have been paying students back for things they no longer can use,” said Ray Betzner, a spokesperson for Temple University, which has refunded students money for parking in addition to room and board. “They are still being taught by the same faculty, and therefore, the tuition is still being used to pay for those faculty members and that education.”

Temple hasn’t refunded fees, Betzner said, noting that the school has trained the faculty, bought and distributed equipment, and enhanced campus technology to bolster online learning and still offers student services, such as counseling.

West Chester University also will continue to charge tuition, technology, and educational service fees, but has reduced some charges by 50%, including activity, health center, recreation, and parking fees. That’s in addition to cutting room and board by half.

“The university absolutely understands the financial hardships that have fallen on students due to the global pandemic, and it has been working hard to minimize costs,” said spokesperson Nancy Gainer.

Neumann University in Aston also does not plan tuition refunds for spring. The semester started in-person and students got support through the transition, said president Chris Domes.

But the university, which enrolls about 2,400 undergraduates and graduate students, will cut tuition by 30% for summer undergraduate courses, which will continue to be delivered online. (Rates for master’s and doctoral credits also will be reduced.)

The difference, Domes said, is that the entire term will be online.

“We know our families are stressed financially,” he said. “We understood that and we wanted to do something to help them.”

Pennsylvania State University also announced lower tuition for summer session this week.

But Siobhan Montenegro, a student at Drexel (who signed the petition but is not part of the lawsuit), said students deserve relief for spring semester.

“In these difficult times it is the responsibility of Drexel University to understand the financial hardships its students are facing, but instead, Drexel is unfairly charging a full tuition and a $790 activity fee for canceled activities with no transparency as to what that money is being used for,” she said.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple education-policy professor and longtime advocate for hungry and homeless college students, has vociferously called for support for students in need during the pandemic. And she acknowledges that online experiences are not the same as in-person, though they can be done well.

But when it comes to tuition refunds, she said she can see both sides.

“This is a really hard thing,” she said. “This is about a shift due to a crisis. It was not a decision. It was a necessity.”

Colleges have bills to pay, and it wouldn’t be right to cut faculty pay midsemester when everyone is working hard to make the transition to online, she said.

“Combat pay, that’s what faculty deserve right now,” she said.

Citing financial losses from the coronavirus, Temple this week announced a 10% cut in pay for officers, deans, and advisers to the president, and a 5% cut for nonunion employees earning more than $100,000.

Watkins, the University of the Arts student, said she is still hoping for help. She submitted the petition, which seeks a refund of half the tuition costs and fees for the semester, to the university.

“They just haven’t replied to me, and I don’t know they are going to, which is really disappointing,” she said.

The university did not respond to emails from The Inquirer seeking comment.

Johanna Barbosa, a junior dance major, signed the petition. She estimates she pays $43,000 annually in tuition to the University of the Arts. The online classes, she said, are inadequate.

“It does not work for performing arts students and art students in general,” she said, noting that their education is “heavily dependent on studio courses, which require access to facilities, space, and equipment, none of which are available to us now.”