July 14, 2024
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July 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, college dormitories across the nation have closed. Due to campus closures, New York students have found themselves returning home and completing coursework online.

Refunds for college tuition seem to be a moot point in most cases, since classes are still being held online. But the situation has college students and parents wondering whether they’re entitled to a refund for room and board.

Because of campus closures, NYC students who are unable to return home have also found themselves in search of alternative housing. This means some students are paying double for their housing, placing additional financial strain on students in an already trying economic time.

Some colleges have already laid out repayment plans for students affected this year. For example, Scripps College, in Claremont, California, has already shared a detailed college fees refund plan for students who elect to leave campus.

But other campuses are mysteriously silent on the subject, leaving parents to wonder if they should seek legal advice.

Can I demand a refund if the college hasn’t volunteered to give one?

If you believe you’re entitled to a refund, first approach the school and find out their thoughts on the matter. It’s possible they’ve considered offering refunds and simply haven’t landed on an official policy yet.

On the other hand, it’s possible that some schools are relying on the passivity of students and parents. If they say nothing about refunds, they hope enough people will assume they can’t get one, and simply will not ask.

Because school is still in operation, universities have to continue paying teachers. Expenses for buildings and utilities don’t necessarily end because campus is closed; in many cases, teachers are still coming to campus to record classes and use school resources.

But first and foremost, colleges and universities are businesses. They have to think and operate like a business, and many of them are concerned about giving out too many refunds at once.

Often, if you make it clear that you expect a refund, businesses will comply. They value your business above all else, and they know the impact of losing customers could be worse than simply giving a partial refund.

If it becomes clear that the school is worried about economic devastation due to an excess of room and board refunds, see if they’re willing to put you on a refund plan over a course of months. Make it clear that you intend to send your student back to campus after the virus blows over. It’s likely they’ll see the value in working something out with you.

Is it legal for colleges to refuse to give room and board refunds?

What is legal will depend on what’s in your contract. Most contracts have an act of god or force majeure clause, protecting businesses from the shell shock of unforeseen circumstances. The French phrase force majeure literally translates to superior force. It implies something beyond the control of man, a force to be reckoned with. These clauses typically cover things like floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes etc. Many people are of the opinion that the coronavirus is a “force to be reckoned with”. And in many ways, it is.

But the question is, can you make this argument in court (and win)?

Some force majeure clauses actually name pandemics as a qualifying situation. If this is the case for your college dormitory contract, you might be stuck without a refund. However, if the force majeure clause doesn’t name pandemics as a contingency, you certainly have a case. (Either way, we can help you determine whether you have other grounds for legal action, so don’t give up.)

What can I do if they still refuse? Should I sue for a refund due to campus closure?

Some colleges have come right out and said they have no intention of giving refunds. They may be citing a force majeure clause as grounds for keeping any room and board money they’ve already received. However, Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally recognized expert on higher education, says it’s unethical to refuse to give refunds.

“You can’t charge for goods and services that you don’t provide,” Kantrowitz told CNBC. “Some colleges do not mention refunds. I would not be surprised if colleges that refuse to provide room and board refunds will face class-action lawsuits.”

If you’re considering legal action, it’s important to obtain counsel. Every situation and contract is unique, and there could be other factors that will impact a court case. Still, if a college or university has displayed explicit refusal to work something out with students and parents, it’s probably something that should be addressed at the court level.

Particularly if you’re feeling the strain of paying for alternative housing due to dorm closures, we recommend seeking legal counsel right away.


Michael Samuel is an attorney handling tax-resolution matters on behalf of taxpayers requiring payment plans, offers in compromise and “currently not collectible” status, as well as other tax resolution matters. He can be reached at [email protected].

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