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Student Files Lawsuit Demanding Tuition Reimbursement from Spring 2020

Channing Wang/Thresher

By Skye Fredericks     1/26/21 11:29pm

Anna Seballos (Jones College ’20) filed a lawsuit against Rice University on Jan. 11 demanding a refund for students who paid full tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 semester. 

The lawsuit claims that Rice did not follow through on its promises of in-person educational opportunities and student services once the university transitioned into online-only instruction. Seballos’s legal team asserts that students did not receive the experience that they paid for up front. 

According to KHOU, the lawsuit is seeking class-action status with over $5 million in damages on behalf of students who paid full tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 semester. 

According to the lawsuit, Rice allegedly breached their contract by failing to provide the services and experiences promised at the time semester fees were due. 

Besides the claim that all coursework was moved to an online platform, the lawsuit claims that the university closed student facilities that were included in the costs paid up front. Such costs mentioned include fees for the Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center as well as the University Center. 

Currently, the Wellbeing and Counseling Center as well as Student Health Services have moved to a virtual format. Seballos’s lawsuit alleges that these services were rendered impractical and unable to be utilized due to social distancing measures. 

However 38.5 percent of the spring 2020 Rec Center fee was refunded to student accounts. Undergraduates also received refunds for parking, meal plans and on-campus housing. 

Doug Miller, the director of news and media relations for Rice University, declined to comment while litigation is underway. 

A petition, which has around 1,300 signatures, circulated in the fall semester asking that the university lower tuition due to the drastically different nature of the semester.

Brown College freshman Marie Valera said she thinks lowering tuition for online classes is justified. 

“I don’t think anyone in our heart of hearts truly thinks that online classes are of the same value … [since] you’re not as motivated to learn,” Valera said. “I think that Rice does need to have some sort of penalty for continuing to have courses online because I did not apply for an online experience; I applied to Rice to go to class in person.” 

Rice is not the only university to undergo scrutiny regarding tuition for online learning. Over 4,000 students from Columbia University in New York have decided to participate in a tuition strike. They are demanding a 10 percent increase in financial aid as well as a 10 percent decrease in tuition. Students at the University of Chicago also organized a tuition strike that ended in a tuition freeze by the school. 

DavId Sablak, a remote student, said that he believes maintaining the cost of tuition despite distance learning is justified. 

“Essentially you’re paying for your classes and the salary of your teachers,” Sablak, a McMurtry College freshman, said. “The education that you’re receiving [at Rice] is significantly better compared to other classes at other institutions.”

Jones College freshman Elizabeth Fessler said she believes that the professors are doing the best they can given the circumstances, but that students still deserve reduced tuition.

“I recognize that the professors and staff are still working hard and still need to be paid fairly,” said Fessler. “However, I think remote students deserve to have their tuition reduced because the only resource that tuition is getting them is professors, and obviously the online learning experience is not nearly as good as a regular face-to-face class.”

Aaron Lin, a sophomore from Hanszen College, said staying on campus for his ROTC commitment once in-person operations halted gave him insight into just how unprecedented the pandemic was. Lin did not see any wrongdoing on Rice’s part. 

“Nobody could have predicted that the situation would have happened, right? So since they require people to pay up front it’s fair that they charged full price [for the spring 2020 semester], not knowing what we were heading into,” Lin said. 

Tuition costs have increased every year at Rice over the past decade, including the most recent year amidst the pandemic. There is currently a freeze on staff hiring and pay raises for the 2021 fiscal year that was announced in April 2020, due to the financial challenges posed by the pandemic.

Michael Singley, one of the attorneys representing Seballos in her lawsuit, did not respond for comment.

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