UM, WSU, MSU sued by students for bigger refunds amid COVID-19 pandemic

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Peyton Paymon moved out of her campus housing at the request of Wayne State University officials amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 outbreak and began taking her courses online.

Though Wayne State credited the in-state resident and other students $850 for the time they have not been living in on-campus housing, Paymon argues she has not been adequately compensated for the costs she already paid the Detroit university for tuition and other fees.

Wayne State University Old Main building in Detroit

That's why she filed a lawsuit demanding that Wayne State and its Board of Governors refund more of the money she paid to the university for her education. 

The lawsuit, filed this week in the Michigan Court of Claims, joins lawsuits filed recently against the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and their respective governing boards by students seeking to recoup additional costs beyond what have been given to them since the pandemic changed the landscape of higher education. All three lawsuits seek to be certified as class action.

"The University's decision to transition to online classes and to request or encourage students to leave campus were responsible decisions to make," the suit said, "but it is unfair and unlawful for the University to retain full tuition and fees and a disproportionate share of prepaid amounts for room and board costs and fees and to refuse to reduce any outstanding charges, effectively passing the losses on to the students and their families"

Bloomfield Hills-based lawyer David Fink said it's not as though students are opposed to leaving campus during the worldwide public health emergency or taking online classes. The students object to paying for classes that are no longer in brick and mortar buildings, with face-to-face instruction with professors, and paying for their room and meal plans when they no longer live on campus, said Fink, who filed the three lawsuits with the participation of other firms.

The credits and refunds at all three universities are not pro-rated.

Students move from Michigan State University campus when the school moved to online-only classes.

"The question is one of fairness: Who should bear the cost of this very unfortunate situation?" Fink said.

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said it would be inappropriate to comment on pending litigation, but she defended the services that the university is delivering.

"I can say that MSU is delivering what students pay for: courses taught by highly qualified faculty, tutoring services, faculty office hours, academic advising, financial aid and access to our libraries," Guerrant said in a statement.

"We don’t negate that this has been a difficult time for our university, especially for our students. It is, in part, why we provided credits or pro-rations for many on-campus expenses, including room and board, parking and recreational sports fees."

She added that the the transition resulted in university costs to deliver online education

"It is important to remember that while the university incurred many additional costs associated with rapidly transitioning to distanced learning — including investing in new hardware, software, 24/7 IT and help desk services and new course materials — we have maintained our commitment to providing meaningful and robust learning experiences at no additional cost to our Spartans," Guerrant said.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald and WSU spokesman Matt Lockwood said that their universities have not yet been served with the lawsuit — which Fink said the process has slowed due to the pandemic but has been initiated.

"The university did offer students living in our residence halls a $1,200 rebate for those who were able to move out early and we offered rebates on dining plans as well," Fitzgerald said.

Added Lockwood: "We cannot comment on what we have not seen."

Students living on campus at Wayne State, UM and Michigan State pay a wide range of costs that exceed more than $20,000 annually.

For instance, a resident undergraduate Michigan student attending UM and living in the dorms in 2019-20 paid $15,558 for tuition and $11,996 in room and board for a total of $27,554 annually. At MSU, the total cost for tuition, room and board was $25,046. At Wayne State, costs for tuition, on campus housing and a meal plan can reach $22,294. 

Out-of-state and international students pay significantly more because their tuition costs nearly three times as much as a student who lives in Michigan.

The Diag at the University of Michigan

For instance, one of the plaintiffs in the UM suit, Kliment Milanov, is a freshmen from Washington state studying viola performance, philosophy and Japanese. His tuition costs $51,200 since he is an out-of-state resident. When adding his room and board costs of $11,996, the total cost is $63,196.

UM, MSU and WSU asked students like Milanov and Paymon to move off campus in March. The refunds/credits given them and their peers include $1,200 from UM, $1,200 from MSU and $850 from WSU.

None of the reinbursements are "commensurate with the financial losses to the University's students and their families," the lawsuits said.

"No matter the reason for its decisions, the University's actions are unlawful and unfair, and equity demands disgorgement of the fees and monies paid," according to the suit.

Fink noted that other universities across the country have offered students pro-rated refunds, such as Pennsylvania State University.

The lawsuits come as all three universities are bracing for financial shortfalls and dealing with uncertainty about when they might reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. UM announced this week a budget shortfall of up to $1 billion and pay reductions for executives and other cost reductions and MSU announced salary and other cuts in addition to freezing tuition for students next year.