Students should get to work, and stop suing their colleges

How students handle the disappointment in having to continue courses online rather than in person speaks volumes about how well they will handle other crises that will surely enter their lives.

Students began filing lawsuits against their institutions seeking refunds this spring, with more than 100 cases alone before the spring semester ended. Based solely on the lawsuits, apparently because of their response to the pandemic, one would conclude that colleges must be willfully mistreating students. We’ve read how hard life is for these college students, having had to endure leaving campus and taking their classes online. Really? That’s the big complaint? Not the best of situations I understand, but please, stop moaning and whining. And, stop suing. Yes, this is a bump in the road, but how students handle it will speak volumes about how well they will handle other crises that will surely enter their lives.

Larry Compeau, Clarkson University
Larry Compeau, Clarkson University

During this worldwide pandemic so many are suffering terrible tragedies, and students are being asked to substitute one, two, or maybe even three semesters with online classes instead of “in-person” classes. They are still being taught by some of the brightest, most highly educated and devoted faculty in the world. Oh the agony! How this circumstance constitutes “suffering” to the point of actually suing what will hopefully be their alma maters is beyond comprehension.

Ostensibly, the main argument is that students did not get what they bargained for. The lawsuits mainly focus on the claim that when colleges shifted to online classes only, the students were somehow shortchanged academically, and that students paid for services that were not rendered.

While the online learning experience is different, it should be just as challenging and rewarding. And while the results of research examining online vs. in-person classes are mixed, there does not appear to be any consensus that online classes are inherently inferior. Long before the pandemic, many students freely opted to take online classes even when the same class was being offered in-person. According to one survey, in the Fall of 2018, long before the pandemic, over 6.9 million students enrolled in online classes. And never, to the best of my knowledge, did any student ask for a tuition reduction, much less a refund. Many students willingly pay full tuition for their MBA degree taught entirely online at highly respected universities. Moreover, tuition and fees only represent a small portion of a college’s overall budget. For state schools, the College Board estimates tuition and fees account for only 39% of the total budget.

But what this uproar seems to be really about is the broader college “experience.” Those elements outside of the classroom that students now expect as part of their college “experience.” I honestly get it. What fun! Why would students not want all of those niceties? Colleges, in their somewhat misguided attempts to compete for students over the past several decades, have highlighted facilities, activities, social culture and the “experience.”

It’s no wonder then that students today seem to be more focused on “missing out” on all these amenities. They think they are sacrificing so much because they can’t work out at the gym, attend drinking parties, meet the love of their dreams, be a part of one or more clubs, attend a concert, watch a movie, go to a game, join in-person discussions and debates, attend a lecture, play a game of pool, go for a swim and the list goes on. And yes, they are missing out. But, these are special times. Everybody is missing out. Nobody is getting to do those things right now. So, how are students suffering any more than anyone else?

So, they sue to get some of their money back. To date I know of no lawsuits against restaurants to get money refunded for not getting the dining “experience,” being forced to get take-out/curbside/pickup meals, or against retailers for having to order online and missing out on the in-store shopping “experience.” Should people sue to get money refunded for memberships they have not been able to “experience?” And the list goes on. So, what sacrifices are students making above and beyond what everyone else is going through? And are they a severe hardship? Imagine all of those young people graduating from high school who are bright and motivated but cannot afford to go to college. Now that’s a hardship that lasts a lifetime.

Students need to challenge themselves to get the most out of this experience and embrace it as an unusual but important part of their unique educational experience. Own it! Our past doesn’t define who we are, but it does inform who we will be. Make it count towards who you will be. Are you able to overcome the challenges that the pandemic is presenting to you? Can you fold these experiences into making you a better person both personally and professionally? The bottom line is this. A college education has been, is now, and will continue to be highly valued. Even if students have to learn off-campus and online, they will learn—this we already know from years of online teaching. And, in the end, students will be just as well prepared to begin their career journey. I know this from 40 years of college teaching at all levels of higher education. Good faculty and good colleges will see to it. Side benefit: students should learn from this experience which will help them to embrace and adapt to disruptive change in the future. A wonderful skill to have learned the hard way.

College students today are still very privileged. They get to go to college! What an amazing opportunity. Students should do their classes online for now and make the most of that college “experience” until they can get back to campus. And if students are really intent on getting some of the college “experience” they think they missed, then all they need do is perform really well, get a scholarship and go on to graduate school. Either way, they will be all the better for it.

Larry D. Compeau, a Professor Emeritus, and has received numerous teaching awards across a 40-year career of higher education teaching at all levels of institutions including 2-year technical colleges, community colleges, small public liberal arts universities, large (over 30,000 students) public research universities, and small private research universities. He has published dozens of academic scientific articles in top journals.

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