Columbia student files lawsuit requesting reimbursement for tuition, fees during coronavirus-related campus closures

By Paige Barnes and Lauren Leazenby

Courtesy Columbia College Chicago

A Columbia student has filed a class action lawsuit against Columbia College Chicago and its Board of Trustees demanding reimbursement for harm related to missed classes and “inferior” online instruction along with a lack of access to campus during the spring semester.

Filed Tuesday, June 9, the lawsuit demands Columbia reimburse students for lost instruction time, lack of access to resources caused by campus closures due to the coronavirus pandemic and “inferior” online classes. The complaint does not include the amount requested.

The complaint made by David Buschauer, a senior marketing major with a concentration in the entertainment industry and a minor in music business, alleges Columbia students “suffered actual harm as a result of Columbia’s failure to provide the contracted for services without any refund or credit for tuition and fees.”

A press release Buschauer sent to the Chronicle Monday, June 15 said the “educational experience was so completely diminished once Columbia finally did resume instruction in its online form, that it was wholly unacceptable for the remaining [six] weeks of the semester.”

Buschauer declined the Chronicle’s request for an interview about the lawsuit at this time.

Lambrini Lukidis, associate vice president of Strategic Communications and External Relations, said in a Friday, June 12 email to the Chronicle that the college was officially served on June 12, but she would not comment on the pending litigation.

In the lawsuit, Buschauer is asking the college to pay for all legal expenses associated with the case, stating Columbia “wrongfully kept the monies paid by the Class,” or the money paid by students.

A class action lawsuit is one “in which one or more members of a large group, or class, of individuals or other entities sue on behalf of the entire class,” according to a definition from the Administrative Office of the U.S Courts.

Buschauer’s federal class action complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on behalf of “all other undergraduate and graduate students of Columbia College Chicago.”

Still in the early stages, the lawsuit is not officially considered class action until the judge makes a class certification. Members of the “class” would receive notification of the lawsuit and will have the option to opt-out.

In mid-March, Columbia announced classes would be suspended for two weeks from March 1428 prior to the week of spring break and resume remotely April 6, as reported by the Chronicle March 14.

In the complaint, Buschauer said online instruction was “in no way comparable” to in-person, hands-on classes. Instruction time was diminished, he said, with his usual fifteen hours per week of class lowered to four.

Undergraduate tuition costs for the 2019-2020 academic year, including fees, were $26,610 according to Columbia’s website.

According to the complaint, Buschauer was charged $13,305 in tuition and $3,389 in mandatory fees for a total of $16,694 for the Spring 2020 semester.

This included a $70 health center fee, $150 activity fee, $150 technology fee and $153 fee for a U-Pass, which the complaint said was “rendered useless once campus was closed.”

As reported by the Chronicle March 13, Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David said there would be no tuition reimbursement because “no instruction will be truly missed.”

Most students who had in-person classes during the Spring semester ended up receiving a one-time grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding of $250 through direct deposit or check, as reported by the Chronicle April 28.

After requesting a tuition and fee refund from the college in May, Buschauer was told by Columbia Central’s financial department to apply for “Columbia CARES,” which are funds the college received as part of the federal CARES Act.

These funds are for “student expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus,” like housing and healthcare bills, according to a collegewide email sent April 28.

Columbia students impacted by the pandemic—with the exception of undocumented, DACA and international students who were prohibited from receiving the financial aid “due to federal eligibility criteria”had the opportunity to apply for additional support through the grant program for up to $2,000.

Columbia received approximately $6.3 million in federal aid from the CARES Act. Approximately $3.17 million of the aid had to be allocated to the Emergency Financial-Aid Grants for students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Other universities like Loyola University Chicago and DePaul University have also faced class action lawsuits for partial tuition reimbursements due to loss in the quality of education when classes transitioned online.

Loyola’s lawsuit was filed by a parent on May 26, and DePaul’s was filed May 12 by two students.

Like Columbia, both Loyola and DePaul reimbursed or credited its students with housing contracts during the Spring 2020 semester, but neither school has issued any tuition reimbursement.

Buschauer has requested a jury trial, and the case has been assigned to Judge Sara L. Ellis in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The full suit can be viewed here. More updates to come.