Some Southern New Hampshire University students forced suddenly into online classes at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic say they saw a marked drop in the quality of instruction.
Citing that difference, one recent graduate is suing the university over the difference between online and on-campus tuition, in what could become a class action suit.
Southern New Hampshire University has refunded a portion of students’ room and board — as have other New Hampshire colleges.
But 2020 graduate Jumanah Awlia of Seabrook is suing the university for a partial refund of her tuition.
Attorneys representing Awlia wrote in the complaint, filed last week in U.S. District Court, that students like Awlia do not get the same experience online as they did on campus.
They argue the university should make up the difference between what it charges for on-campus tuition, and what it charges students who take classes online. Tuition for a semester on campus in Hooksett costs just over $15,000. The online equivalent of a full-time course load is $4,800 per semester.
“The online learning options being offered to SNHU students are subpar in practically every aspect, from the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty,” the complaint states. “The remote learning options are in no way the equivalent of the in-person education that Plaintiff and the putative class members contracted and paid for.”
“We are proud of our campus faculty’s successful transition to an online format to allow our students to stay on track with their academic programs during this global pandemic. As a national leader in online education, SNHU compiled and provided high-quality resources to support this transition not only to campus faculty here at SNHU, but to institutions across the country making the same transition, at no cost," the university said in a statement.
"Again, our faculty and staff went above and beyond to help our students finish the semester strong, and worked tirelessly to deliver the best SNHU experience possible given the extraordinary circumstances."
The suit seeks damages not just for Awlia.
The lawsuit asks a judge to certify a “class,” or a group of people affected in the same way. In this case, that would be students who paid tuition to attend SNHU on campus in the spring 2020 semester. About 3,900 students attend SNHU on campus. The complaint estimates the “class” could contain thousands.
The lawsuit is one of dozens filed against colleges and universities across the country, including Harvard, Northeastern and the University of Rhode Island.
Many colleges refunded a portion of students’ room and board, but not tuition. For example, the University of New Hampshire is not planning to refund students’ tuition, the university officials said in April, because students who were attending classes at the Durham and Manchester campuses received instruction online.
Bethany Stuart-Vail just finished her sophomore year at Southern New Hampshire University, after transferring from Rivier University in Nashua.
“I feel as though I missed out on a lot of the education that I would have gotten if we were on campus,” she said Saturday.
Stuart-Vail said her professors never held Zoom lectures or discussions. She had to read through a PowerPoint presentation posted online and post in an online “discussion” forum similar to a thread of Facebook comments.
“The education I received was not worth the money they are currently charging, and although I did learn a few things, it was nowhere near what I would have learned on campus,” she said.
Her mother, Cheryl Stuart-Vail, said Bethany’s college classes seem less involved than the remote coursework her younger children are doing at Amherst Middle School and Souhegan High School.“You can’t just post information as a document, a PDF, and expect people to learn from that,” Cheryl Stuart-Vail said. “Being on campus and being involved in discussion, face to face with people — that is not the same education as being at home.”