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Legally Conned

By The Crimson Editorial Board

Talk of tuition rebates for virtual learning recalls the very earliest days of the pandemic, when we were less acclimated to the obvious inadequacy of Zoom semesters. Thanks to the plodding pace of the legal system, though, the issue remains unsettled. Just last week, a federal judge allowed parts of a lawsuit seeking partial tuition reimbursement from Harvard to go forward. Whatever its legal obligations, we can’t help but think Harvard’s charging full tuition was unfair to many of its students.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in May 2020 by students across the University, was initially dismissed by the Massachusetts District Court in October of that year. In partially reversing that decision, Judge Kelley limited the scope of the suit to students at the Law School, the Graduate School of Education, and the School of Public Health during the spring 2020 semester.

As students who have experienced immense disruption in our educational lives over the past two years, we deeply empathize with the plaintiffs. We acknowledge that the University made a difficult, but sound, decision in shifting to remote learning when there was little available information about Covid-19. However, that does not detract from the fact that virtual and in-person learning are fundamentally unequal experiences.

Students come into Harvard excited for the “deeply transformative experience” that the University promises to provide, and this transformation can hardly be achieved through a computer screen. A crucial part of the value Harvard provides is the opportunity for students to learn who we are and how we want to spend the rest of our lives. To pretend that losing some of that value does not cheapen the degree is to adopt the profoundly cynical view that Harvard’s value comes purely through the credential it provides.

To be sure, students knowingly signed up for virtual school, at least after Spring 2020. But not all students have the financial means to take gap years during their time at Harvard. Undergraduates who take out federal loans or rely on various scholarships are often precluded from taking a gap year in order to avoid loans coming due prematurely or scholarships withdrawing financial support. Graduate and professional students are often even more constrained by financial necessity. As a matter of fairness, it seems to follow that all students from across the University who could not choose to avoid a virtual semester ought to have received some sort of tuition reduction.

Of course, good policy, let alone good law, does not always align precisely with total fairness. If the University is compelled to refund a substantial portion of tuition from the past two years, it may well push universities across the country to discount safety considerations in future, analogous situations.

From the perspective of law or policy, it’s not clear what our courts or legislatures should compel Harvard to do. But we hope that decision-makers recognize the unfairness imposed on the students least privileged with the ability to freely choose between virtual semesters and alternatives.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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