KU facing litigation, complaints from students and families about lack of refunds during pandemic

photo by: Associated Press

In this Oct. 24, 2019, file photo, students walk in front of Fraser Hall on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

After the COVID-19 pandemic sent college students around the country home early, some have started suing their institutions over lost services and a lack of refunds — and the University of Kansas joined that list recently, Douglas County court records show.

On May 18, two anonymous female students based in Johnson County filed a class action suit against KU. In it, they argue the university is keeping money it is not entitled to — both by refusing to refund the cost of campus fees for the time after students were sent home in March, and by issuing credits for costly on-campus dining packages instead of refunds.

“Despite canceling in-person classes, sending students home, closing its residence halls, and virtually shutting down its campuses, (KU) continues to charge fees and hold students’ dining account balances as if nothing has changed, allowing it to reap the financial benefits of millions of dollars from students,” the suit says.

At the same time, KU is also fielding similar complaints from families who haven’t taken their cases to court. But more could do so soon, because the suit leaves open the possibility for all of the more than 26,000 students across KU’s five campuses to become class members in the litigation. It’s unclear, though, how many people beyond the two initial plaintiffs have signed onto the case.

The suit was filed by Sharp Law Firm, which has offices in Lawrence, Overland Park and Prairie Village. KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said the university was aware of the suit but would refrain from commenting “until the appropriate time.”

KU is far from the only university to be facing a lawsuit over lost services because of COVID-19 — public and private universities in California, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana and Arizona, among other states, have been slapped with class action lawsuits recently. Unlike some of those suits, the suit against KU does not request any reparations for an alleged difference in value between in-person and online classes.

“Other universities and colleges have promised appropriate and proportional refunds, which is the right thing to do,” the suit says. “(KU), unfortunately, has failed to provide any refunds of student fees and certain dining plan balances, and has stated that it will not be providing any such refunds, despite requests from students and families.”

‘Let us use the money’

One request for a refund came from Kelly Neff, a new resident of Lawrence with two sons studying at KU. Her sons’ unused dining balances for the 2019-2020 academic year totaled $5,340.

Neff said she was not involved in the initial filing of the suit, and it wasn’t clear whether she had since gotten involved in it. But she said KU flatly refused to refund her sons’ unused dining package — which she took out student loans to pay for — and instead will leave it in an evergreen fund the students can use on campus when they return.

The problem? Neff said her sons won’t live in the dorms going forward since the family now owns a house in Lawrence and it’s safer to live at home during the pandemic, not to mention less expensive. Therefore, there’s no need for the Neffs to have on-campus dining plans.

“We’re paying the interest (on the loan) and they’re sitting on the money that we’ll probably never get to use,” she said. “There’s just no way that they’ll spend that money.”

Neff said the only refunds her family received from KU were for housing costs in April and part of May — even though the dorms were vacant most of March as well — and $74 each for her sons’ parking permits.

When Neff tried to contact KU to request a refund, rather than a credit, since her sons wouldn’t be using dining passes in the future, her request was refused by a marketing coordinator in the Kansas Union.

“With all of our on-campus retail options your students will have ample opportunity to use this money without needing to further spend out of pocket,” the response, reviewed by the Journal-World, read. “These options include national retail brands like Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and Chick-Fil-A. Again, these dollars will not expire.”

Barcomb-Peterson responded similarly when asked by the Journal-World if other families had expressed concerns about not being able to recover dining funds, and if there was a way the funds could be used for other purposes.

“The University has provided refunds in multiple areas, including Parking, Housing and Dining, due (to) the pandemic,” she said in an email. “The use of rollover dining dollars does not expire as long as a student is enrolled at KU. As originally purchased, unused meal plan balances would have been forfeited at the end of this academic year.”

Neff is currently unemployed, struggling to find work during an unprecedentedly bad job market, and said KU’s decision not to allow the dining money to be used for tuition in future semesters has been hard on her family.

“We’re barely getting by as it is, and they’re sitting on so much money,” she said. “Let us use the money but in a way that is actually useful to us … KU needs to hear this.”

Other sources have reached out to the Journal-World with concerns similar to Neff’s but weren’t willing to be named. Some told the Journal-World their students have started receiving emergency grants from KU from funding provided by the federal CARES Act COVID-19 stimulus legislation.

KU is still processing applications for CARES Act grants, and at the Lawrence campus has awarded 4,116 students a combined $5,734,923, Barcomb-Peterson said.

The university has around $7.5 million to allocate to students, and has said previously it would start with those students who demonstrate the greatest need.

KU Chancellor Douglas Girod revealed last week that the university is facing a budget shortfall of at least $120 million in the coming fiscal year due to COVID-19.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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