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Northeastern grad student sues school because coronavirus-spurred online education is inferior to classroom learning

A psychology grad student at Northeastern says it's not his fault a global pandemic forced Northeastern University to shut its campus, so he wants the school to reimburse him the $23,400 he says he paid for tuition for the spring semester.

Lawyers for Manny Chong, who filed the suit in US District Court in Boston yesterday, are hoping to make him the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against the university looking to collect more than $5 million on behalf of some 20,000 other Northeastern students.

In their complaint, Chong's lawyers write that Northeastern's announcement on March 11 that it was closing its campus the next day due to Covid-19 deprived him both of superior in-class learning and access to campus facilities, which his tuition and fees entitled him to.

Instruction supplied substantially or entirely online has been recognized as pedagogically inferior by, inter alia, the Commission on Accreditation of the American Psychological Association (which provides accreditation for Northeastern's Counseling Psychology PhD-level program) in its Guidelines and Principles ("G&P") for Accreditation of Programs in Professional Psychology. Those guidelines provide that "a doctoral program delivering education and training substantially or completely by distance [online] education ... could not be accredited," for the reason that "face-to-face, in-person interaction between faculty members and students is necessary to achieve many essential components of the G&P that are critical to education and training in professional psychology, including socialization and peer interaction, faculty role modeling, and the development and assessment of competencies."


For a period of several weeks and throughout the month of April 2020, no tuition-paying Northeastern student has been able to access Northeastern’s on-campus facilities and resources, such as the campus’ classrooms, library (along with the assembled hard copy academic resources there), the campus student center, or the campus’ three fitness facilities.

The complaint notes that Chong signed an "Annual Financial Responsibility Agreement," in which he agreed to pay tuition in exchange for "educational services, and for other valuable consideration," and that, at least as of January, Northeastern did not even have an online graduate program in psychology.

Just two days before the suit was filed, Chong wrote on his LinkedIn page that:

The unpredictability of the coronavirus makes reopening in the fall a challenge for colleges nationwide. In the best interest of faculty, staff, and students, I believe the best course of action is to delay the fall semester and potentially (a big "if") reopen in the spring (with more clarity and awareness of containing the coronavirus).

The complaint helpfully points out that Northeastern has an endowment of $1 billion.

PDF icon Complete Chong complaint154.59 KB

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I mean, NU (and assuming most colleges), are basically doing online classes for the last two months of one semester (and probably inflating grades while giving credits in the process), and then not forcing anyone to pay tuition for next year no matter what. Also assuming many "act of god" clauses will be coming out of a lot of legal rulings as well.

Without knowing exactly how much NU is doing on their own about the situation, my gut instinct is telling me that the plaintiff is being a big baby here.

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I graduated in 2008 basically making my degree null and void, where’s my rebate check?

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The guy's in a master's program, and his only evidence of "inferior" instruction are guidelines talking about doctoral programs.

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Adam, is it ever helpful to point out an institution's endowment?

Endowments are not checking accounts.

They're highly restricted funds. I get that you think this is like talking about the net worth of someone, but it's just not.

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Darn, where'd I put that thing?

I realize endowments are not like Scrooge McDuck's vault, but there's a reason the guy's lawyers noted the size of Northeastern's endowment in their complaint.

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Is still rather boorish.

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It's not how big the endowment is, it's what you do with it.

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that university administrators don't dive around in the endowment like a porpoise?

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I'm sure I'm not alone here, but I really don't know much about endowments. Maybe you can clarify how they are restricted.

I get that money is tied up in stocks. Are they prevented from selling or is it that they don't want to take a haircut?

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I figure the basic question is whether there is a legal breach of contract. Changing the pedagogy from in person to online due to a pandemic is a far cry from the school's president just one day deciding to close the buildings because he was having a bad hair day.

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But since he's suing pissstain Northeastern, I'm rooting vigorously for him.

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He has a point, especially if the licensing agencies will not recognize the online courses towards his license or certification. But that is still up in the air and likely to be resolved in the students' favor. And NU could have (maybe even did) offered the option of continuing in an online capacity or withdrawing and refunding for that semester. But to argue that he did not have access to NU's resources is absurd given that every university has as much, if not more, available online as on campus. Access to faculty, which is a grad student's primary concern, is very likely improved online. And while field work like research, supervision, and internships are critically important in a doctoral program, they are less so in a master's program that this student is in.

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Good luck with that.

The principle in our legal system is "the university wins".

Remember what happened with Mt Ida? The court said if the school had warned students in advance that the school was about to close, they would have done the best thing for themselves and gone somewhere else, and then what would the school have done? They needed to trick students into paying for a school on the brink because the school needed the money.

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I didn't realize that people actually paid to study psychology in schools. Just join any neighborhood association, attend meetings for two years, and apply for those "life experience" credits.

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