“My child’s private school went virtual for the school year, but we paid top dollar for in-person instruction and programs and activities that were a big selling point for the school. Do I have the right to demand a refund? Even a partial one?”
According to Joel A. Ready, a Pennsylvania-based attorney for Cornerstone Law, which has a specialty in contracts, it’s complicated. “I hate to sound like a lawyer, but it really depends on the situation. You’ll need to speak with a lawyer familiar with your state’s laws who can review your specific contract and circumstances.”
That said, Ready explains that most states have a doctrine known as “frustration of purpose” that allows for modification of contracts if the purpose of the contract can’t be fulfilled as originally envisioned by the parties involved. “In other words, if your school advertised that they offer great, in-person hands-on learning in classrooms where the teacher-to-student ratio is lower than other schools, and that justifies the tuition bill, you may have a good argument to ask that they lower the tuition since your kids won’t be getting those benefits,” he says.
Still, many contracts plan for this and include a clause about potential risks and how they’ll handle a change in expectations. This includes the idea that in case of a pandemic, you will receive no refund. “This greatly reduces your argument because you and the school had ‘agreed’ that you would bear the risk of this unlikely scenario,” Ready explains.
It doesn’t hurt to open up a conversation with the school and find out what your options are. “From the institution’s perspective on virtual learning, regardless of grade level, there are additional costs such as creating and/or maintaining an online platform, instructor costs like training or extended hours for student services or keeping the campus COVID-free and clean should anyone need to go in,” explains Jay Wilebski, financial aid counselor at ScholarMe, a financial aid app, who also spent 15 years working in admissions. “Communication from schools to parents and students is the key to explain why tuition is going up, staying the same, or decreasing.” But if parents have questions, they should reach out. Wilebski adds that in any request for a refund, you should aim to communicate your understanding that the current tuition, fees or financial aid packages were based on previous criteria and that your situation or their agreement to deliver education has changed. Conversations about adjustments can begin there.
As for the legal implications of requesting a refund? Ready points out what an unusual circumstance COVID presents. “We’re in uncharted territory on this issue, so some schools are more likely to compromise when faced with an uncertain legal battle,” he says.
One final reminder: COVID is temporary. “I think keeping a good relationship with your child’s school is paramount,” he says. “Don’t blow up the relationship making outrageous demands. Rather, use the law to leverage the school into a reasonable negotiating position. Schools are stressed right now. They have contracts with their teachers and providers and feel stuck. But they have to be fair to parents, who are their customer base, and they know their response to you will also affect other parents. This means working to find a reasonable middle ground collectively should be an effective and appreciated approach.”