Student files class-action lawsuit against UT-Austin, saying online education last year wasn't worth the tuition

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The Texas flag flies on the south lawn of The University of Texas at Austin campus on Dec. 3, 2019. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

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A student is suing The University of Texas at Austin and its regents in a class-action lawsuit, calling the online education options offered during the start of the pandemic inferior and "drastically different" from typical in-person instruction.

Attorneys argue in the lawsuit filed Friday that when most classes were forced online as the pandemic took hold in the U.S. last spring, the quality of those classes dropped — but tuition didn’t.

The suit is seeking compensation for the named plaintiff, Anissa Reyes, and any other students who paid their tuition expecting an “in-person, hands-on education” but had their classes moved online in spring 2020. The suit asks for a prorated refund proportional to the time spent online as a result of the pandemic. UT-Austin had over 51,000 students enrolled at the start of the 2019-20 academic year, including students who already took online-only classes.

"In short, as to tuition, Plaintiff and the members of the Class have paid tuition for a first-rate education and educational experience” the lawsuit states, “and were provided a materially different and insufficient product, which constitutes a breach of the contracts entered into by Plaintiff and the Class with the University.”

UT-Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird said as of Monday night, the university has not been served the lawsuit. Reyes and her attorney, Anthony Bruster of Southlake-based Bruster, PLLC, did not respond to requests for comment.

After Texas’ higher education institutions shifted online nearly a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of similar lawsuits emerged across the U.S. with tuition-related grievances.

Last spring, some universities, including UT-Austin, shelled out millions in refunds for unused services like meal plans and campus housing but few, if any, offered tuition refunds. Most universities also received millions of dollars in federal funding meant to offset emergency aid and refunds.

Attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit in January against Rice University, seeking damages for students whose classes were disrupted in the spring. Baylor University was the target of the first lawsuit in the state last summer seeking prorated refunds for tuition and fees because of the pandemic.

Disclosure: Baylor University, Rice University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.