May 20—A judge granted preliminary approval for a $1.25 million settlement offered by Southern New Hampshire University to students who were booted off campus when the university went all-online in response to the pandemic last spring.
Tuition for the university's on-campus students is higher than for online-only students, but the university did not refund students' tuition when campus closed in March 2020 and on-campus students started taking all-online classes. A Southern New Hampshire University student sued over the difference between in-person and online tuition, with her attorneys arguing that students paid extra for the on-campus experience.
As colleges closed their campuses in March 2020, similar lawsuits popped up around the country. A lawsuit against Dartmouth College over the same issue was withdrawn in September 2020.
Southern New Hampshire University's lawyers and lawyers representing the plaintiff negotiated a settlement instead of moving ahead with the lawsuit. The university's agreement to pay a $1.25 million settlement was announced in March, and a judge issued a preliminary approval of the settlement on Wednesday.
Any on-campus student who paid tuition and fees to Southern New Hampshire University for the spring semester is eligible to get a piece of the settlement. But the biggest slice — up to one third of the total, or as much as $416,000 — will go to the plaintiffs' attorneys, according to the settlement agreement. The lead plaintiff, Brianna Wright, will get $5,000.
If all 3,000 on-campus students join the suit, the average settlement amount from the $828,000 left in the settlement fund would be about $276. The actual amounts students get will vary based on how much students paid out-of-pocket in the spring 2020 semester. Students who paid more because they received less financial aid will get bigger pieces of the settlement.
The preliminary approval was welcome news for one former student.
In the 15 months since campus closed, 2020 graduate Katie Brockway has been waiting tables, planning to apply to graduate school when the pandemic passes. She was not interested in another year of uncertainty on campus.
Brockway said she got an email about the settlement on Thursday.
"That actually went through!" she said to herself. it was a pleasant surprise, she said, and a little bit of relief for having college cut short.
Students are to be paid within four weeks of a final approval, which will not come until after a "fairness hearing" scheduled for July 29.
More information about the settlement is available at www.snhuspring2020settlement.com.