Unreasonable Covid Restrictions May Violate University-Student Contracts

The behavior this month of some elite colleges has been baffling.

Many colleges and universities are starting the new semester online and imposing draconian restrictions on campus. At Yale, students are under a campuswide quarantine and told not to eat at restaurants, even outdoors. At Princeton, officials have banned undergraduates from traveling outside the area for “personal reasons”—thus conveniently permitting travel for athletic teams. In contrast, the personal lives of faculty, staff and administrators continue uninterrupted. Apparently Covid is a threat only to the young who can easily be bullied into submission.

The move to online learning and other intrusive policies goes beyond what any state or federal health agency is recommending, let alone requiring. The Biden administration opposes school shutdowns. Yet universities still are cautioning that online learning may be extended.

The paragraphs above are taken from an essay in today’s Wall Street Journal by Northwestern University law school professors Max Schanzenbach and Nadav Shoked. The professors have a solution:

If universities choose to go online under present circumstances, they are likely in breach of contract. Some schools with similar residential and online degree programs steeply discount their online offerings. Basic contract-law principles would require universities to refund students for the difference between standard and online tuition.

There are ambiguities within the student-university contract, and we don’t fault courts for finding reasons to side with universities early in the pandemic. But good law and sound policy hold that, absent an official public-health order, universities are contractually obligated to continue in-person instruction and may only impose reasonable restrictions on students.

Michael R. Strain — Michael R. Strain is the director of economic-policy studies and the Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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