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Florida universities should refund student fees, lawsuit says

A UF student says he and his peers shouldn’t be paying for services they can’t use during the pandemic.
The campus of the University of Florida, where a graduate student has filed a class action lawsuit against the State University System seeking a refund of fees.
The campus of the University of Florida, where a graduate student has filed a class action lawsuit against the State University System seeking a refund of fees. [ University of Florida ]
Published May 7, 2020
Updated May 7, 2020

Anthony Rojas, a second-year graduate student in political science, has spent the last six years at the University of Florida.

He had an on-campus job with the recreational sports department, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak, he has not been able to work for two months.

“I used that money to pay for housing and food,” he said.

Anthony Rojas is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking refunds of student fees from state universities.
Anthony Rojas is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking refunds of student fees from state universities. [ Courtesy of Anthony Rojas ]

Now, Rojas, 24, is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit demanding that Florida universities refund unused student fees for athletics, transportation and other activities and services they can no longer access. The suit, filed Monday in Leon County Circuit Court against Florida’s State University System, says it represents the interests of more than 341,000 students.

Rojas says he was paying close to $82 per credit hour for 12 credits. Student fees vary by university.

“Students are struggling really hard right now,” he said. “People are wondering where they’re going to get money to pay their bills. If you’re not providing services, you shouldn’t be charging for them.”

Adam Moskowitz is a law professor at the University of Miami and one of the attorneys representing Rojas. He said he sympathizes with universities facing financial hardship, but argues students deserve a refund.

“What we’re seeking is just for services they’re not receiving,” he said.

Related: RELATED: UF Students petition for rent relief after coronavirus emptied campus

At the University of Florida, multiple change.org petitions with over 900 online signatures have circulated, asking for a partial refund of activity and service, transportation, health and athletic fees.

At the University of South Florida, the issue has centered around parking fees. The USF student government passed a resolution asking the Parking and Transportation Department for partial refunds, which the department initially offered. But, according to The Oracle, USF’s student newspaper, that was later rescinded.

The university’s parking and transportation website states: “Due to the current and possible future financial impact of the COVID-19 situation, USF will not be issuing refunds for parking permits. This decision is to ensure Parking and Transportation Services can continue to meet existing requirements while maintaining our parking facilities and covering operational costs.”

Both UF and USF, which partially refunded housing and dining plan fees, said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Althea Paul, a USF spokeswoman, said the university has provided 6,009 housing refunds for almost $9.3 million and 7,276 meal plan refunds for more than $3.4 million.

Both UF and USF, along with other Florida universities, have received millions from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as CARES. Together, UF and USF received more than $65 million, half of which must go toward student financial aid.

Another source of help is the USF United Support Fund, created by the USF Foundation. Paul said the fund has raised more than $335,000 to support students facing financial hardship.

Related: RELATED: Florida colleges will collect tens of millions in federal aid

Matthew Miller, a Chicago-based attorney on the legal team representing Rojas, said he’s also working with students in California and Arizona on similar suits. Since filing the Florida case, he said, he’s heard from other students and families asking how they could support or join.

“People really want the relief,” Miller said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Board of Governors spokeswoman Renee’ Fargason said she could not comment on pending litigation. The board oversees the State University System.