College students who flout COVID-19 rules can be sent home, temporarily or permanently, and without refunds. Some suspended students' families plan to sue.

College Students Suspended, Fined for Breaking COVID-19 Rules


  • Dozens of colleges have sent students home for breaking social conduct pledges.
  • Suspended and expelled students rarely receive tuition refunds.
  • Some educators and attorneys say the punishment doesn't fit the crime.
  • A growing number of college students are suing schools for lost tuition money.

Hundreds of students face fines, suspension, and expulsion for breaking colleges' COVID-19 health and safety rules. To control the spread of the virus on campus and protect the surrounding community, colleges across the U.S. instituted the familiar conduct codes: Wear masks, practice social distancing, and avoid large gatherings.

The new school policies echo local and state guidelines but carry more force. Students who fail or refuse to comply with colleges' COVID-19 standards can be suspended or expelled, in some cases only after receiving a warning or "deferred suspension" notice. Many of these students are also ineligible for tuition refunds.

Students who fail or refuse to comply with colleges’ COVID-19 standards can be suspended or expelled.

College spokespeople say the steep punishments for flouting coronavirus rules send a "strong message" to students. When professors modeled safety strategies, many showed that even a relatively low infection rate can quickly spiral out of control in a campus environment. Off-campus parties and crowded bars can lead to more outbreaks, causing campuses to once more shutter and endangering the larger community.

Many schools can't afford a second closure. But some educators, as well as attorneys for the punished students, say institutions are making students pay for a doomed experiment.

Students Appeal Disciplinary Action for Breaking COVID-19 Rules

According to a survey conducted in late July, most college students planned on following their school's COVID-19 rules — but many were skeptical that their peers would do the same.

Returning students were the most incredulous: Just 37% of rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors trusted their fellow students to adhere to school guidelines. Incoming freshmen were more optimistic, with 60% believing their peers would toe the line.

But perhaps they were too optimistic. First-year students make up a prominent share of the students being sent home for gathering without masks. Most are ineligible for tuition refunds, and in some cases, students wanting to return to school must reapply for admission.

Most students sent home for breaking COVID-19 rules are ineligible for tuition refunds.

Not all punishments are this dire, though. Both the University of Connecticut and Montclair State University suspended students from university housing — but not from the university itself. Depending on the seriousness of the infraction, schools may only threaten to rescind admission or issue a deferred suspension, meaning the student has one more chance to straighten out.

Students who are suspended or expelled can also try to appeal their college's decision. Every university conducts its own review process for such appeals. For example, a college may decide to readmit students after they meet a host of requirements for returning to campus, such as quarantining and completing online COVID-19 safety training.

Still, many schools say they can't afford to be lenient. This has led colleges' tough disciplinary actions to fall under intense scrutiny.

Suspended Students Sue Colleges for Tuition Refunds

In early September, a group of would-be study abroad students from Northeastern University, who were temporarily housed at the Westin Hotel near campus, broke social distancing rules when they gathered to watch a basketball game. After being discovered by university staff, the 11 students were dismissed for the remainder of the semester.

Per school guidelines, the students will not receive a tuition refund. Northeastern gave students the opportunity to contest their dismissal but refused to budge on the suspensions. Instead, the college offered to put some of each student's lost tuition money — estimated at more than $35,000 — toward future tuition should they decide to reenroll.

One lawyer for some of the suspended students called the lost tuition a "grossly disproportionate penalty." A growing number of students and their families are bringing lawsuits against colleges, demanding tuition be refunded and students' names be cleared.

Colleges Recruit Police and Public to Report Students

Breaking COVID-19 rules isn't a criminal offense, but it's enough to get kicked out of college. Some schools, including Clemson University, have partnered with local law enforcement to keep an eye on students and report bad behavior to university administration.

Other colleges are recruiting members of the public. New York University and Northwestern University are asking nearby residents to help monitor off-campus behavior and contact the institution by email or an online form should they observe any rule-breaking.

Some colleges are asking nearby residents to help monitor students’ off-campus behavior.

But controlling off-campus behavior has proven difficult. The Ohio State University issued over 200 interim suspensions for off-campus parties in under a week. Penn State suspended a fraternity and its student leaders. And within 24 hours of outlawing off-campus parties, Purdue University suspended a group of students partying at a co-op.

Colleges market themselves as tight-knit communities, with endless opportunities to socialize and interact. But now with the ongoing pandemic, getting out of the house to party could send everybody home — permanently.


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