Students lose suit over midyear rise in UM tuition fees

Judge rules that system isn't bound by a contract

Plaintiffs plan to appeal

April 16, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore judge ruled yesterday against students seeking to block a midyear tuition increase by the University System of Maryland, rejecting their contention that the increase violated an agreement between them and their colleges.

The class action lawsuit by seven students argued that the 5 percent tuition increase approved Jan. 23 breached what they viewed as a contract between universities and students. After giving one price for the 2002-2003 school year in the fall, the students argued, the system broke its end of the deal by raising tuition for the spring semester just as it was beginning and after many students had paid their bills.

The stakes were high. If the increases were struck down, the universities -struggling with $67 million in budget cuts - would have had to find an additional $13 million to make up the revenue from the tuition surcharges, which ranged from $76 to $704 per student. And a ruling in the students' favor could have set a legal precedent against future midyear increases.

In his decision, which the students say they intend to appeal, Baltimore Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger found that the tuition rates listed on bills and registration packets in the fall did not amount to a formal contract, as the students argued.

And even if the tuition rates given on university literature could be considered an implicit contract, the judge said, that was not enough to overcome the immunity that the university system, like most state agencies, enjoys against many legal actions. Only a formal, written contract signed by both parties would trump that privilege, he said.

"There is no written contract executed by a university official," said Berger. "I am compelled by the significant hardship imposed on students by this unplanned increase, but as a matter of law" their claim fails.

David H. Nevins, the Board of Regents finance committee chairman, said he was "very pleased" by the decision.

"It's our view that the students really did win, because the money goes to making our campuses better," Nevins said. "It would have been a financial hardship if we had lost."

The decision dismayed the student plaintiffs, who said it left them and their classmates vulnerable to tuition increases at any time, regardless of the rates previously announced.

"They can raise tuition the day of graduation, if they want," said University of Maryland law student Jodi Stern, who owes $557 in higher tuition. "It's unfortunate it came out this way."

One plaintiff, University of Baltimore law student Bronson Yake, joked bitterly that if his tuition bill wasn't deemed a contract, he simply wouldn't pay it.

Representing the students, lawyer Andrew D. Freeman told Berger that the setting and paying of tuition charges by colleges and students represented "an agreement, a meeting of the minds," and as such amounted to a contract.

The tuition bill "doesn't have to say `contract' on it," he said. Contracts require "an offer, an acceptance and a consideration, and those terms are expressed in the bill."

Freeman offered the example of a private trade school that raises its rates just as its courses are starting. That, he argued, would likely be challenged by the state attorney general's office as a breach of contract. Why, he asked, wouldn't the same reasoning apply to the university system?

Assistant Attorney General John Anderson, representing the system, said the universities had warned students in their literature that tuition was subject to change.

Freeman countered that those warnings were sprinkled through some course catalogs and Web sites but not on tuition bills or registration materials.

Anderson also argued that the surcharge was acceptable because students still had the option of pulling out of school with a tuition refund.

Freeman called this unrealistic, saying students' career plans would be damaged by dropping out.

"In essence, they were trapped," he said.

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