A college student has filed a lawsuit against the Council on International Education Exchange over its decision not to refund the costs of study abroad programs cut short by COVID-19.

Portland-based CIEE suspended all of its spring programs in March, and nearly all students have returned home. The nonprofit’s website says only those who could not finish their classes virtually would be considered for refunds.

Annie Zhao filed her complaint in Cumberland County Superior Court last month, and the case was transferred to federal court this week. She is a Harvard College student from Texas, and she was studying at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands earlier this spring when the nonprofit suspended her program. She seeks class-action status to represent other students and interns who were similarly sent home and not refunded any of their costs.

“CIEE undeniably made the right decision to cancel its study abroad programs in light of travel restrictions and safety concerns posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it erred by placing 100 percent of the financial burden of that cancellation on financially strapped young adults, many of whom went into debt to pay for overseas educational programs, internships, housing, activities, and services that CIEE did not deliver,” the complaint states.

The case reflects other legal challenges spurred by the pandemic. The Associated Press reported in May that students at more than 25 American universities have sued their schools, demanding partial refunds on tuition and campus fees.

Sigmund Schutz, one of the attorneys representing Zhao, said those complaints are similar to this one in that they generally involve legal claims about breach of contract and unjust enrichment. But he also said this case stands apart because the premise of study abroad programs is traveling to other countries for in-person experiences.


“But the raison d’etre of CIEE’s study abroad programs is living and studying in a different culture – an immersive international experience that cannot be replicated by remote learning online. Students bargained and paid for an actual study abroad experience, not online education from their kitchen tables,” the complaint says.

Schutz sometimes represents the Portland Press Herald in First Amendment matters.

Attorney Chad Higgins, who is representing CIEE, said neither he nor the nonprofit could answer questions about the case Wednesday. He also declined to answer general questions about CIEE, such as how many students participated in study abroad programs this spring and how many employees work there. A spokeswoman for CIEE did not respond to an email or a voicemail Wednesday.

The complaint says the cost of a study abroad program through CIEE ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 per semester, and about one-quarter of that fee goes toward room and board. Inside Higher Ed reported in April that some programs and universities promised to refund housing costs and other fees for students who were studying abroad.

CIEE says it sends more than 15,000 Americans to study, intern and teach abroad every year. It also arranges for more than 30,000 international exchange visitors to the United States. The organization operates in 63 sites across 42 countries.

The organization’s website says most spring students returned early from abroad, except for a small number who, against recommendations, declined to leave.


All summer programs were also suspended, and those courses are being offered online instead. It was not clear from the CIEE website whether that fee would be reduced as a result or whether any refunds would be offered for payments already made.

The website also says CIEE still plans to offer more than 30 fall programs in 17 locations for college students.

The complaint says about 4,000 students were studying abroad through CIEE this spring, and it details the organization’s response as the virus spread across the globe. In January and February, the organization canceled programs in China, South Korea and Rome. As the weeks progressed, it said students in other programs could choose whether to return home or remain on site. Then, within days in March, it suspended a number of European programs and then extended that decision to all spring programs.

Also in March, the nonprofit laid off more than 600 employees, including 248 who worked in the Portland office. It was not clear Wednesday how many employees still work for CIEE or staff its headquarters in Maine.

The organization released a statement at the time that indicated a dire financial position but did not include specifics: “As a nonprofit, we rely almost exclusively on revenue earned through our programs to support our staff and the ongoing efforts of our organization. In a matter of days, our programs around the world were suspended, requiring us to help thousands of students return to the U.S. immediately. With prospects for travel and exchange highly uncertain at this time, the negative financial impact on CIEE is massive.”

On a 2017 tax form, the most recent available online, the nonprofit reported net revenue of $153 million. Nearly all – $150 million – came from international study fees. Neither Higgins nor the nonprofit spokeswoman responded Wednesday to a request for more recent tax forms.

On April 1, the organization announced its no-refund policy. Students who could not finish their spring courses online would be considered for refunds on a case-by-cases basis. And those who signed up for shorter spring programs that had not started before they were suspended did have an opportunity for a refund. The organization reimbursed up to $500 for change fees from airlines but did not otherwise cover the cost of travel home.

The deadline for CIEE to file an answer to the complaint in court is Monday.

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