Charged for an online class I didn’t take

Not going back to school./ Photo by Harry Doyle – Flickr Creative Commons
Question: My daughter registered online for a class with the University of Phoenix and filled out a form for financial aid. She decided that the online course was not for her and never took the class.

We have been trying for months to get someone at the school to acknowledge she never took the class. Now she wants to go to school and she can’t get financial aid until she settles her $1,000 bill with the university.

It is not a lot of money, but it’s the principle. She told them she wanted to cancel. She never took the class. But the university keeps giving her the runaround. Can you help? — Rhonda Smith, Norcross, Ga.

Answer: If your daughter didn’t attend class, she shouldn’t have to pay for it. But when you’re taking a class online, how do you define “attend”?

The university’s definition for the classes your daughter was enrolled in was that she had to “post at least one message to any of the course forums on two separate days during the online week.” Deadlines for attendance are based on Mountain Standard Time, and attendance is tracked automatically in all online courses.

I asked the university about your daughter’s classes and in a follow-up message to you, it said its investigation showed that your daughter had “attended” her online course, at least under its definition.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I asked you to explain your dispute in writing, and a university representative noted your daughter actually owed $218 — far less than she thought. The reason? The university offers a partial refund for incomplete courses.

Had you not made that inquiry, then your daughter might have thought she needed to pay the full tuition bill (yet another reason why you should always document your dispute in writing).

Given the university’s slow response time to your daughter’s initial inquiry, I thought this case was worth escalating to a higher level for her. So I contacted the University of Phoenix on your behalf.

As a “goodwill” gesture, it zeroed out her bill – which, considering that your daughter never received the benefit of the class, is the right outcome.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • foggybear

    I hope these princesses know you won’t be able to help them get their way every time they don’t follow the rules. The university’s guidelines are simple–withdraw before the start of the course if you want a full refund. She’s lucky to get a partial refund based on attendance. At the university I attended, your refund amount is based on when you withdraw from the course in writing. An incomplete or failing grade gets you nothing but a black mark on your transcript. When you are enrolled, your tuition is paying the instructor whether you show up or not.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    If she decided the class wasn’t for her, why did she post on the class’ forum once the class had started? And before you quit, wouldn’t you find out what the penalties were?

  • $16635417

    $1000 is not a lot of money?

  • backprop

    Yea I don’t get that. I can not imagine signing up for a course and then not showing up and expecting my money back. I would have never in my wildest dreams guessed that would be an option.

  • sdir

    When did she cancel and how did she cancel? If she cancelled in advance, why did she post in the class’s forum? Most classes have a limit on the number of students who can attend, not to mention the school arranges teachers and resources ahead of time, which is why they have a cancellation policy. What exactly was the university’s policy and was it met?

  • Adam1222

    Next thing, people will start being charged for theater tickets for shows they decided not to see! And by not see, I mean leaving during intermission.

  • Raven_Altosk

    And this is me, dropping by to say that if your “degree” came from “University of Phoenix” or any other “For Profit” college, I won’t even read the rest of your resume.

    Don’t waste taxpayer dollars by getting these student loans/grants to attend these fake schools. I am usually for limited government, but they really need to shutter these diploma mills.

  • Scott

    I used to teach college and had some online classes as well (although, I’ll point out this was not at U of Phoenix!). Depending on what the syllabus and instructor posted ahead of time, not all of the course information is always available until the students log in.

    I’m not stating I have any particular knowledge of this case (as I don’t), but I will say it’s not terribly far-fetched for a student to have signed up for an online class, then gotten into the course materials and decided it wasn’t the right course for him/her.

  • naoma foreman

    I picked up on that one too. That is a hell of a lot of money for most people.

  • BillCCC

    It looks to me like she attended but didn’t do any of the work. I hope that she applies herself more diligently in the future. The parents are lucky that you were willing and able to assist them.

  • TiaMa

    “She decided that the online course was not for her and never took the class.”

    Never taking the class does not mean she withdrew from the class. There is
    incomplete information here as the OP never explains how her daughter “withdrew” from the class. Did she receive a confirmation? If she did none of those things, then she wouldn’t receive a refund. If she didn’t know how, she should have asked an enrollment advisor or someone in admissions.

    Raven is absolutely correct – you take your life in your hands going to “for profit” institutions. While some might stipulate they are accredited, it depends on who the accrediting entity is. I’ve heard of many stories of students going to “for profit”
    colleges for nursing programs only to find that hospitals and other medical employers won’t hire them because of where they obtained their degree, leaving them unemployed and saddled with student loans.

  • MarkKelling

    What university is NOT for profit these days?

    U of Phoenix is fully accredited by several organizations that have also accredited most state and other private universities. They are not a diploma mill. Diploma mills are NOT accredited. U of P has professors who are graduates of other colleges and universities that you might approve of including Ivy League colleges. The classes they offer use the same books as other universities and their exams are some of the toughest I have ever taken. Yes, I went there. My employer at the time (one of the largest banks in the US) paid for my attendance and fully recognized the degree I received by placing me in positions of leadership – positions I would not have received without a degree. My current employer (a Fortune 500 company) also recognized the degree and employes many people who graduated from U of P.

    There are diploma mills out there and I agree those should be avoided no matter what. But before you judge too harshly based on the source of the degree, look into the rating of the granter of that degree.

  • MarkKelling

    If she is going to be going to U of P, then it probably is to their advantage to clear the books. That way they can get her money for the classes she will be taking which will more than offset the amount she owes. But I bet they will not be doing this again if she decides to skip future classes and claim she doesn’t owe them. Rules are rules.

  • backprop

    Maybe this is a problem that specific to the for-profit, high volume type universities that lend themselves to studenst taking lots of random classes with no particular goal in mind.

    When I was in college, you needed a set of classes for your degree, so those were no-brainers. For electives, there was always a course description with a paragraph about what the class was about. (I assume this was the same at your school?). If you read the description and signed up, you took the class.

    Decide it “wasn’t for you?” Well, them were the breaks. You were enrolled, and your enrollment probably prevented someone else from enrolling. So it was not free to just bow out.

    Not trying to be an old curmudgeon here, but I wasn’t in college that long ago. Deciding you just didn’t like the class after the first day did not entitle you to leave as though you didn’t sign up.

  • Jennifer M.

    It has been my experience that most universities have an add/drop period specifically so students can decide if a class is for them. I attended a highly regarded private liberal arts university and I remember that one history class I registered for had an exciting description. I went to the first session and realized if I had to deal with that professor three days a week in class plus see him every night for about 4 months (he was involved with some of my extra curricular activities) it wasn’t going to end well. I went back to my dorm, dropped the class and picked up another history class that suited me just fine and met the requirements of my minor.

  • marie3656

    I’m a graduate student, and it is very common for students to enroll in classes and “shop” during the first two weeks of the course. The composition of the class changes dramatically between week 1 and week 3. The course I’m taking right now had 21 students on week 1 is now down to 8 students. The university is very understanding of this practice and has a 100% rerund for “drops” in the first 3 weeks. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that a single course is in the neighborhood of $6K! When I pay that much for a course, you better believe that I’m going to drop it if I don’t like how the course is shaping up.
    Just because students are still undecided in the first couple of weeks of class does not mean that they shouldn’t participate. Students still complete assignments, post on forums, come to class, etc. Also, in order to access the readings, syllabus, etc., you have to register, so holding off to add the class until you’re sure isn’t a possibility.
    So, in terms of her participating in the online forums, that to me is no indication that she planned to take the course and then just stopped coming or wasn’t taking it seriously. It’s difficult to tell from the article if she can document that she withdrew from the class or if she didn’t do so officially, so it is difficult for me to say if I think she should have gotten a refund. However, her participation in the class early on should not be a reason for her to have to pay.

  • Dutchess

    Tell your daughter she’s lucky and to save her money and attend a local community college or state university. Very few degrees from UofPhoenix are worth the paper they’re printed on.

  • Bob Baker

    I thought everyone already knew the “University of Phoenix” was a scam?
    I filled out an information request card once, and soon was receiving 8-10 phone calls a day trying to get me to sign up for a course!!

  • backprop

    You are right. I was specifically thinking of the online environment where there aren’t a whole lot of personal dynamics. In fact, from what I’ve seen of U of P, the “professor” is basically there to do some grading and “open up” the various course modules if they’re not already on auto-pilot. In one case, I saw a course that had a weekly comments section where the “professor” mused about how events related to the course material. The problem was, the “current events” were over three years old, but s/he talked about them like they were ongoing. And my colleague who was in another class had the same comments from a different professor.

  • emanon256

    Like X 1,000! There is a reason the for-profit schools have a 100% failure rate on the Gainful Employment requirements. Sadly they all sued and with their deep pockets got the requirement put on hold.

  • emanon256

    Back in the day when I was a university Bursar, I often got the argument, “I didn’t go to class, why should I pay for it?” My counter was that I signed up for a gym membership and don’t go, should I get my money back? At my school we often had students who would register, hold a space in that class while we had a wait list, and then not attend and think they should get a refund or simply not pay. Meanwhile they prevented someone who wanted to attend from taking that seat. This always frustrated me.

  • cjr001

    Regardless of whether you believe in the term, there is a huge difference between a non-profit and a for-profit like the Uni of Phoenix.

    There’s no reason to go to a for-profit school. Not unless you enjoy being even more buried in debt as a result than going to a regular college.

  • William_Leeper

    90% of all colleges and universities have a very specific withdrawal policy! Most of those schools (University of Phoenix included) have a statement to the effect of “failure to attend or initiate payment DOES NOT constitute an official withdrawal. If you do not withdraw from a course, you will be liable for payment of tuition and fees, and will receive a failing grade recorded on your transcript.” This is standard policy because in most states, privacy laws do not allow the university to determine your intent, and while some schools will “administratively withdraw” a student for non attendance, this does not give any tuition reimbursement, and does not remove a student from the course it simply denies that student any financial aid that they would have received!

  • jenmelkearney

    Walhon said some of this, and I agree.

    I know you said, ” If your daughter didn’t attend class, she shouldn’t have to pay for it.” Nope, sorry. All colleges have drop/withdrawal policies that affect reimbursement, financial aid, and GPA. If you simply choose not to attend but you do not formally drop or withdraw from the class within the deadlines — which are always, in my experience, explicitly stated and easy to find — then you ARE responsible for paying for the course, and you may even end up with a mark on your record: F or WF, if you are not lucky enough to get a W or do not drop within the grace period — which would remove it from your transcript entirely. In Illinois, many schools have a statement you sign (in person or electronically, if you enroll online) that states that you accept financial responsibility for the course by signing up for it and that you are also responsible for dropping/withdrawing from the course if you choose not to attend.

    Regardless of what school (University of Phoenix, University of Illinois, U of Notre Dame, Loyola, local junior college, whatever) you enroll in, there are specific and clear policies about dates for: dropping with no penalty (class does not appear on transcript and you are not charged), drops with penalty (W or WF, and usually only a partial or no refund), or not dropping the class but attending sporadically (full tuition required, and you’ll likely fail).

    I’ve now attended three universities and one community college, and I work in one now. I have to say, it bothered me a bit that you accepted this consumer advocacy case. My guess is she simply decided not to show up and wanted her money back, even though she did not abide by either the formal policy or the appeal policy that almost certainly exists. I wish you hadn’t intervened. This is one of those lessons she needed to learn. You sign up for a class? You are responsible for attending it, doing the work and getting the grade you deserve, or formally withdrawing from it.

    You also ended with, “As a “goodwill” gesture, it zeroed out her bill – which, considering that your daughter never received the benefit of the class, is the right outcome.” I am such a big fan of yours that it pains me to disagree with you, but again, she paid to take the class, and it was solely her fault that she did not get the benefit from the class and was still charged. She could have dropped on time and there would be no problem. Will she contact you next time because she DID pay for the class and
    didn’t get an A? After all, she paid for it but “never received the benefit of the class,” which is learning all the content well, right? (Or, for some people, just getting a good grade.) Sorry, this one just
    bugged me.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Good for you. I still refuse to hire anyone who “attended” one of these “schools”

  • Pamela Klinepeter

    I’m faculty at a community college — there is a withdrawl process for dropping classes, which is clearly disclosed at the time of registration. If you stop going to class, you are not automatically withdrawn. Sounds like she started the class, didn’t like it for whatever reason, but didn’t follow the withdrawl procedure. I have no experience with the University of Phoenix, but assuming the withdrawl procedure was adequately disclosed, I don’t think she should have had the tuition fee waived. If you don’t follow the proper procedures and rules, you should have to deal with the consequences — it’s part of being an adult.

  • Jeanne_in_NE


  • Joe_D_Messina

    The line about a thousand bucks not being a lot of money kind of floored me. That didn’t go over well at all, particularly given the OP hadn’t even figured out what the total owed actually was.

    Secondly, it always gets me how so many college kids have their maturation to adulthood stunted by helicopter parents. It sounds like the student had zero involvement in straightening this out. They couldn’t even get Mom the pertinent info like what the attendance criteria was or how much they were on the hook for.

  • Charles B

    Diploma mills know that they need accreditation to make their pieces of paper worth anything. So they buy out failing schools and retain their ratings to add legitimacy to their diplomas.

    I suggest an axiom like “never, ever wire money”: Never attend a college where the admission policy is based on your ability to get a student loan, and not on your academic abilities.

  • Chris6000

    I find it troubling that the person with the complaint didn’t actually write for assistance, her mom did. If you are mature enough to enroll in college you should be capable of seeking help for yourself. Navigating rules and the consequences of ignoring them is part of being learning to be a responsible adult.

  • emanon256

    Chris had a similar story a while back, though it was that they decided not to see the show because they couldn’t find parking.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Better yet: If your “college” has to advertise on TV, skip it.

  • $16635417

    Seriously, a thumbs down? Can the person who did that send me $1K? It’s not a lot of money!!

  • emanon256

    Well said!

    I have implemented systems for 7 large university systems and many individual colleges. Every one of them had an official add drop policy in place, and the majority of them required an e-signature to accept such policy when enrolling on-line, the others simply displayed the message and the student had to click next. They are all very clear polices such as, drop by X date, get XX% back, etc. They also all included a statement that non-attendance did not constitute a withdraw and the student must withdraw on-line or in person or they would be responsible.

    I did work for one for-profit (Not UoP) and they made me so sick I quit. They were all about selling loans and hiding costs. They negotiated with students based on what they would pay each month, not the actual cost of attendance.

    I work with a few people who designed parts of the system for U of P and they have said they they are pretty stand up in their policies and not like the other for-profits. They believe that they are legitimate and not trying to act as a diploma mill, they are also one of the very few for-profit schools that got accreditation legitimately from actual accrediting bodies. That said, I still don’t believe in their educational phlosophy and strongly dislike education being a for-profit endeavor.

  • emanon256

    If Mom thinks $1,000 is not a lot of money, I hope Mom is donating her extra money to the hurricane victims.

  • emanon256

    I am guessing the delay and the trouble Mom had was due to FERPA.

  • Grant Ritchie

    A thousand dollars for a single online course? Really? Who signs up for something like that? OP, I have two words for you… Community College. Much less expensive, and your degree will actually have some value.

  • jpp42

    They are aggressive in their marketing practices and are for-profit, but they are definitely not a “scam.” They are fully accredited by the relevant accreditation agencies – the same ones used by major universities – and the education is acceptable by most benchmarks. I’m not saying it meets the prestige level of Harvard or Yale, it clearly doesn’t, but there’s no reason the education you get there is any worse than a brick-and-mortal Podunk U.

  • EvilEmpryss

    She signs up for financial aid, she signs up for class, she attends the first week… and then receives an Incomplete for the course. If she got an incomplete, that means she never officially dropped the course. Drop officially and your transcript gets a big W for “Withdrawal”. Withdraw after a certain point and you’ll get WF for “Withdrawal Fail”, meaning it counts against your GPA as a failed course. If she failed to attend class then she’s lucky her professor gave her an incomplete and not an F, though incompletes that don’t get completed in a certain amount of time usually revert to an F anyway.

    Chris, the way you phrase things makes it sound like you think the school’s definition of attendance is somehow dodgy. I’ve attended both brick-and-mortar and online schools (and my sister attended Phoenix). Both institutions have very clear definitions for attendance, as well as for how and when to drop a class to prevent being charged for the course. The schools are accountable either to the Federal Government or their Boards for that financial aid money, and that means defining and enforcing attendance policies. Changing your mind and just deciding to not go back isn’t one of the options. This girl acted immaturely and got a slap on the wrist for it.

    As for not knowing what she owed — Phoenix isn’t some fly-by-night diploma mill, so I doubt they were trying to trick her with her bill. The actual billable amount was discovered when someone finally took the time to talk to the right department with all the facts in hand. Granted, you don’t say much about how the girl looked into this herself before turning to Mommy, but from the little bit of information there is presented, it sounds like she probably heard “You can’t get new financial aid until pay your tuition from your last school” and jumped to the conclusion that it was for the whole term.

    That $218 should have been the price she paid for learning how to be an adult and take care of her business. I did the same thing when I was 18, and lo and behold, I never did it again. I learned that financial aid is a very serious debt to incur and that I should not be treating it or college so casually. All she learns from this is that someone will bail her out even when she doesn’t follow the rules.

    Let’s put this in a travel perspective: Defending her is like defending the tourist who pays for a 12 day vacation, stays a day or two, then leaves without actually checking out of the hotel. When her credit card gets billed for the full amount, she complains that she just wasn’t interested in the hotel’s amenities and doesn’t feel she should have to pay. This one didn’t rate your intervention.

  • MarkKelling

    I have interviewed graduates of Ivy league schools who were dumber than the chair they were sitting in. I have also interviewed people who went to a no-name state or city college and they were brilliant. As well as the other way around. There is much more involved with hiring than what school someone attended. I will never skip considering someone simply because they attended a college I don’t like. Neither will I automatically hire anyone just because they went to my favorite school.

    Maybe U of Phoenix has changed since I went there, I don’t know because I have no desire to go back even though they continue asking me when I plan on taking another advanced degree with them. They served their purpose for me when I could find no other accredited college that fit my schedule.

    (And it is not me voting down your comments ;-)

  • MarkKelling

    Have you looked at college costs lately? Checking Texas A&M University, a well regarded state university, a single 3 credit hour course in their business school costs $1310.89. This is just tuition and mandatory fees. Books are extra. So a thousand, while not pocket money for most of us, is not outrageous in today’s education environment.

  • emanon256

    Queens College is now up to $2,715 a semester. That’s for 16 credit hours. I’ve always considered them the best value in education.

  • Monica Lynn Kennedy

    As a former UoP online graduate, I understand their attendance rules very well. I never had problems with the rules. They were clearly stated at the beginning of each course and in the syllabus. If she logged into the class as posted the initial “Hi my name is…” post, that’s enough for attendance. It sounds like she logged into the class a couple times before decided she didn’t like the format and by not doing the assignments, she assumed she wasn’t really part of the course.

    Like someone else said, online class or not, you still have to formally withdraw from a class to avoid being charged for it.

  • Adam1222


  • Joe_D_Messina

    FERPA never should have come into play. The person enrolled wanting a refund. The drop policies, fees, refund policies, all of that is documented and would be readily accessible to the person enrolled. “Mom, here’s their drop policies” would have solved half the problem. “Mom, here’s their refund policies” would have taken care of the other half. If the daughter didn’t provide that information to Mom, that’s hardly the school’s fault. It sounds like the very second it became clear that a 100% refund wasn’t instantly coming, Mom stormed in to save the day, knowing absolutely nothing about the details.

  • Jenni

    I agree with the others that say you should not have taken this on.

    1) She may have told them that she wanted to drop the class, but that doesn’t count. FERPA laws make doing those kinds of requests over the phone or e-mail nearly impossible. If she didn’t want to take the class, she should have followed the proper process. She chose not to do that. She should have to pay the consequences.

    2) Her mom is the one who brought this to you. She should be the one handling this for herself. Mom needs let her daughter fight her own battles. I am disappointed that you helped enable this lawnmower parent (yes, this is different than a helicopter parent. They just don’t hover, they mow down any obstacle the child may face).

  • Grant Ritchie

    A&M is a four-year university. Two-year community colleges are quite a bit less expensive. Back in the ’80’s, I completed 60 units at a California community college for $50 per unit. $3000 earned me an Associate’s degree with 60 units of classes which were fully transferable to a four-year university. Granted, tuition has risen quite a bit since then, but CC’s are still a terrific bargain compared to four-year universities and online money pits

  • MarkKelling

    True. Houston Community College (where I went for a while) charges around $200 per course hour now which would be around $600 for the same class A&M charges $1300. And you can live at home with the parents when going to community college saving even more.

    The main reason I used A&M as an example is because they post exact cost figures. All the others I quickly looked at (including the community college) give ballpark figures and state you must contact the school to get accurate amounts.

  • Jenny Bainer

    Online classes don’t take up physical seats so please stop with the scams.

  • Jenny Bainer

    Online classes don’t take up physical seats. It’s a pure scam built by the College to steal money from you.

  • Monica Lynn Kennedy

    Why the bitterness to online programs? Many major universities now offer online degree programs. Would you say an online degree from Penn State is also a scam and stealing money? Are their degrees less valid? Or is it just UoP courses?