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Judge Approves $1.25M Settlement for Former Students of Mills College

11/7/23

San Francisco Chronicle

By Bob Egelko


A judge gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a $1.25 million settlement Tuesday for former students at Mills College in Oakland who claimed they were misled, and forced to spend more on education, when the formerly all-women’s school merged with coed Northeastern University last year.


Mills ended its 170-year history as a school for women with the conversion of its 135-acre home into the 10th campus of Boston-based Northeastern. While officials at both schools said the merger would benefit students, who could complete their studies at no extra cost, 408 students in the class action suit said Mills failed to tell them that it would offer its final degrees in 2022, not 2023, and that the new “Mills College at Northeastern University” would eliminate many previous degree programs.


As a result, they said, they missed deadlines to transfer elsewhere, delayed their academic progress and had to spend thousands of dollars.


The lead plaintiff, Willa Cordrey, enrolled in Mills’ five-year program in 2019, expecting to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a teaching credential. She said she re-enrolled after Mills announced in 2021 that it would close in 2023 because the school’s officials and her advisers repeatedly told her she could complete her studies.


But in January 2022, Cordrey said, Mills announced that it was eliminating her program and all others that did not already exist at Northeastern, leaving her no path to a teaching credential. Another plaintiff, Jenny Varner, said her plans to graduate in 2023 disappeared when she learned that her art history program was being eliminated, forcing her to transfer elsewhere without a refund for more than $15,000 she had committed to spend at Mills.


Both schools denied misleading the students and told the court they had “worked with each and every affected student to achieve the best possible result for them despite the difficult situation.” The agreement, after 10 months of negotiations, was allowed to go forward Tuesday by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman, who scheduled a hearing on final approval for next March.


The students will receive $655,000 of the settlement, or about $1,600 apiece, and the rest of the money will go to attorneys’ fees and costs, said Bryan Schwartz, a lawyer for the students.


“We are glad that we are able to get some relief for students who came to us for help after so much unexpected turmoil, to help them move on with the next chapters of their promising educational trajectories and careers,” Schwartz said in a statement.


Speaking on behalf of both sides, Schwartz said the students “hope to offset some of the increased educational costs they claim they incurred, and (the schools) hope to move forward peaceably with providing quality education to students at Mills at Northeastern University.”


Reach Bob Egelko: begelko@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @BobEgelko


Photo Credit: A blowhorn lays on top of a Mills College flag during the 134th commencement of Mills College in Oakland, Calif. on Saturday, May 24th, 2022. The 134th commencement was the final commencement as an independent women's college at the undergraduate level before it merged with Northeastern University.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle


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