At least four colleges in the Boston area are facing federal lawsuits filed on behalf of unnamed students seeking refunds for tuition for the spring semester. Legal experts say there are no precedents for these cases, which represent a new financial threat.

The lawsuits filed in recent weeks against Northeastern, Harvard, Brandeis and Boston University argue it's unfair for the schools to keep those tuition payments because administrators have sent students packing and moved their classes online.

“For most families, saving for tuition is a big deal,” said Steve W. Berman, managing partner of a Seattle-based law firm that represents hundreds of thousands of students in class action lawsuits against at least 15 schools across the country, including BU and Brown University in Providence.

“When you outlay that kind of money for a Mercedes and you’re getting a Ford Pinto, you don’t feel like you got your money’s worth,” he told WGBH News.

Berman says students and their families believe they were promised a certain kind of education — in-person classes with access to professors, libraries and labs.

“And access to other students, because that's part of the college experience that students really like,” he said. “And now they’re sitting in their rooms in front of a computer with a professor who might be into it, might not be into it; may have done his homework, sometimes not. And the education — the whole experience — isn't what they paid for.”

Students at Columbia, Georgetown, the University of Southern California and other colleges have also sued for tuition refunds.

The lawsuits — against a handful of public, but mostly wealthy private institutions — maintain that virtual instruction isn’t equivalent to in-person teaching.

Most of the colleges are not talking, saying they don’t comment on pending litigation. But in a statement to WGBH News, Northeastern University notes that all colleges moved classroom instruction online this spring in compliance with public health requirements.

In court, Northeastern and other colleges are expected to present an “Act of God” defense, arguing the pandemic prevented them from continuing in-person classes.

“I think these lawsuits are going to go no place fast,” said Frederick Lawrence, the former president of Brandeis University and a current lecturer at Georgetown, which is also being sued.

Lawrence said he wasn’t surprised by what he calls “money-grabbing” legal challenges.

“Many of these lawsuits were put together by lawyers who sought students to identify themselves as plaintiffs,” he said. “In fact, one of my students in my higher education and the law seminar sent me a link that he had received for students to go online and sign up for these lawsuits.”

Lawrence says they would have strong claims if they were focused on room and board.

“The reason they’re not focused on that is that overwhelmingly colleges and universities did refund room and board,” he pointed out. “After all, if the student is back living with mom and dad or on their own, it makes sense that they should get that money back.”

Even though colleges sent students home and moved their classes online, Lawrence says the pandemic is really beyond their control.

“We have in the law, the concept of force majeur,” he explained. “There are things that happen that a school can’t do anything about, and when that happens, the school still has an obligation to do the very best it can to deliver that program.”

If successful, these lawsuits pose an existential threat to tuition-dependent residential colleges like Brandeis and Boston University, especially if come September, classes are still online.

Boston University President Robert Brown did not address the lawsuits directly during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last month. But he did acknowledge BU’s online experience isn’t the same as the one on campus.

“The support structures that we can offer everyone residentially don’t work nearly as well in the non-residential model,” he said.

In the end, Brown said, he thinks this public health and economic crisis will increase the value of students living on campus. He cited a brief email he recently received from a parent.

“It had two sentences,” Brown recalled. “It said, ‘Keep my daughter safe. Get her out of my house.’ I really believe that there’s going to be a fundamental understanding of all the things a residential education does.”

This week, though, BU announced it will give undergrads the choice of residential or remote classes this fall. Tuition rates will be the same for both.

Lawyers representing the students say it’s hard to say which of these cases across the country are likely to be heard and decided first, but in Rhode Island, a federal judge is expected to take up the lawsuit against Brown later this month.