Can’t Find a Job? Sue Your Alma Mater!

Education, Politics

During the past few decades one ticket to career success has always been a college degree. Weren’t we – implicitly, if not explicitly – promised that if we go to school, study hard, and graduate we’ll get ahead?

Now the job market stinks, and anyone who’s had the misfortune to be looking for a job lately knows that a bachelor’s or even master’s degree is no guarantee of gainful employment. With student loans coming due, what’s a young unemployed person to do? For a few college grads out there, the answer is: sue your alma mater.

Can I have my $72,000 back, please?

In 2009 Trina Thompson sued Monroe College in New York for $72,000 – the cost of her bachelor’s degree —  because she was unable to find a job. She claimed the college’s career services department didn’t do enough to help her find placement. Monroe College released a statement saying that “while it is clear that no college, especially in this economy, can guarantee employment, Monroe College remains committed to working with all its students, including Ms. Thompson, who graduated only three months ago, to prepare them for careers and to support them during their job search.”

On the face of it, it seems ridiculous. What college or university guarantees its alumni will find employment after graduation? Is this another example of an entitled 20-something whining because her life isn’t turning out exactly as she planned? Maybe, but there’s a catch. Monroe College is a for-profit institution. It calls itself a college, and does offer bachelor’s and even master’s programs. But basically, Monroe is a vocational school, offering degrees in criminal justice, hospitality, culinary arts, accounting, and finance. While there’s no money-back guarantee, schools like Monroe exist to train students for specific careers. This isn’t education for knowledge’s sake.

For profit colleges have been lawsuit targets

While Thompson caught a lot of flack for her lawsuit with headlines like “Jobless Grad Sues College,” she’s not the only disgruntled graduate of for-profit institutions. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed alleging misrepresentation and fraud. Three alumni filed suit against Corinthian Colleges, which operates over 100 campuses around the country under the names Everest, WyoTech, and Heald. One participant in the suit, 26-year-old Chelsi Miller, says Everest College in Salt Lake City misrepresented what her associate’s degree would cost as well as telling her the credits earned there would transfer to a public institution. When she was accepted at the University of Utah’s pre-med program, she discovered her Everest credits were basically worthless.

Government investigation

In fact, a recent government investigation of 15 for-profit colleges found four cases where school officials encouraged applicants to commit fraud, and examples of lying or misrepresentation at all 15. Investigators for the Government Accountability Office posed as prospective students and applied for admission at the 15 for-profit colleges. In some cases the applicant was told to under-report savings on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA), or add more dependents in order to qualify for a Pell grant. Nearly half told applicants they could not get information on potential financial aid until they filled out enrollment forms and paid a fee.

One official at a college in Florida told an applicant the college was accredited by the same organization that accredits Ivy League schools and state universities. Thirteen colleges provided applicants with inaccurate or misleading information about graduation and job placement rates, and exaggerated potential earnings. Several admissions officials did guarantee applicants would find jobs upon graduation.

The kicker is that all but one of the 15 for-profit schools under investigation charged more in tuition than comparable programs at nearby public colleges.  Tuition ranged from $11,500 at a cosmetology certificate program in Washington, D.C., to $65,338 for a bachelor’s degree in construction management in Texas. One applicant was told a massage therapy certificate costing $14,000 in tuition at a for-profit college was a “good value.” The local community college charged $520 in tuition for the same program.