Frustrated by her inability to land a job after graduating from college, a New York graduate is suing to get her college tuition money back.
Trina Thompson hasn't found a job since she graduated from Monroe College in April with a bachelor's degree in information technology. She blames the college's career office, claiming it hasn't given her the career advice and job leads it promised. So she wants her tuition money back.
She filed a lawsuit against the college in July, seeking the return of $70,000 she paid for tuition. She seeks another $2,000 to compensate her for the stress of her job search. Does her action have any legal merit? Is a college obligated to return tuition money to an unemployed graduate?
Suing for Educational Malpractice
Students and graduates have filed a number of lawsuits against colleges and universities, claiming that the schools didn't provide them with an adequate education. Some argued that the school didn't give them the knowledge or skills needed to get a job. These types of claims are generally categorized as "educational malpractice."
Courts almost always reject educational malpractice claims that are asserted against public universities. Some of the reasons for dismissing these lawsuits include:
- Lack of a satisfactory standard of care for judging a school's competency. Because there are many theories and approaches to education and career counseling, there is no uniform standard for evaluating a school's performance
- Uncertainties about causation. It's difficult to prove the school caused the graduate's lack of skill or inability to get a job. Too many other factors, like the student's attitude or motivation or the general state of the economy, could be the reason for the graduate's unemployment
- Potential for flood of litigation against schools. Allowing educational malpractice lawsuits to go forward would burden financially-strapped schools and courts with countless numbers of claims from disappointed students and parents
- Possible interference in running schools. Respectful of academic freedom and the expertise of education professionals, courts are reluctant to become involved in the day-to-day operations of schools
Suing Colleges for Breach of Contract
However, courts are much more willing to entertain breach of contract claims against private "for profit" colleges and trade schools. These types of schools are viewed more like businesses that promise to provide specific services in exchange for tuition payments.
Like other commercial enterprises, they are subject to laws against business fraud and false advertising. Even when these schools don't enter into formal contracts with students, courts may require them to fulfill promises made to students in brochures or advertisements.
For example, courts have allowed lawsuits to proceed against beauty colleges that failed to provide the minimum instruction needed to permit graduates to take the state cosmetology examination. A New York court allowed a graduate to recover some of the money she paid in tuition to a private air career school. The court found that the school breached assurances that it would place the student in a job with an airline upon graduation.
Monroe College is a private school that heavily promotes itself as providing a career-oriented education. Thompson could possibly recover against the school if she proves the college didn't provide the specific career assistance it promised. Schools that guarantee graduates will be placed in a job could be on the hook for false advertising unless they make good on those guarantees.
Schools may avoid this type of liability by including written disclaimers or waivers stating that publications are not intended to form contractual obligations. School career offices can avoid legal liability by offering to provide students with skills and resources to find a job rather than promising to actually place graduates in jobs.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I paid big bucks to a private college that practically promised me a good-paying job upon graduation. Don't I have a right to get some of my money back now that I still don't have job?
- I haven't been able to get a job because my vocational school didn't provide training on state-of-the-art equipment like promised in the brochure. Can I sue the school to get my tuition money back?
- Could I be sued by the students I tutor if their grades don't improve? Should I give them some sort of disclaimer?
- Could a graduate make any claims based on a school's advertised placement and employment rates for graduates? Don't schools as a whole have any responsibility for curtailing enrollment if a profession or job market is saturated?