Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Should Students Sue their College?

A woman filed an lawsuit against her alma mater for not providing enough career services. That may have been frivolous but millions of college students, in my non-lawyer opinion, have enormous justification for suing their college:
  • Failure to disclose. Colleges, for example, hide their obscenely low graduation rates. For example, the four-year graduation rate for full-time freshmen at the 20-campus California State University system, which enrolls nearly a half million students, is only 17%, 40% in five years, 49% in six years. Only a tiny percentage of applicants have been informed of their odds. Such statistics if they appear at all on a college's website are buried in a place that few students find. And college recruiters too rarely mention non-self-serving statistics. If all prospective students were informed, no doubt many fewer would attend.
When a person buys a home, the seller is required to disclose all the home's actual and potential problems or face a lawsuit. A potential investor must be informed of the risks or can sue. I predict that a successful lawsuit could be filed against a college on grounds that it failed both in admitting students it knew were unlikely to succeed and in not disclosing that to them.

In my view, all colleges should be required to prominently post on their website and recruitment brochure its four-, five-, and six-year graduation rate for students with varying high school records.
  • Failure to perform. Nationally, college freshman-to-graduation growth in reading, writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, etc. is frighteningly low. A study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to do such basic tasks as interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, or compare credit card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station. Unbelievably, according to the U.S. Department of Education's most recent Higher Education Commission Report (the Spellings Report,) things are getting even worse: "Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined." According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today's workplaces."
I predict that a successful lawsuit could be filed on grounds that a college failed to perform. If someone bought a $100,000 car that wouldn't work, he'd demand the dealer fix it, refund the money, or would sue and easily win. Yet colleges too often take $100,000+, years of a student's life, and provide an education that doesn't work. Such students would seem to have a winning lawsuit.
  • Deceptive advertising. College recruitment materials (brochures, websites, etc) too often manipulate prospective students into believing that if they graduate, they have a solid chance of being well employed in careers related to their major, even in such long-shot majors as art, music, and journalism. For example, many colleges' recruitment materials profile (complete with color photos) successful graduates. That's often true even when a college knows that most of its graduates (not the mention the non-graduates) will never earn enough money from such majors to even pay back their student loans, let alone earn a middle-class income from art, journalism, music, etc. I believe that a lawsuit claiming deceptive advertising could prevail.
Yet people don't sue colleges (or schools) because we've been conditioned to be in awe of our colleges and not to search for what's behind their ivy-covered veneer. Colleges have powerful marketing and lobbying machines that manipulate the media and government into deflecting attention from what colleges are really like by trumpeting misleading claims like "College graduates earn a million dollars more" and "America's higher education is the finest in the world."

Wake up. Higher education is among the largest purchases and certainly the most time-consuming purchase you'll ever make. Alas, too often it yields a poor return for the time and money invested. Make that purchase at least as carefully as you would a car.

And if you're unhappy with the education you've bought, do what you'd do if your new car was a lemon: demand it be fixed or that you get your money back, and if the college fails to do so, consider suing its Ivy-covered butt.


Anonymous said...

Marty, please read up on Tuskegee.

It is not that people were not warned of dangerous side effects.

The truth is much worse than that: the Tuskeegee experiment tracked the progression of UNTREATED syphillis in African-American patients.

Patients were not treated for their illness, nor were they told their diagnosis. Patients' families were infected. Patients died. All so that doctors could study African-American at autopsy after they'd died of tertiary syphillis.

It's kind of grotesque to compare ineffective college education with the Tuskeegee experiments.

Also, it's interesting that you seem to be suggesting you would support lawsuits against schools for students' foolish choices, when in the past you have been very upset with mortgage holders for making bad decisions around loans.

Loan terms are far more complicated to understand than college admission guidelines, and with good reason - they want to be able to swindle everyone, not just naive optimists, in the mortgage business!

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you, Anonymous. As a result of your comment, I have deleted the reference to the Tuskegee Experiments.

With regard to your other comment, if students were allowed make an INFORMED choice-e.g., without withholding crucial information, of course, the burden is on the consumer.

But colleges do withhold critical information, substituting deceptive information, and do so with a population that often is very unsophisticated and intimated.

Colleges' deceptive practices and shoddy product should be of concern not just to students but to all taxpayers because all colleges, private as well as public are heavily funded by us.

Anonymous said...

When you edit your blog, you often do outright deletion. Many folks instead do a strikethrough, or publish a postscript.

I think I prefer the latter, as doing the airbrushing can make things look rosier than they are.

I am impressed, for instance, that the bloggers who ran with the allegation of the McCain volunteer who had injured herself but blamed it on an African-American had the cojones to leave the original posts up even after the story was disproven.

To me, there is value in leaving the record intact, even things you regret in retrospect.

As for which business is more deceptive, higher education or mortgage brokers, I have just one phrase for you:


Sorry to shout again.

James said...

Colleges have spent too long being the pinnacle of success. I've met too many people who are downtrodden because they didn't go to or graduate college, but are otherwise savvy and bright. The correlation to the belief that college equals success is that those who don't go feel like losers (even though they shouldn't)
Colleges are certainly moneymakers, and have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that college equals success. But we need to burst that myth. I attended UMASS Amherst, a large well respected state school. I majored in Communications and spent fifty thousand dollars getting a degree worth nil. I'm no slouch, I graduated magna cum laude, but once I left the campus there weren't any job offerings in the Boston area for someone who wanted to work in film. I became a teacher's aid at a special education school making ten bucks an hour. And graduating wasn't enough for a film job, now I had to do a six month unpaid internship to even get an interview at a local media outlet.

One of the major changes university's should make is they have to offer "real world" job training at some point during your matriculation. If they are charging exorbitant fees, job training needs to be a mandatory semester or year. Because the piece of paper is not enough, unless perhaps, you're coming from a connected family or well connected school. But even so, practical experience, in my view, trumps theory any day of the week.

My father likes to talk about how much college has changed since he went. In his day you could ACTUALLY go to school and hold a part time job while paying your way through. That is no longer possible. Even state schools are becoming farther and farther out of financial reach. In-state tuition rising to twenty thousand a year! No one working part time at Starbucks can afford that AND have to pay living expenses.

I agree with Marty, higher education reform needs to happen, sooner than later. I have so many friends in their late twenties, going back to school because of the economy. I withhold judgement but I can't help thinking, "You really need that hundred grand MBA?"

Shawn said...


I agree with you wrote in your article, that is, that schools need to be more honest, but I have a slightly different take on the bachelor's degree than you do.

I think that if someone is able to complete a bachelor degree, he or she should, even though the individual might not need it for his or her job. This may sound weird to many but my reasons are as follows:

1) College educated people tend to cluster with other college educated people (these are your friends). For personal reasons, for a semester I dropped out of college; there were subtlealities that I could pick up from friends, and I felt odd around around my friends who were in college.

2) Status. Whether it is wrong or right, the way society is set up right now is such that you have higher status by having a bachelors.

3) It helps you find a mate with a high IQ (this is a corollary to number 2). It is hard to put a price tag on this. People oftentimes meet their mate in college, and some women (even some men) will not marry someone with at least a bachelor degree.

Those are the main reasons that I can think of right now. Now, if someone is a freak outlier like Bill Gates who know they have an excellent idea, or other rarities like athletes who go right from high school or pro sports, I can see how it would make sense for THEM--but they are again the exception.

Dave said...

I'm not so sure about the third one, Shawn. An individual with an IQ score of 140 is likely to be bored with an individual whose IQ is 100. And colleges have more undergraduate students with average and below-average IQs than ever before. City College (CUNY) was a different place fifty years ago. The City students of today wouldn't recognize it.

Any woman (or man) seeking status in a partner is shallow and usually materialistic. These people are not marriage material. You should stay away from them.

Shawn said...

"And colleges have more undergraduate students with average and below-average IQs than ever before. City College (CUNY) was a different place fifty years ago. The City students of today wouldn't recognize it."

Yes that's right but if you look at the average ACT/SAT scores of incoming students, at most colleges they are higher than the average score. ACT/SAT scores correlate strongly with IQ.

Dave said...

But the SAT has been watered down in recent years. Today's SAT has less mathematics, logic and reasoning questions. Its authors also deleted questions they felt were unfair to women and minorities. These changes were made in the mid 1990s.

Hans said...

Not to mention that the "new" SAT has a writing section. Anyone know of any IQ tests that have a writing section? Like many things in our PC-ridden culture, we've tampered with the SAT to the point where it can't tell us much of anything, which I'm sure was the intent in the first place.

Anonymous said...

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