Thursday, August 06, 2009


Suing the Alma Mater

Several alert readers sent me links to this story, about a new graduate who is suing her alma mater (of all of three months) for its alleged failure to get her a job.

It's one of those stories that really allows you to see what you want to see. Is the student an unrealistic whiner? Is the school trading on false hope? Is it reasonable to charge high tuition for an unemployable degree? Is it reasonable to hold a single college accountable for a nationwide recession?

I'll start by acknowledging that I don't know the student, I'm not familiar with the school, and there may be particular facts in this case that would change my interpretation of it if I knew them.

That said, though, my first response is “oh, honey, no.”

At the most basic level, colleges are not employment offices. While they often have Career Services offices to help people find jobs, 'help' is the key word. Absent some really serious fraud, there are no guarantees. The article quoted the student accusing the college as follows:

"They're supposed to say, 'I got this student, her attendance is good, her GPA is all right -- can you interview this person?' They're not doing that," she said.

Um, no. That's not what they're supposed to say (or do). (The article goes on to mention that the student had a 2.7 GPA, and has landed two interviews but no offers.) They're supposed to coach you on your resume, help with some interview tips, and provide some resources for you to start looking. Beyond that, it's up to you.

In fact, landing two interviews within three months of graduation with a 2.7 GPA in the midst of the Great Recession isn't bad at all.

The story brought back memories of my time at Proprietary U. Since PU sold employability, students often brought outsized expectations to their job searches. (To make matters worse, the tech bubble of the late 90's briefly made those expectations actually realistic.) When the bubble burst, even the better students often struggled to find something. They weren't notably better or worse than the class that had graduated the year before; the market had just changed.

Most students understood that, at some level. But there were some who seemed to think that the Career Services office kept a top secret stash of nifty jobs that they'd dole out to whomever complained the loudest. In my observation, this was not the case.

There's no central clearinghouse for most jobs. (I'm told there actually is one for doctors, but that isn't relevant here.) Degrees and skills can improve your chances, but chances are not guarantees. If degrees guaranteed jobs, there wouldn't be PhD's trying to cobble together livelihoods from adjunct gigs. (Though I'll admit that all those freeway flying PhD's suing their graduate programs makes for a fun thought experiment.) A program can be academically rigorous, and a Career Services office can try really hard, and the result can still be nothing. It's a big world out there.

But the idea of suing the school is worse than merely missing the point. If it were just that, I'd expect it to be summarily dismissed and we'd all move on. My concern is that as an employer, if I found something like that attached to an applicant's name, that candidate would be thrown out of consideration post-haste. I don't need the headache of an overentitled, litigious applicant when I've got plenty of other good applicants who would actually be happy to have the job. A lawsuit like that renders you radioactive.

Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not – again, I don't know if Monroe College overstepped somewhere in this particular case. But as a rational employer, do I really want to take that chance? As a manager, I'm acutely aware that a small fraction of employees consume a vastly disproportionate amount of my time, complaining about everything under the sun. As Robert Sutton noted in The No Asshole Rule, these people drag down entire organizations, even when they're otherwise individually productive. Given a reasonable alternative, I'll take the alternative every single time. This student, whose name I'm not repeating as a courtesy to youth, is branding herself with a scarlet letter. Not a good idea.

We all catch lousy breaks from time to time. How you handle those breaks says a lot.

My free advice to the disgruntled graduate: move on. Put this behind you, quickly, and focus on actually getting a job. Unless there's something really egregious here, there's nothing to be gained by blaming one college for a national recession. And you could lose more than legal fees.

The "no asshole" rule is critical in admissions as well.

Many years ago, an applicant to one of our grad programs failed this test. He/She had competitive grades and standardized test scores and should have been an easy admit.

But the personal statement and the letters of recommendation sank the case. The statement was a nasty diatribe against a boss. I checked the letter of recommendation and sure enough, the boss who had been trashed in the personal statement, had written a letter recommending this particular applicant.

It was an EASY reject, since the applicant failed the ethics standard for the profession.
At our cc we keep seeing straws in the wind about offering our students a guarantee of tuition refunds if after (fill in your own careful qualifications about time, effort, location, etc here) they do not land a job in their degree field.

It seems like the typical gimmick we love so much at WUNCCS: plenty of publicity combined with a deep faith that chickens never come home to roost--much like our current pledge of free tuition to students one of whose parents loses their job during the student's matriculation.
Did this student LEARN anything in college? She certainly didn't learn anything about the image she's creating for herself as a potential employee.

I'll go farther, though. She also didn't learn much about the value of knowledge. The degree is not a direct line to a job, lady. Your mind is supposed to be better developed today than it was four or five years ago. It's supposed to be that way, anyhow, if you truly engaged in the academic experience, learned to think in creative and critical ways, etc. But something tells me this alum is not functioning at that level.

"I paid my money; now give me my damn career." She didn't say that, but she might as well have. Really, she is doing such a service to any business that might have made the mistake of interviewing her. Now they can weed her out without wasting two seconds. Sad for her, though.
I first saw this on "Rate Your Students", which also has a great Keynsian Compact analysis commentary on it plus a plagiarized copy of what The Onion's people on the street think of it!

I'll plagiarize my own comments posted on profgrrrrl's blog:

Didn’t this girl learn enough in school to know we are in a Depression [*] (four quarters of negative GDP growth)?

What I like about it is

a) I’ve never heard of this college she gave $17,500 of borrowed tuition each year, so only local employers will give it the credence it deserves.

b) This is a graduate who wants them to recommend her by saying her attendance is "good" and her GPA is "all right". Those are death words on a letter of recommendation, even in good times!

c) Given grade inflation at private colleges, I wonder where her reported 2.7 falls relative to the college’s median.

Maybe DD can tell us what the median GPA of Proprietary U graduates was to give us some indication of just where that GPA falls in the business world. I know quite a few business schools where you can't transfer in with a GPA that low.

[*] Some call it The Great Recession to avoid scaring those who learned too little in school to know about the difference between the Great Depression and the regular depressions that commonly followed speculative bubbles in the past.
Ooops, forgot to link to The Onion original. Credit where credit is due ...
I agree that the student isn't showing much political savvy in pursuing this course of action. However, I'll also say that I've seen a lot of career services offices that aren't nearly as helpful as they should be. Students may graduate knowing something about the subject content in their area, but few know how to write a good cover letter or resume, or how to sell themselves effectively in an interview. Career services offices should help graduates learn that they need to develop these skills, and help them to develop these skills, at a bare minimum. I've seen very few offices that do. And for that, students have a right to be angry.
Rate Your Students gave credit to the Onion when linking to the article in question.
I have some (just some) sympathy for this student, though I'm not sure "lawsuit" is the way to go. I went to a "name" lawschool to the tune of $120,000 that sold us on that tuition with its job placement rates at Big Law. Imagine my surprise when I found out they cheat and fudge those numbers all kinds of ways, the biggest one being that most female graduates were in their childbearing years, and if you weren't employed after graduation and had a baby within about 12 months in either direction, they removed you from the statistics on the theory that you were now "homemaking" rather than job hunting. They didn't ask, just removed. That cut their "unemployed" grads by about 1/4 to 1/3.

They also counted grads who got disgusted and gave up and went back to their undergrad degree fields (or whatever). Those people were "placed" by the law school.

The whole thing left a very bad taste in my mouth (I went to practice in an area of law they flat-out told me they wouldn't provide assistance in because it was unusual and wasn't going to pay enough to be worth their effort to place me -- the unspoken bit being that therefore I'd never donate.) and a real awareness of how law schools, at least, vastly oversell their career placement rates and use it as an inducement to get students to take on 6 figures of debt.

I almost wish accreditation organizations would in some fashion standardize career placement numbers and make that information available. While in a perfect world students would go to college just to learn, in the real world it's simply cruel to ask students to take on large amounts of debt at a school whose graduates earn barely above minimum wage in semi-skilled jobs.

I, at least, have a Name law degree, and the sophistication and considerable contacts that go with that if I need to chase down a new job, even if I may have made a different decision if I'd been aware of cooked placement stats. This student doesn't have those advantages in her joblessness (I don't know, maybe she's sophisticated, but filing a lawsuit sort-of speaks otherwise), so I have some real sympathy for her, even if her choices in dealing with her situation aren't very admirable.
CC Phys, I also liked that Keynesian Compact Analysis ... way interesting, especially for a humor site!

(I had good placement advice at the undergrad level, but not the grad level, and I was very unhappy about that. And it affects where my donations go, big time.)
While this seems like a terrible move on this student's part, I do think college placement offices and their stats do deserve more scrutiny. The career services people at my undergrad institution were useless in my day and it was an expensive big name liberal arts college. Although, they seem to have stepped up their game in recent years and are doing serious outreach to alums to help get graduates jobs.

My graduate school had a very strong placement record. It was a public policy program at a large R1 university. However, unless you wanted to work in the state it was in or in DC you were out of luck. Even in a neighboring state they were useless. Also part of it's strong placement record was related to the fact that one federal agency was hiring in droves for a few years and hired me and a bunch of my classmates. They also seem to have stepped up their game in recent years and become more sophisticated.

However, that said I know my resume made it to the top of the pile for my current job based on my undergraduate and graduate alumni status.

However, the girl seems like an idiot based on her statements.
Unless the school flat out guaranteed her a job in exchange for her tuition, I don't see how she has a case, but it'll be interesting to watch.

I'm familiar with Monroe, a proprietary college. It is in our area. When my daughter graduated, hers was a school that Monroe targeted (alternative HS, students not likely to get into most colleges). Their recruitment techniques were very aggressive, they promised full financial aid (without mentioning that the aid would be mostly loans), and continued to call my daughter on her cell phone even after she asked them not to.

I occasionally get students in our program that attended Monroe in the past, and they are sadly shocked to discover that most (if not all) of the courses they took don't meet requirements of our program. So the students not only have loan debt at Monroe, but now they have to start all over again here.
As a community college instructor and attorney, I think this is a very bad move and the graduate was badly advised.

However, as someone in New York City, I can tell you that the proprietary colleges have had problems with the law (so far, from what I can tell, not this college, Monroe) and they are relentless in their advertising.

From a New York Times 2005 article on the puzzling growth in enrollment at these colleges, given college enrollment trends overall:

>Students are also drawn by the aggressive advertising that many employ. In New York City, for example, it is hard to miss their splashy campaigns in newspapers and on buses and subway cars offering quick degrees, generous financial aid and job placement.

>Cecil Wright, a 31-year-old student at Monroe College in the Bronx, said he was working at Kentucky Fried Chicken when he saw a sign on a bus that said, ''Call 1-888-Go-Monroe.'' He did.

>''What grabbed me most of all was the whole atmosphere,'' he said. ''I was working, and they had a flexible program that let me attend classes at night. I was also able to get financial aid; their financial aid counselors held my hand through the whole process. And not just then. They held my hand in a way that helped me to succeed.''

>Commercial school executives like Stephen J. Jerome, president of Monroe College and chairman of the New York State Association of Proprietary Colleges, say the industry is basically sound.

>''Every sector has horror stories,'' he said. ''Every time a proprietary does something bad, it really comes out, and that drives the rest of us crazy.''

Some subway cars I've been on lately are filled with only Monroe College ads.

For myself, I cannot understand the advantage of any of these schools over public community colleges, both in New York and the other states where I have lived and worked -- unless they are in a very narrow, specialized career niche not adequately covered by the community college curriculum.

I recently was at a Walgreens counter and overheard one cashier say to the other she was thinking of going to the college in question here. She saw my T-shirt from the college where I work and asked what I thought. I told her to consider very carefully before signing anything to enroll and let her know something she did not: our public community colleges are much cheaper, have more qualified instructors and administrators and staff, and she should never sign up for a proprietary college without investigating the local cc's.
I think two things are true:

1) This is not a smart person.

2) The college took her money and didn't give her much in the way of education.

I'm glad the college is getting sued; the conversation it's opening up about the "degree = job" issue is real. Personally, I think she deserves her money, but that's because I think colleges like Monroe are unethical in a general sense. They're selling something worse than the local state college for a lot more money, cashing in on their students' lack of knowledge of the system.
First time poster, and I’m a little disturbed to read PunditusMaximus comments about the ethics of proprietary schools “in a general sense.” I work at a proprietary college in New York City (not Monroe), and I can think of plenty of reasons for coming to our sector rather than the public CCs, starting with the graduation rate. In New York City, according to our state Education Department, the 3-year graduation rate for CCs is 10 percent, while the proprietary grad rate is 34 percent. I think tripling the odds of a student graduating is selling something “better” than what our local public CCs provide. Sure the public CC’s are cheaper (until you count the taxpayer subsidy, of course) but if your odds are 9 out 10 for not graduating, is it really a better deal? I think it’s an open question on which sector is really “cashing in on their students’ lack of knowledge of the system.”
@Anonymous 6:13

Students at your school still have a 66% "chance" of failing, if the NY State statistics hold true for your institution. I'm not sure you've convinced me that you're a better value proposition than a cheaper CC. One has to really investigate why the stats are what they to make a meaningful comparison between institutions.
There are numerous New York City proprietary colleges with very bad records. I was the poster who mentioned that before.

For example, Taylor Business Institute, a commercial college in New York City, was ordered closed by the Regents, who cited problems with courses that did not constitute college level work, a lack of student services, an absence of effective academic leadership and a high turnover of faculty members.

In 2006 the state education department filed a class-action securities fraud complaint against the parent of another NYC school, Interboro Institute, the EVCI Career Colleges Holding Corporation, showing that cheating in determining whether students were eligible for federal and state financial aid was routine, not unusual, and that the company dismissed employees who failed to meet quotas in enrolling students.

It is easy to have a higher graduation rate than community colleges have if you are not teaching college-level work and giving phony grades of A and B for no work.

When I worked as a law school administrator in another state, we had a young administrator who decided to make extra money by teaching a class for a proprietary college. She failed a student who
did no work or failing work, and when she refused to back down after the student complained, they simply administratively overrode her and changed the grade to an A without so much as looking at any evidence from both sides.

There are some good proprietary schools in the city in specialized fields, but even some of them have had brushes with the law.

I would advise any student considering any college to do research.

I wonder what other people think of Students Review?
Wow, that post from the proprietary college worker made me want her to win more.
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