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.