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Sue This School

At Monroe the numbers are much worse. Of the students who were to start repaying their loans in 2006, 9.5 percent are already in default. That's three times higher than at nearby Lehman and 80 percent higher than the national average of 5.2% (a number that is itself elevated by the dismal record of for-profit schools like Monroe).

Countless people have taken the trouble to set Thompson straight on comment boards, blogs, and even YouTube videos, the vast majority of them operating under the prevailing assumption that higher education has never guaranteed a job — a principle attested to by the glut of unemployed Ph.Ds. But even the critics notice the difference between "college" and trade schools whose very purpose is a stepping stone to employment. As David Seaman, who posted a video commentary on l'affaire Thompson on the "citizen journalism" site iReport puts it, "It's not as if she went to school to be a mechanic and was guaranteed some sort of job straight out of school. A liberal arts education is there to make you a more educated and aware citizen."

As should be very clear to anyone who's taken a look at what Monroe College is really about, however, what's at stake is not a "liberal arts" education as anybody understands it. The difference between what Thompson was offered and what a traditional vocational school-the kind of "business institute" that Monroe once billed itself as-proposes comes down mainly to her education taking longer, costing more, and offering far less certain outcomes.

The magic word here is college. By presenting itself as a "college," Monroe and similar institutions achieve the neat trick of offering a lot less for a lot more money. Hardly anyone would blink at the notion that an unhappy, unemployed graduate might sue a trade school for getting a raw deal. But by transmuting itself into a "college," Monroe can siphon four full years of tuition from its students and at the end of it all dance away from any commitment, implicit or explicit, to find its students jobs because that's not what a "college education" is about.

There are those who will say that in choosing colleges, as in so much else, the principle of caveat emptor applies. But the whole thrust of the promotion of schools like Monroe-down to its bragging about a "division one" baseball team (that's Division I in the junior college league, not the NCAA, though you wouldn't know it from Monroe's ads) is to obscure the distinctions between a Monroe and traditional nonprofit schools dedicated to higher education. This they do quite successfully: If CNN can't tell the difference, it's not a surprise that young entering students can't, either.

What do you do with a problem like Monroe? There is no easy solution. Regional accrediting organizations whose imprimatur Monroe and other schools depend on could tighten their definitions of what a college-level education is, but they've shown no impulse to do so. Cutting federal aid for students at schools with high loan default rates would shut off much of the money that flows to marginal institutions, but unfortunately, experience shows that even as the worst schools close, new ones spring up.

Regulation hasn't made bad schools get better or go away. The likelihood as things stand now is that litigation won't, either, since the word college, with its promise of education for its own sake, may well be in the courts, as it has been in the press, the trump card that excuses all the failings of Monroe and its ilk. But it's hard to fault Thompson for trying.

Right now, Thompson's computer is broken, her cell phone is shut off, and she's willing to take a job as a file clerk if she can find that. She filed the lawsuit herself; she has no lawyer, and needed a waiver of the court fees. There's really not much humor in this. Nobody-including Thompson-claims that she was ever a stellar student. But her lawsuit shows that at least she's smart enough to know when she's been had. That's more than can be said for the well-educated folks in the press who see the word college and jump up to defend an institution like Monroe with all the fervor of freshman singing the grand old songs at their first football game.

Mark Gimein is a columnist for The Big Money. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter.