Sue This School

Have you heard the joke about the new grad suing her college because she can’t find a job? There’s a good chance you have. First reported by the New York Post, the story gained juice last week when it was picked up by New York’s TV stations and by CNN’s Prime News, where anchor Mike Galanos shook his head in amusement and told viewers, “I don’t see how this one can be legit.” The Onion satirized it; countless blogs chimed in to label Trina Thompson, the 27-year-old who filed the lawsuit, an idiot or worse; and even the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication not known for its sense of humor, got in its digs.

But the more you know about Thompson and the school she’s suing, the more likely it is that you might start thinking that whatever her chances of winning in court, she’s right. The story of Thompson’s suit isn’t a one-liner about a grad too naive to know that graduating from college doesn’t guarantee a job. It’s a story about what “college” means and about marginal, for-profit “colleges” that squeeze four years of fees from their students and leave them with all the debt and little of the education or prospects that they counted on.

Trina Thompson’s alma mater, Monroe College, is well-known to New York City commuters, thanks to glossy ads that festoon the insides (and sometimes the outside) of many subway cars. It has less of a presence, however, outside the New York public transit system. You will not find it in, say, the U.S. News list of 1,400 colleges. You will not find its average SAT scores listed on its Web site or anywhere else (they’re not required for admission), nor will you find lists of publications by the scholars on its faculty.

Monroe’s history dates back to 1933, when it started as the “Monroe School of Business.” Thirty years later, keeping up with the changing fashions, it became the “Monroe Business Institute,” and in 1990, it became “Monroe College.” Though it is called a “college” and offers bachelor’s and even master’s degrees, Monroe does not offer degrees in the kinds of areas-say, English, economics, or the natural sciences-that most people associate with “college.” Instead, it offers degrees in business administration, criminal justice, and medical assistance. It has a hospitality management program with for-credit classes in artisan bread baking and the workings of a hotel front desk. Meanwhile, Monroe’s math offerings stop at the calculus level of a decent high school.

A description of Monroe that you will not find on its Web site is one that Thompson herself — who spoke to me reluctantly after the drubbing she’s taken in the press — proffered: “a vocational school.” Monroe is what the education industry euphemistically terms a “proprietary institution” or, in ordinary language, a for-profit school. It is accredited as a college by the regional organization responsible for these things-a fact that an offended Monroe spokesman confronted with Thompson’s words insisted meant Monroe must be a college and not merely a “vocational school.” But it does not by any stretch of the imagination exist for the sake of the advancement of learning. The relationship between Monroe and its students is more bluntly commercial: The students pay Monroe money in the hope that it will increase their chances of landing a decent job in a world in which the magic words bachelor’s degree have become a requirement.

For the education it offers, Monroe charges tuition of $5,872 a semester (including a $400 “administrative fee”). For comparison, the City University of New York, whose Lehman College campus is not far from Monroe and offers the range of academic programs in the arts and sciences that most people expect of a college, charges $2,300 for in-state students; the local community colleges cost less. The education that Monroe offers is geared toward what is ostensibly valuable in the work world. Trina Thompson told me that her courses included classes in Word, Excel, and Web design; in the course catalog, you’ll find even more basic offerings, including a college credit course in “keyboarding.”

The very point of an institution like Monroe is to improve its students’ standing in the work force, but the irony is that in comparison with traditional institutions, Monroe seems to do quite badly at helping graduates make a living. One measure of the cost-effectiveness of Monroe versus other institutions is the number of graduates who wind up defaulting on their loans. At Binghamton University, the flagship campus of New York’s public system, 1.5 percent of students default on their loans. At Lehman, a school with average SAT math plus verbal scores around 870 (well below the national average for college freshman), the number is 3.2 percent.

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.

Sue This School