Do Students Have a Right to Receive the Education They Are Promised?

Students at a libraryA recent presidential primary debate raised the issue of a lawsuit accusing Donald Trump and Trump University of fraud. The candidate expressed his confidence that he would win the suit. Perhaps he will, as an attempt to have the lawsuit’s fraud allegations dismissed on the ground that the statute of limitation had expired was recently rejected by a New York appellate court.

The broader question raised by the suit is whether students who pay for an education have a right to receive it. The answer is that educational institutions are generally entitled to honor specific promises, but that courts will not usually consider students’ complaints about the quality of their education. The answer might also depend upon whether the educational institution induced students to pay tuition by making fraudulent promises to them.

The Trump University Lawsuit

The Attorney General for the State of New York sued Trump for $40 million, alleging that Trump University, which promised to make its students rich, instead provided them with costly seminars that had little value. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said that Trump University traded on Donald Trump’s celebrity status and the “Trump brand” to induce students to pay tuition for seminars that didn't live up to their promise of teaching students everything they needed to know about real estate investing.

The lawsuit alleges that Trump did not choose the professors who taught at Trump University, despite his repeated claims in advertising materials that he handpicked successful professors who would teach the investment techniques Trump had developed over his lifetime. According to the attorney general, only one of the instructors had ever met Trump, they typically had little or no experience in real estate investing, and they could not have taught Trump’s techniques because Trump did not participate in or review the curriculum. The lawsuit also accuses Trump of engaging in bait-and-switch tactics by advertising seminars for $1,495, and then urging students to take out loans to pay $35,000 for “Trump Elite” packages.

The lawsuit further alleged that students believed they were receiving an education from an actual university. Trump University changed its name to Trump Entrepreneurial Initiative in 2010, five years after the State of New York complained that the institution was not licensed and did not meet the legal definition of a university. The institution apparently ceased its operation in New York in 2011.

Trump argues that the lawsuit is politically motivated and claims that most of the students were very satisfied with the education they received. A separate class action lawsuit, filed by former students of Trump University, is also pending. In that case, Trump has accused the trial judge of “tremendous hostility beyond belief.” Trump also contends that students who did not become successful real estate investors did not work hard enough to achieve that goal.

Failure to Provide a Promised Education

The lawsuit against Trump University is one of many that have accused higher educational institutions of failing to deliver the education that they promised. Sometimes known as educational malpractice lawsuits, students have typically contended that they did not receive an education of sufficient quality to enable them to find meaningful employment.

For a number of reasons, educational malpractice lawsuits almost always fail. Students are often unable to prove that their failure to find employment was caused by a poor education rather than their own failure to apply themselves in school. An inability to find employment might also be attributable to the economy rather than the student’s education.

Claims based on negligent teaching typically fail because state laws rarely impose a defined standard of educational care upon educators in colleges and universities. Courts are reluctant to create those standards for fear of interfering with the academic freedom of professors who are charged with deciding upon course content and teaching methods.

In addition, claims that a school breached its contract with a student by failing to deliver the education the student expected tend to fail because a student’s contract with a school does not include a guarantee that the student will find a job after graduation. Courts are again reluctant to interfere with academic decisions made by professors when they assign grades or devise a curriculum. While schools might breach a contract if they fail to deliver any education at all, or if they do not convey fundamental knowledge that they specifically promised to teach, those circumstances rarely exist.

Fraudulent Promises

Allegations of fraud differ from ordinary claims involving educational malpractice or breach of contract. Fraud in the delivery of a higher education is an international problem. In the United States, fraudulent practices include the operation of diploma mills that offer degrees in exchange for fees. Students at least know they are purchasing a worthless document when they pay for a diploma that they did not earn.

From the perspective of a legitimate student who wants to earn a meaningful degree, fraud is more troublesome when it is committed by the school the student has chosen to attend. For example, Corinthian Colleges, which operates the California-based Heald College chain, was recently fined nearly $30 million for misrepresenting job placement rates.

A 2012 Senate investigation concluded that many for-profit colleges are concerned only with their own financial success, not with the success of their students. The investigation also concluded that deceiving students with falsified placement data is a tactic that for-profit educational institutions have used repeatedly.

The allegations of fraud that the State of New York made against Trump University will eventually be decided by a court. Regardless of its resolution, cases like the lawsuit against Trump University call attention to the need for students to conduct careful investigations of their own before deciding whether to invest tuition money based on promises made by a for-profit educational institution.


(Photo Credit on Social Media: "Donald Trump Sr. at FITN in Nashua, NH" by Michael Vadon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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