Last month I wrote about how Southeastern University in Washington, DC finally collapsed in de-accreditation after being allowed to persist in mediocrity and failure for far too long, leaving a trail of drop-outs, loan defaults, and frustrated students in its wake. Now comes news that seven of those students have sued the university for fraud in DC Superior Court–or to be more precise, sued the Graduate School, which absorbed the remnants of Southeastern after the university’s doors shuttered last fall. The plaintiffs are asking for $10 million in punitive damages and millions more in compensation. You can read the complaint here.
I don’t know how strong the case is from a legal standpoint. But its’s worth considering some excerpts from the particulars, all of which ring true:
In exchange for the promises made by the Defendant, the Plaintiffs paid substantial amounts of money in tuition, books, and cost. The amounts of money paid by the Plaintiffs and collected by the Defendant (as a result of the false promises, representations and omissions made by the Defendant) varied from as low as Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000.00) to as high as Forty One Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($41,500.00). The Defendant represented to the Plaintiffs that they would make significant salaries upon graduation.
The Defendant…represented that is “prepares students for a successful and rewarding career…by focusing on academic and professional preparation in a supportive environment.”
Defendant also represented that it possesses learning resources that include “interactive” classrooms, and “science/medical software programs.” It represented that it has an academic advisor and a student support program manager who would provide one-on-one counseling.
The Defendant also promised potential customers…that they would train on state of the art equipment, that they would be place in a practical externship program, and they would be instructed by qualified teachers. The Defendant knew that it could not deliver upon these promises and representations.
The Defendant knew and had reason to know that its accreditation was threatened, and it withheld that material information from the plaintiffs.
Not a single Plaintiff, or consumer graduated from Defendant’s said program.
As a result of Defendant’s fraud, Plaintiffs were significantly harmed in that they lost the amounts paid in tuition and feeds, and in lost wages, attorney’s fees, compensatory and other damages.
Defendants oral and written promises constitute contractual obligations to deliver upon educational and other services promised.
I heard much the same while reporting the story, including one unlucky student who enrolled in the university for the first time weeks before it received final notice of the accreditation loss, and was stuck with thousands of dollars in student loans as a result.
Obviously, most colleges aren’t as bad as Southeastern. But it wasn’t some fly-by-night diploma mill. It was a regionally accredited non-profit university founded in 1879. Southeastern’s ability to keep enrolling students despite manifest failure was an outgrowth of the pervasive higher education conspiracy of politeness wherein everyone pretends that there’s no such thing as a bad college or university. They’re all just different, you see, each a unique flower waiting to be matched to an equally distinct group of students, all fine institutions with dedicated faculty who help students prepare for a successful and rewarding career by focusing on academic and professional preparation in a supportive environment with the latest technology, state-of-the-art facilities and one-on-one counseling.
The collective interest in propagating this falsehood is pretty easy to understand. This combined with the underlying social convention that student success and failure is exclusively the responsibility of the student–instead of the joint responsibility of student and institution–produces an environment where everyone can get away with reprinting the same boilerplate aspirational marketing stuff with little thought to whether or not concepts like “contract” and “fraud” might someday come into question. It will be interesting to see how the Southeastern Seven fare.