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Editor's Note

When Is a College Not a College?

University Business, Sep 2009

THAT HEADLINE ISN’T A RIDDLE. Maybe a better question is, should there be guidelines as to what the word “college” means?

The question has come up as the result of a news story that got international attention a month ago when a young woman named Trina Thompson sued her alma mater, Monroe College (N.Y.), for $70,000 because she had been unable to find a job after graduation.

The story quickly went viral, based on Thompson’s perceived audacity at filing such a suit. It became the setup for jokes on talk radio and on cable news shows, with pundits berating the woman’s intelligence. After all, what school would promise to help a student find a job, especially in this economy? Then, just as quickly, the story vanished as the media and the public moved on to “the next thing.”

But, as an article by Mark Gimein on — apparently one of the few outlets to actually investigate beyond the headline — revealed, there’s much less to Monroe College than meets the eye.

The lawsuit is about the quality of the education paid for.

Thompson now claims Monroe is a vocational school in a college’s clothing. It is true that Monroe College is an accredited, for-profit business school in New York that grants degrees. But that doesn’t make it a “college” in the traditional sense anymore than Alaska’s proximity to Russia gave Sarah Palin foreign policy experience.

For those who bothered to look, the lawsuit is not so much about Thompson’s inability to find a job but about the quality of the education that she paid for. True, for what she was charged ($5,800 per year) Thompson would likely have been better off at any number of two- or four-year institutions. She certainly would have gotten more for her money. Gimein writes that in Thompson’s case, Monroe provided basic office skills in Word, Excel, and web design, but few if any of the courses one would expect from a “regular” college.

But Monroe does qualify, according to the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, as a college. Which brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning. Beyond meeting the standards of a regional accrediting body, what does the word “college” imply? Is it right that a school such as Monroe should be able to claim the title? Was Thompson misled by the school’s marketing to think she would get more for her money? I don’t have an answer, but it should be interesting to watch this one develop.


Write to Tim Goral at