Can I Sue if a College Fails to Appropriately Educate My Child?

The case of a journalism major who can’t land a job because of poor writing skills raises the question of what a parent can do, if anything, when a college drops the ball.

A stressed college student puts her head in her hands as she sits at a desk and looks at her laptop.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Today’s article raises two important questions:

  • When a college scholarship is created by a family or business, can they be informed of how well the recipient is doing in their studies, or how they might be unsuited for the degree program they’re pursuing?
  • Can a college be sued for negligence or breach of contract if it fails to give a graduate the basic skills their major requires, resulting in them not being able to find a job in their industry?

Those are “Walt’s” questions, and when he read our May 9 article, How Summer Internship Offers Can Go Awry, it hit a nerve.

That article was about a university student whose summer internship offer was revoked because of poor written-language skills in a personal statement submitted to the employer.

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In his email, Walt wrote, “My daughter ‘Julie’ and I have never had a daughter/father relationship. We lived in different states after my divorce from her mother, but I always paid child support, and my parents’ farming corporation established a college education trust for her when she was a child. ‘Kate,’ Julie’s mother, just phoned to tell me our daughter has been unable find a job as a newspaper reporter, despite graduating with a journalism/communications degree from a private college that I learned has been in serious financial trouble for years. Julie has sent me rejection letters from newspaper HR departments and editors, one of which, from the managing editor of a midsize city newspaper, was in-your-face unique.

“‘Young lady,’ it said, ‘our panel felt an obligation to come right out and say that you and whoever has paid for your college education were obviously not told the truth about your glaring deficit in the language skills required of a journalist. Judging by your earliest stories in the student newspaper, up until the most recent, something very serious has been lacking in your ability to write a coherent sentence or paragraph, not to mention using inappropriate language and stories that just do not make much sense. We cannot fathom how you graduated from college with a degree in communications and journalism. Sadly, you are not an exception among today’s journalism majors who think they can write.’

“Mr. Beaver, copies of her stories were included. They were embarrassing and just made me angry and disappointed. How could she have been allowed to remain in a journalism program? It seems to me that Julie is the victim of educational malpractice. Isn’t there some implied warranty or contractual representation that a school will provide the education they are being paid for or tell a student to select a more appropriate major? Why didn’t anyone from the university alert her mom or grandparents to the problem? Does our daughter — or her grandparents — have any legal remedy that you know of — perhaps she could be placed in an education program that suits her abilities, paid for by the college — if it survives financially?”

Journalism graduates who can’t write or name a Pulitzer winner

I ran this situation by several newspaper editors. A friend who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at a Southern California newspaper, said, “Often, college students think of journalism as an easy major, so we don’t get that kind of dedication from the outset that the profession needs.” Most other observations included that today’s graduates:

  • Frequently lack the fundamental skills that are essential to good writing, having no concept of the structure of a paragraph, being unable to spell and having a limited vocabulary.
  • Are not taught what is expected of them as news-gathering professionals or how a print or electronic newsroom actually functions.
  • Don’t understand the critical importance of vetting sources in time to meet deadlines.
  • Don’t grasp the difference between opinion and fact-based reporting — they often write what they want to believe without verifying information or sources.
  • Take poorly to badly needed constructive criticism from editors who understand and respect language and grammar.
  • Can’t answer the question, “Who are your favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists? “I ask applicants (that question),” one editor said. “Few can name even one.” Good writing starts with reading great journalism, so that is concerning.

Why didn’t the university give Julie’s mom or grandparents a heads-up?

As adults at age 18, students have tremendous privacy rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), and schools have no legal duty to inform Mom and Dad — or grandparents who are paying the tuition — anything about a student’s academic progress or trouble they might encounter.

However, with a proper waiver that specifies who can be kept informed, a school is then free (and possibly contractually obligated) to alert third parties to how the student is doing academically or in any area the waiver specifies, such as getting in trouble with the law. FERPA is highly controversial. For instance, schools have been accused of using the law to withhold critical information if it casts them in a negative light.

Suit for breach of contract or educational malpractice against the college?

There have been suits filed in recent years against many “for-profit” colleges and universities that turned out to be massive frauds. However, in general, courts almost always dismiss lawsuits that accuse colleges and universities of failing to properly educate students.

I urged Walt to consult education lawyers in his town to explore a demand for compensation from Julie’s school, as she could very well have a claim that would stand up, given the school’s struggling financial position as a reason to keep her there for the tuition her family was paying.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to And be sure to visit


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."