Can Private Schools or Colleges Be Liable for Breach of Contract or Misrepresentation?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
It’s almost impossible to sue a school successfully for inferior education, but students might have better luck by claiming that a private school or a college broke a specific promise.

It’s certainly no news that the cost of a college education has skyrocketed, causing financial hardship for parents and students alike. And parents who want to give their children a head start on academic success often begin emptying their pockets even sooner to pay for private elementary and secondary schools. But what if you feel like all that money has gone to waste—because a private school, a university, or a for-profit college hasn’t come through on its promises? Can you sue the school and get your money back—or even get the school to pay you the income you should’ve been earning?

Unfortunately, that happy result may be all but impossible. Courts usually throw out lawsuits that directly or indirectly claim a school didn’t provide an adequate education (what are known as educational malpractice cases). Depending on the circumstances, however, disappointed students might get somewhere by arguing that an educational institution broke an agreement to provide a specific service, or by claiming that a school made false promises when the students enrolled.

Do Students Have Contracts With Schools?

A contract is a legally binding promise to do something or provide something, usually in exchange for money or services. A breach of contract happens when anyone who has agreed to a contract doesn’t fulfill that promise. People usually think of contracts—and breach of contracts—in the context of business or employment, but they can also play a role in educational settings. When students (or their parents) enroll and pay tuition, they’re essentially consumers of the services provided by a private school or college. Although students generally don’t sign formal contracts, many courts have found that a school’s bulletins, catalogs, handbooks, and regulations become part of its contract with enrolled students when the students actually receive those materials.

When Schools Breach Contracts

It isn’t easy to succeed with breach-of-contract lawsuits against schools. A court will probably throw out any case if—underneath any language about contracts—it’s really based on a claim that the school didn’t fulfill a promise to provide quality education or instruction. But courts are more likely to allow suits where the students argue that the school broke a contractual promise to provide a specific service or course. Here are some examples of cases where students were able to pursue (or won) breach-of-contract cases against schools:

  • Parents of an elementary school student alleged that a private school had broken its promise to provide adequate diagnostic testing and appropriate, individual reading instruction if their child developed reading problems. Squires v. Sierra Nevada Educational Found., 823 P.2d 256 (Nev. 1991).
  • A former basketball player claimed that after a university recruited him—knowing full well that he was completely unprepared for college—it didn’t fulfill its promises to give him adequate tutoring so that he could truly participate in the academic program. (Ross v. Creighton University, 957 F.2d 410 (7th Cir. 1992).)
  • A group of students alleged that a nursing school had promised its graduates would be qualified to take a licensing exam for registered nurses and would be able to enroll directly in a particular advanced nursing program, even though the school’s program was not properly accredited. (Jeffers v. American University of Antigua, 3 N.Y.S.3d 335 (N.Y. App. Div. 2015).)
  • Students argued that a private vocational school broke its promise to provide English language instruction, modern equipment in good working condition, and computer training. CenCor, Inc. v. Tolman, 868 P.2d 396 (Colo. 1994).)
  • A former student received full reimbursement for tuition in her breach-of-contract lawsuit against a business school that didn’t provide a program leading to a transferable accounting degree, as it had promised. Till v. Delta School of Commerce, Inc., 487 So.2d 180 (La. Ct. App. 1986).)
  • A student sued a for-profit technical college for breach of contract, claiming that the school hadn’t met its contractual obligation to screen his criminal background before enrollment, in order to ensure that he would be eligible to complete required coursework at a hospital. A jury awarded the student more than $50,000 for tuition and lost income.

When Schools Mislead Students

Some students have also been able to pursue lawsuits based on arguments that for-profit colleges or vocational schools convinced them to enroll by lying about things such as:

  • how long it would take to complete a course of study
  • whether the school would provide expert instruction in a particular subject
  • whether a student had the aptitude needed to complete a program, and
  • whether graduates would find plenty of jobs with good salaries.

In a particularly high profile case, a group of students sued Trump University for fraud, claiming that the school had misled them by calling itself a university (despite its lack of accreditation) and by falsely claiming that Donald Trump “hand-picked” instructors. The students received a $25 million settlement.

Finally, at least one court has allowed a lawsuit against a public high school for negligent misrepresentation, based on a former student’s claim that he lost his university basketball scholarship because his high school guidance counselor had given him inaccurate information about the course requirements for competing in college athletics. (Sain Cedar Rapids Community School Dist., 626 N.W.2d 115 (Iowa 2001).)

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • Can I sue a college for breach of contract if the catalog or bulletin says that the contents are subject to change, or that the school isn’t bound by anything in the publication?
  • Is a public university immune from a lawsuit for breach of contract?
  • Can I sue a for-profit college that promised to offer a beginning computer course, but the class turned out to be an advanced class?
  • Do I have any legal remedy if a private school advertised its quality instruction, but the teachers turned out to be poorly qualified?
  • What are my legal options if a university professor refused to continue teaching a course as part of a faculty strike?
  • Could I sue a school for negligent misrepresentation or consumer fraud under consumer protection laws in my state?

Go to the main school liability FAQ page.

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