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“Can I sue my college?”:
Legal Questions from College Students

Now that the school year has started up again we hear many questions from students as to what their legal rights are when facing a problem with a school or university and if they have any recourse when they feel the school has done something wrong. Below are some common questions and some basic tips.

I enrolled in some classes for the fall semester and I’m having a really hard time with them. The professor told me it would probably be better for me if I just dropped the class because I am headed toward getting an F.  There’s no penalty if I just drop it now is there?

If you mean penalty as in your grade, hopefully not, but you’ll have to check your school’s policy. Generally speaking, students are able to drop a class within a given period (the drop/add period) without penalty, which means that it would not affect your GPA and you would be entitled to a refund. If you are outside the drop/add time, you will most likely not be able to get a full refund and at some schools it may affect your GPA. Always go back to your school’s specific grading and registration policy to see what the ramifications are.

I enrolled in a class that unfortunately conflicts with my work schedule. I’ve never been to the class but now I’m getting a bill from the school. I never got anything from the class and never even set foot in the classroom – I’m not responsible for this am I?

You most certainly are. Keep in mind that you are paying for a spot in the class which has been reserved for you. That spot could have been taken by another paying student had you not registered for it. The fact that you chose not to attend, and then also took no steps to withdraw from the class make it your responsibility. This will also apply to situations where you have been asked to leave a class or are expelled from the school. Also keep in mind that if you have received financial aid (which most students do) and you fail to attend classes or fail to register for classes, you will likely become ineligible for that financial aid and will then see a bill directly from the college for the tuition. 

I know I’m not alone, but so many people in my college graduating class cannot find a job in their field. When I chose this school all of the information they gave us said that a certain percentage of students had employment within 6 months of graduation. Now not only am I still unemployed, but I now have a huge amount of debt as well. I feel like I was tricked into going here with the promise of a good job. Can I sue the school for fraud or misrepresentation?

Generally speaking- no. The fact is that you’re right- you’re not alone. Unfortunately jobs can be hard to come by and having an education does not necessarily make it easier.  When you enroll in school you do so to get an education, not a job – the job is just icing on the cake. The statistics that the schools show are merely examples, not a guarantee of employment within your field, within a given time and at a certain pay rate. The fact of the matter is that most lawsuits of this type are dismissed, as the school can easily make the argument that the student is as responsible for their success or failure as the school is.

I have been accused of sexual harassment by a student at my school. A police report was filed, but the police have decided not to press charges. Unfortunately, the school has sent me a letter telling me I’ve been expelled. How can they do this after the police won’t even press charges? Can I sue them for this?

The school is free to take action separate from what law enforcement does. In most cases such as this, the school will ask the student to leave regardless of what the outcome of any criminal case may be. That being said, you are entitled to appeal that decision and make sure that the administrative appeals process proceeds fairly. That being said, you may want to speak with an attorney to make sure that your rights are protected and that the damage to your future educational and career plans is minimized.

I have a professor who has been a complete nightmare. She and I have never gotten along and every project I have turned in she has shredded to pieces. If she gives me a failing grade what recourse do I have?

You should always check your particular school’s policy with respect to grading and/or the appeals process. Generally speaking, try speaking with the professor first, and if you get no resolution that way, work your way through the chain of command, for example, a department head or chair and then to the person ultimately in charge of the school or university. Keep in mind that the more professional you are and rationally you present things the smoother the process will go.

As always, for a referral to an attorney, contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at (412) 261-5555 or go to www.pittsburghlawyerfinder.org