My niece, a college junior, told that most students at her university are unable to register for classes they need to graduate because there aren't enough classes offered, and because of that huge majority of students cannot graduate their 4-year programs in 4 years. I checked 4-year graduation rate statistics, and indeed, her university's 4-year graduation rate is abysmal 7%. Then a quick look at the class schedule, with most classes being wait-listed, confirmed the cause of the low graduation rate.

I'm wondering: is this practice by university to under-supply required classes legal?

Here's an analogy, the reason why I think the above practice is or should be illegal. Imagine that you contracted to purchase, say, a self-assembled car, in the following manner: you pay fixed amount annually until you fully assemble it, the manufacturer ships you the parts, and as soon as you complete the assembly - the car yours. The manufacturer assures you that this is a 4-year project, and that you'll have the opportunity to complete your task in 4 years. Therefore you count of paying the annual fee for 4 years and on the ability to use the car after that. Then, well into the project, the manufacturer informs you that they don't have enough manpower to manufacture enough transmissions, so your request for a shipment of a transmission will be wait-listed. And, even though you weren't given the opportunity to complete your work, the car does not belong to you yet, and you still have to pay the annual fee. The project drags on for 5 or 6 years instead of 4 solely due to the manufacturer delays. I think in this scenario the manufacturer would quickly get sued out of business.

I think quite a few colleges in US are doing pretty much the same thing: they offer significantly smaller classes than necessary to allow their students to obtain degree in a timely manner and profit from their own shortcomings due to extended duration of each student's paid enrollment.

I am not a lawyer though, and aware that a layman's perception of fair doesn't always coincide with what's legal. In particular, the subject of fiduciary duties (which IMHO is the closest thing to a layman's definition of fair) is not quite obvious. Thus the question to the professionals.

I'm not involved in any litigation on that matter, the question is for purely educational purposes (pun intended).

  • 1
    In the case of manufacturing: generally when something gets waitlisted you have the option to cancel and take your business somewhere else, because they can't complete the service in a timely manner. College is no different. You have the option to transfer your credits and finish at a different school. Four-year completion rate is really something you should research before attending, rather than waiting to find out when it's happening already. Also, I'm not aware of any college that charges you simply to be enrolled - you pay for each class you take. If you take no classes, you pay nothing.
    – animuson
    Sep 27, 2016 at 6:21
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    Does this university charge tuition per quarter/semester/year, or on a per class/unit basis?
    – sharur
    Feb 17, 2017 at 22:38
  • @sharur: per semester.
    – Michael
    Feb 19, 2017 at 19:34

1 Answer 1


A fiduciary duty only exists if a person is a fiduciary; we may take this to be a reasonable characteristic of the concept:

someone who has undertaken to act for and on behalf of another in a particular matter in circumstances which give rise to a relationship of trust and confidence

(In fact there is no clear legal definition of a fiduciary, and courts prefer to determine that relationship on a case by case basis). If you construe the concept way broadly, then a waiter, bus driver, fishmonger, or good friend is a fiduciary, and they must by law act in ways that are in fact entirely outside of what is required of waiters, bus drivers, fishmongers, or good friends. So it is simply mistaken to think that a university is an fiduciary, in the way the term is used in business.

However, the three primary duties of a fiduciary are care, loyalty, and good faith. There is no duty to reach a particular percentage rate for 4-year graduations. The question of why most students do not graduate within 4 years is entirely off topic for LSE – it is enough to note that even if you were to imagine a university being a fiduciary, no duty has been breached.

  • -1 for the argument "fishmongers are not fiduciaries, therefore, universities are not fiduciaries".
    – Patrick87
    Sep 27, 2016 at 12:13
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    Too bad I can't downvote a comment for egregiously misunderstanding the argument. Not all business relations are fiduciaries; examples are of things that are not fiduciaries are universities and fishmongers.
    – user6726
    Sep 27, 2016 at 14:52

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