[C]atalogue copy is prepared yearly (sometimes twice yearly), which means that universities are almost always “lying” about their programs. Let’s say a student applies to a department because it offers a specialty he is interested in, and he arrives to find that the key players — the ones he wanted to study with — departed last month. It’s hard to see why he should have a legal remedy. There is really no one to blame...
Has Fish not heard of the computer? Students rarely get course information from slowly prepared print media; everything's online now, including catalogue copy, so there's no reason why it can't be updated rapidly and constantly. Again, I agree with him that legal remedies for complaints about this are absurd; but he's not acknowledging the reality of universities. The problem's not the slow publication of information.
I have to say that as a student I experienced this. When looking at Masters level programs I did look at the course catalog, online, and I looked at the department's website as well. The courses offered seemed plentiful, however when you actually do some analysis of when each course is offered, you will only see about 10 courses and all those great electives are nowhere to be seen.
Yes, the prospective student does have a responsibility to look at course catalogs to see what courses are offered, but how far back do you go? One year? Two? Five? Ten? Not to mention some systems, like the peoplesoft system we have at UMB, requires some specialist knowledge to go through and gather this data. I know how to use it, but many in my cohort do not (those who aren't tech savvy are completely lost). There are many electives that I would have loved to have taken as a grad student, however they were not available, either because of a lack of a specialist, or because a lack of labor, therefore only core courses are covered and those electives are not.
I do think that webmasters and people who make course catalogues should do their due diligence an either automatically prune and not print courses that haven't been offered in four semesters (2 years), or print the last three occurrences that the course was offered, so students have a general idea of the frequency of the course offering.