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Breaking News: A Key Witness at Senate Hearing Will Reveal How For-Profit Colleges Cook the Books on Job Placements

Published:  September 28, 2010

As part of its on-going investigation into the for-profit higher education industry, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will be hearing on Thursday from a career counselor at Education Management Corporation who has accused the company of misleading prospective students, accrediting agencies, and policymakers about its record in placing graduates into jobs.

Kathleen Bittel, a career service advisor in the online division of EDMC’s Art Institute of Pittsburgh, will be one of four witnesses who will be testifying at Thursday’s hearing, entitled “The Federal Investment in For-Profit Education: Are Students Succeeding?” Bittel came to the committee’s attention earlier this month when she sent a letter to the panel’s chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and five other Senators outlining the tricks that EDMC, the second largest for-profit higher education company in the country, allegedly uses to inflate its official job placement numbers.

“I am currently employed by EDMC and it was a tough decision to put my livelihood on the line in this current economic situation,” she wrote in the letter, a copy of which Higher Ed Watch has obtained (neither from the committee nor from Bittel). “But my conscience will not allow me to remain quiet about what I know.”

According to the letter, Bittel first joined EDMC in 2007 as an admissions counselor. But alarmed by the tactics that the university was using to enroll students, she decided to become a career counselor. “I took a huge pay cut to take on this new role because I looked at it as an act of ‘penance’ in that I could then help the graduates I talked into the program by helping them find employment when they completed the program,” she wrote. “What I found in Career Services was even more deceptive than the recruiting practices.”

The following are some examples of the misleading tactics she said her company employs:

  • A graduate only needs to be working at their job for one day for it to ‘count’ as an employment in their field.
  • Early in my tenure with the department, I was instructed on how to manufacture an email from a graduate to say whatever it needed to say to justify placement.
  • I was also shown how to eliminate a document received from a graduate stating she was working in her field, but only earning 8K, and to subsequently create a document using Salary.com to validate that an employee in that position would be typically earning 25K, which would meet the salary threshold of $10,500 to ‘justify’ placement in their field.
  • I was repeatedly pressured to call graduates working in unrelated fields and review the courses they learned and somehow convince them that obscure details of their current jobs were using the ‘skills’ they were taught, and that they were using those skills at least 25% of their time there. One needed to convince them to sign a form stating so.

She also provided examples of some of these allegedly dubious placements. These include:

  • A Game Art and Design Bachelor’s Student (one who learns how to create video games) with 100K in student debt is working at Toys R Us in the video game department earning $8.90 an hour. I was told to “place” him as employed in his field because his work was with video games. "He needs to know the knowledge he learned to be able to help his customers decide which games to purchase."
  • I had Graphic Design students working in places like Starbucks whom were expected to agree they were using their ‘skills learned’ within their employment by making signs for daily specials and menus.
  • A co-worker had a Residential Planning Graduate who was working in a gas station convenience store. He was expected to convince her that she was ‘using her skills’ by arranging the displays of candy bars!

At EDMC, Bittel wrote, career counselors are under the same type of pressure as admissions officers to meet their numbers:

Like the admissions department, 25% of the wages earned by a Career Service Advisor is directly related to the number of students “placed in field-related employment.” With the close-out of the last class, I missed my quota by one tenth of one percent and I was docked $500. I ask you now to consider whether it is realistic to expect that 85.9% of all graduates are placed in their field earning an average of $30,000 (66% of which hold only a diploma) within 6 months, in today’s economy and jobless rates? At an Online Art School? Does that not inherently sound fishy to you?

Bittel says she brought her concerns to her supervisor but never heard back from him. EDMC will probably soon come to regret that decision.

At Higher Ed Watch, we congratulate Bittel for having the courage to speak out and look forward to hearing what else she has to say. With the debate on the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed rules on Gainful Employment raging, her comments could not be more timely.

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