As we wrote last week, the incoming Republican leaders of the House of Representatives have assured for-profit college lobbyists that they plan to go to bat for the industry in the next Congress. But these leaders -- such as the soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House education committee chairman John Kline (R-MN) -- have also made clear that their willingness to do so could be tempered by further revelations of abuses in the sector.
“I get told every time I’m around Boehner or Kline or whoever that ‘we’re going to make certain all sectors get a fair treatment if we’re back in control, but we will not give you cover if you’re doing the wrong thing,’” Bruce Leftwich, a top lobbyist with the group formerly known as the Career College Association, said during a post-election wrap-up the organization held with its members.
The question we have at Higher Ed Watch is how much evidence of abuses do they need?
Just consider what we have learned over the last several weeks from reports in The New York Times and BusinessWeek about The Washington Post’s Kaplan Inc :
- According to BusinessWeek, Kaplan’s recruiters use the company’s online Concord Law School as a selling point to attract students -- telling them that once they earn their bachelor’s degree, they can pursue a career in law at Concord. However, these enrollment counselors, the article states, typically leave out one pertinent detail: that Concord graduates are only eligible to take the bar exam in California since the school is not accredited by the American Bar Association. When asked about this omission, a company spokeswoman said that it would be inappropriate for undergraduate admissions advisers to provide details about the law school's programs. “It isn’t their job,” the magazine paraphrased her as saying, adding that those who specifically seek out more information about Concord are referred to the law school’s staff.
- In a front-page article last week, The New York Times reported that it had talked to “dozens of current and former Kaplan employees” who raised serious concerns about the company’s recruiting practices. Many of these individuals said that Kaplan specifically targeted financially needy students “whose chances of succeeding were low” so that the schools could get access to their federal financial aid. These current and former employees specifically cited a training manual that was “used by recruiters in Pittsburgh whose ‘profile’ of Kaplan students listed markers like low self-esteem, reliance on public assistance, being fired, laid off, incarcerated, or physically or mentally abused,” the newspaper wrote. A Kaplan spokeswoman acknowledged that the manual exists but said that it hadn’t been used since 2006.
- According to The New York Times, one major area of concern is how the company markets its criminal justice program. “Students who were recruited were led to believe that they could get into the C.I.A. or F.B.I. or Border Patrol or crime-scene investigation when they graduated, and earn $40-$50,000,” a former Kaplan instructor and administrator, who is involved a lawsuit against the company, stated. “But those jobs all require advanced training.” Most graduates end up working as security guards, earning $8 to $9-an-hour -- jobs they could have gotten without Kaplan’s expensive training programs, she said. [Meanwhile, an undercover, hidden-camera investigation by ABC News revealed last week that Remington College, a privately-held chain of for-profit schools, had enrolled people with prior felony convictions into its criminal justice program, even though former felons are generally barred from working in law enforcement, including as security guards.]
- The New York Times article also reported that for several years, one Kaplan campus in Broomall, PA, aggressively recruited students into its surgical-technology program even though the school knew full well that it didn’t have enough placement opportunities at hospitals to provide them with the hands-on training that was required of them to earn their degrees. One student, a single mother with four kids, said she was “in limbo for more than a year” after she completed her courses, waiting for the school to place her. She was finally “given one short placement,” which was “not enough to graduate.” According to the newspaper, she is now $14,000 in debt but without a degree. The school’s former director of education, who has filed a False Claims lawsuit against the company, said that the student’s experience was common. In his complaint, he stated, “that although the school had not had enough placement opportunities for the surgical-technology program since 2002, it kept enrolling new students, taking their federal student aid, leaving them stranded without a placement and then dropping them from the program, which was phased out in 2007,” the newspaper reported.
Although these news accounts focus on Kaplan, it’s pretty clear that the alleged abuses described in these articles are not isolated to one company’s institutions. In fact, according to the recent undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), they appear to be fairly widespread at the nation’s largest for-profit higher education corporations.
In August, the GAO revealed that it had found (and secretly recorded) “fraudulent, deceptive, or otherwise questionable marketing practices” at every single one of the 15 for-profit schools it visited. These campuses included ones owned by Alta Colleges, the Apollo Group, Corinthian Colleges, Education Management Corporation, as well as Kaplan.
Meanwhile, in the three hearings it has held this year on for-profit higher education, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has heard troubling testimony from several of its witnesses. These include:
- Yasmine Issa, a single mother who completed a training program in ultrasound technology at Career Education Corporation’s Sanford Brown University only to find out later that the program was not accredited. Recruiters, who had stressed the school’s accreditation to Issa, apparently had forgotten to mention that the sonography program lacked the necessary specialized accreditation. As a result, Issa, who paid $32,000 for the program (including $15,000 in federal loans), wasn’t eligible to sit for the licensing exam or to find work as a sonographer.
- Joshua Pruyn, a former admissions director at Alta’s Westwood College, testified that the schools’ recruiters regularly misled prospective students about the total cost of their programs (which he said was $75,000 for a bachelor’s degree.) Often they would tell students the per-term cost (around $4,800) without making clear that there were five terms a year, he said. He also told the Senate committee that recruiters were directed to deceive students about the institutional private loans it was providing them. According to his testimony, enrollment counselors were to refer to the high interest loans as “student supplemental funding,” without revealing their terms or conditions. Far from discouraging the deceit, he said, his corporate bosses rewarded it. “The most appalling example,” he stated, “was when the assistant director of admissions on my team was presented with a “Best Liar” award at a team celebration.”
- Kathleen Bittel, who was a career service advisor in the online division of EDMC’s Art Institute of Pittsburgh when she testified. As we reported, she told the committee of the tricks that EDMC has allegedly used to inflate its official job placement numbers. She revealed that graduates had to work at their jobs for only one day to be considered successfully placed. In addition, she said that employees were pressured to inflate the schools’ job placement numbers by counting students who were clearly not working in the field in which they had trained. “Employees were expected to convince graduates that skills they used in jobs such as working as waiters, payroll clerks, retail sales, and gas station attendants were actually related to their course of study in areas like graphic design and residential planning,” she stated.
At Higher Ed Watch, we do not understand how any member of Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- could hear these allegations without taking pause, let alone how they could rush to the industry’s defense. If these schools did not shower lawmakers with campaign contributions and spend millions of dollars each year on high-powered Washington lobbyists, would there even be a question of whether more scrutiny was warranted?