University of Corporate Greed: America's for-profit colleges leave taxpayers and students high and dry

University of Corporate Greed: America's for-profit colleges leave taxpayers and students high and dry
Vlad Alvarez

Bobby Ruffin Jr. was only fourteen when a recruiter from Ashford University called. The Birmingham, Michigan, boy thought he'd clicked on a link promising help finding money for college. It was actually just a lead generator for the for-profit, online school's sales staff.

At the time, Bobby was an A student. His parents had pulled him from the troubled Detroit schools, hoping that home schooling would deliver something better for their son. He told the recruiter that he wanted to be a doctor. She assured him that Ashford could be a stepping stone to that dream.

Never mind that he was only in the eighth grade.

Barmak Nassirian, former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers: “Over-advertise, oversell, overcharge and under deliver. They found a system where the pitch goes to one guy and the bill to someone else.”
Courtesy Barmak Nassirian
Barmak Nassirian, former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers: “Over-advertise, oversell, overcharge and under deliver. They found a system where the pitch goes to one guy and the bill to someone else.”
According to Suzannne Lawrence, who worked as a recruiter at Argosy University’s online division, the pressure to recruit students prompted all sorts of illicit shenanigans, including falsifying documents.
Courtesy Suzanne Lawrence
According to Suzannne Lawrence, who worked as a recruiter at Argosy University’s online division, the pressure to recruit students prompted all sorts of illicit shenanigans, including falsifying documents.

"She said, 'You'll be working toward a degree as a medical doctor, so when you do graduate high school you're almost there,'" Bobby says today. "I'm like, 'This is great; I'm going to talk to my mom.' And she's like, 'No, I wouldn't tell your parents because that would take away from the shock when it happens. If I were you, I'd complete the program and when graduation comes around let them know. Mom and Dad will be super excited.'"

Admission to Ashford requires a high school diploma or equivalency. So when it came time to fill out the financial-aid forms, the recruiter told Bobby to claim that he'd already graduated. He objected, but she insisted "the loan-processing company will go back and correct everything." Still, he left the graduation date blank. Someone filled it in, because Ashford was soon receiving federal student-loan money on his behalf.

Of course, it's illegal for kids Bobby's age to receive financial aid. But for-profit colleges haven't always been scrupulous when it comes to raiding the federal treasury. Between student aid and GI Bill programs, for-profit schools receive 86 percent of their revenue from the American taxpayer. And the recruiters — often little more than salesmen paid largely by how many people they enroll — are driven mercilessly to keep those cash registers ringing.

Students don't get much in return. Though tuition rates can run as high as America's most esteemed universities, the education's generally substandard. In the end, most kids wind up walking away with a questionable degree bought at top dollar — and a mountain of debt to accompany it.

Bobby took online classes for almost a year. But when he wouldn't endorse Ashford's lying on his financial-aid forms, administrators miraculously discovered that he was under eighteen. Since this left him ineligible for federal aid, Ashford was forced to return his loan money to the feds.

The school wouldn't be eating those costs. Bobby would. Ashford, which declined interview requests for this story, sent him a bill for $13,000.

Last fall, Bobby was finally able to enroll at a real university, Eastern Michigan, where he was named a National Collegiate Scholar. Yet he still owes Ashford. Because that's a private debt, he isn't eligible for deferments while he's in school, and any future wages could be garnished.

Unfortunately, this isn't a scam that only targets the young and naïve. The for-profit industry is so rife with deceit, it's been billed as the second coming of the mortgage-loan debacle. And many of the same people are behind it. Three-quarters of all for-profit students are enrolled at schools owned by Wall Street banks and private-equity firms.

All told, for-profit colleges soak $30 billion a year from American taxpayers. And their impact is being felt across the nation and in Missouri. Over the last two years nearly three dozen Missourians have sued the for-profit college Sanford-Brown and its parent company, Career Education Corporation, alleging high-pressure sales techniques and bogus claims of successful job placement.

"They have quotas. And they're instructed to play on people's emotions to get them hooked in — and to get them to apply for student loans," Gary Burger, a St. Louis attorney representing several dissatisfied Sanford-Brown students told Riverfront Times for a story last year.

(Burger is currently negotiating a settlement with the Chicago-based CEC on behalf of some of his clients and declined to be interviewed for this article.)

But even in the age of slash-and-burn government, Congress has shown no interest in stopping it.

"The problem with the subprime [housing] scam was that it got so big it almost brought down the entire world's economy," says Barmak Nassirian, a former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "This one's wisely limited to $30 billion a year, which is highly sustainable. In the context of a multitrillion federal budget, that's not even a rounding error."


Consumer Fraud as a Business Model

You may not know it, but you're sitting on $117,000. That's basically how much every American is potentially worth in government student aid. Want to attend grad school? Throw in another $114,000.

And as for-profit colleges have discovered, an eighteen-year-old with 100 large makes for a very easy mark.

In order to get in on the gravy train, a school only needs accreditation from some supposedly neutral body. But Congress neglected to say who should do that accrediting, resulting in a system loaded with charlatans. Some agencies have built sturdy reputations over decades. Others are little more than rubber-stamp factories, more geared toward gobbling up members' dues than safeguarding kids.

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17 comments
voxleo
voxleo

Good.   God.  No wonder Jesus wept.  It HAS to stop.  NOW.  Okay people?  Please argue when faced with idiocy and ignorance.  It won't go away on its own.   I'd rather step on toes and be considered rude and crass than allow the erosion of civilization for the sake of being polite or popular.  It ends NOW or it ends when we do.   

Nomoreliberals
Nomoreliberals

Awwww. Screwed by your uber-liberal college or university?

That's so sad!

maggief317
maggief317

This article raises some good questions that have concerned me for some time.  However, I'm a bit skeptical about the story of the 8th grade boy who was able to register, get textbooks and financial aid without his parents assistance.  The writer claims that the "debt" has been passed onto the boy -- yet since he is a minor and not legally able to enter into a financial contract the debt would revert back to the school.  

 

More research, and more actual stories of actual students (and more elaboration on the questionable story of the 8th grade boy) would have given this piece the necessary weight to make a real impact.  

bookkeepingbabe
bookkeepingbabe

JD13:  I am going to address both of your posts in one response.  Use some real details instead of making nebulous comments!  Which for profit school was he hired at?  Was it Sanford Brown?  ITT Tech? AI?  Phoenix?  Ashford?  In what department?  What is his bachelors in?  What is his associates in? 

 

Ashford is an accredited school and therefore subject to certain regulations about their teachers.  Most of the teachers I had at Ashford were accountants employed in one or another sectors and teaching for extra money.  The two worse instructors I had were full time professors at other schools.  One of them I would be willing to make a bet had zero real world experience the other was old and set in his ways and frankly behind the times.

 

As for your sister what is her degree in?  There are certain degrees that regardless of where you went they are not going to net you anything other than a $9 or $10 an hour job!  Frankly a bachelors in english or history is really not going to give you a leg up in a business world.  However there are plenty of jobs where a bachelors in anything will help.  With a young child at home she may be better off to stay home regardless!  But you might suggest that your sister check into NARA, they often have jobs listed that only require a bachelors degree, any bachelors degree. 

 

Frankly I find your statements about the tuition at Ashford unbelievable.  My tuition at Ashford was just $100 more per credit hour then my daughter's at a public university!  And significantly less than hers if you added in her room and board!  My books were no more expensive then any other college's books, and Ashford stresses that you are free to buy your books from wherever, just make sure that you are getting the right book!  I chose to buy my books from Ashford's bookstore out of convenience, and frankly my book bill was only slightly higher then my son's, and he attends a local community college!

JD13
JD13

I love how these schools will tell you that their instructors have "real world experience" in the field they're teaching.  I know of one person that was hired to teach at one of these for profit schools and only had a bachelors degree NOT in the field he was hired to teach in and had just recently completed only an associate's degree in the same field he was hired at this school to teach...and from another for profit school.   He had never worked a single day in his life at an actual paid job doing what he was hired to teach.  It had only before that been a hobby and he frankly wasn't that good at it.  But somehow, this person with only an associates degree in that field that he'd just received and zero real world experience was hired by this for profit as an instructor at a supposed "college" level.     

rwilliams
rwilliams

For-profit colleges offer free market solutions to the stranglehold that the cabal of elite universities has had on higher education for decades.  The fact that investors actually make money from the for-profits infuriates liberals like Dick Durbin and produces yet another tiresome screed against Corporate America in The Riverfront Times.  Are there abuses in the system from some of the less reputable players?  Of course there are, just like in any industry.  Yet you insist on letting the consumer let off the hook for his or her own bad choices.  But, really, are the marketing shenanigans at a handful of for-profits any worse than the high pressure put on incoming freshmen by guidance counselors at state and private universities, whose mission is to pump up the enrollment within their particular department through dubious promises of high-paying and rewarding careers?

  A student with a degree in project management or medical technology from a local for-profit will get more bang for the buck than one with a degree in, say, French poetry from a Rutgers or an NYU.  The country does face a crisis in student loan defaults, but the problem lies not with the for-profits.  Rather, let’s put the blame where it truly belongs:  on vote-hungry politicians who dole out federal money to support the “right” to a higher education, and on the elite institutions who have no incentive to correct inefficiencies, and whose tuition has shot up three times the rate of inflation in the past twenty years.

bookkeepingbabe
bookkeepingbabe

Someone needs to research their facts before printing stories.   Ashford University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission and a member of the North Central Association (www.ncahlc.org).  They failed to qualify for accreditation at this time from the "western" equivalent of the same organization.  They were attempting to move their accreditation since much of the online functions of the school are run from offices in California with a few functions remaining at the Clinton Iowa campus.

 

Ashford University unlike many of the other schools discussed in the story actually has a regular brick and mortar campus in Clinton Iowa.  That school has grown in the past few years since the small franicscan school was purchased by the current owners.  Ashford has actually sport teams and all of the other functions that go along with a ground campus.  Ashford also refuses to offer some programs online as they are next to impossible to complete without  one on one student/professor interaction.

 

I completed my Bachelors in Accounting just this month.  My final class ended Monday.  This has been an excellent experience for me.  Many of my classes were very easy for me, however I have worked in the accounting industry for the last twelve years.  Some of my classes were quite difficult.  At Ashford you actually use honest to goodness textbooks, you dont just "do it all online".  If I had a complaint about my classes the complaint would be that there were students in some of my classes that could not write a complete sentence.  However I noticed as we progressed to upper level classes many of those students fell away. 

 

When one fills out one's financial aid forms a screen comes up on the government website that reveals yoru schools graduation and retention rates.  Both of those rates were around 35% for Ashford.  Which I admit does seem low to me but when I look at some of the people I started with I can well understand why. 

 

As for the 14 year old, I am not condoning what Ashford did, but where the hell were his parents?  Responsible parents do not allow their child to spend hours on the internet without knowing what he was doing.  And how did he order his books etc?  Up until about four months ago you could not use your financial aid to pay for your textbooks.  You had to have a credit card to pay for them.  So who issued this child a credit card?  Or did he use his parents credit card?  This story cites the one example and does not talk about current reality with Ashford. 

 

Ashford will no allow a student under the age of 24 to enroll for online programs unless there are special circumstances. Also the first two classes younger students must take at Ashford would require a certain amount of Life Experience to complete, life experience a 14 year old would not have.  So who helped him to complete those assignments?

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

Equally detrimental:  the hundreds of millions a year in tax write-offs and public money that pour into tax-sheltered  institutions of learning. A great deal of this is 'business' driven, 'business' controlled, and profits businesses. Capital projects and special projects. Taxpayers should get a cut of

this revenue.

aces
aces

The author could have written ten more pages about this. I would have liked to have heard more from students that attended these schools and the horror stories they have to share. I know a girl that attended Missouri College and wow is she regretting it. I always knew there was something wrong with these schools, but to hear that many of them have direct ties to Wall Street firms and investment banks makes it all the more disgusting. What a racket!! siphen money from Federal Student loan programs through unsuspecting students so that they are on the hook to repay it. Then use that money to make the rich even richer. What a country!!

anthonyp23
anthonyp23

The story has some real vague details.  An under 18 student would be considered "dependent" which would require his parents to assist him with filling out his Financial Aid application.  Financial aid will not be disbursed without the application being completed by the dependent student and legal guardian.  Education is an investment in yourself.  You get out what you put in.  The story seems very one sided with a bias point of view. 

ivyh
ivyh

Thank God someone had the nerve to write about this.  This issue needs to be handled, asap!!!!

bookkeepingbabe
bookkeepingbabe

 @maggief317

 Exactly my point.  The "boy" in question committed several crimes not the least of which is falsifying federal documents (Financial Aid App), that is unless he had help from his parents.  In which case the parents need to be prosecuted for their role in this. 

 

Frankly I find that part of the story fantastic at best.  When I applied to Ashford I had to sign authorizations for them to get my highschool and college transcripts.  (Which they did). 

 

Also they boy was too young to enter into a contract so who signed his financial agreement?  If he himself did then he committed fraud because it clearly states "I am of legal age" etc etc etc. 

JD13
JD13

 @bookkeepingbabe So how long has Ashford been paying you to do PR?  I stand by EVERY word I said.  

JD13
JD13

 @bookkeepingbabe My sister just got a degree from Ashford.  I laughed at her when she told me how much she was paying a year for a degree she will probably never be able to find work with and if she does it will be at a pay around minimum wage for that type of job.  The price of the books was outrageous, even more than buying books at a regular college.  I paid less than she paid with my scholarship a year to go to a real brick and mortar highly respected private college and that includes my room and board.   Now she's in debt up to her eyeballs and unable to find a job that pays more than about $9 an hour and not in her field.  Since she has a child now, she's found that it is actually cheaper for her to stay home and just live off her husband's meager income than to take an $8 or $9 an hour job and pay most of it for child care and to pay off her student loans (which of course her husband is paying off now which is throwing money down the toilet and nothing to show for that B.A. she now has.  If it was worth anything she could find a job where SHE could afford to pay off her own loans, child care, and still bring in some income.)  She could have gone to a local state university for much less money and gotten a degree in a field she could actually find work in and a degree that would be far more respected by potential employers.  

JD13
JD13

 @aces I've never attended a for profit college and never will but I did sit in on a class an acquaintance of mine was teaching (and he only had a B.A.) at a for profit tech school.  It was horrible.  Half the students were surfing the internet and not paying attention and he did and said nothing to them.  The reason they were doing that though could have been because of how horrid of an instructor he was.  Disorganized, didn't seem to know what he was talking about, he'd say something then go to give a demonstration on the computer and it wouldn't work the way he said it should, people would ask questions and he would seem confused or didn't know how to answer the question...it was truly bad.  

Toid
Toid

Very true.  This is extrememly one sided.  They never once mention the successes, the well prepared and employed students. Leave it to a journalist to know their "business" - write stories that grab readers attention, get more copies in circulation so advertisers will spend more money in their publication.  Open your eyes people.....geesh

 
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