"It never occurred to [Congress] that, as billions of dollars get attached to the recognition process, the process would get corrupted," says Nassirian. "When you say yes, you gain membership dues. After all, you're living off these dues."

Yet even bargain-bin accreditation takes several years. So the investors behind for-profit colleges found a way around this by purchasing small, failing schools to snatch up preowned accreditation.

Take Bridgepoint Education. Its majority stockholder is Warburg Pincus, a New York private-equity firm. When it needed accreditation for Ashford University, it bought the 85-year-old Franciscan University of the Prairies, a struggling, 300-student religious college in Clinton, Iowa. Overnight, it was transformed into the online powerhouse Ashford.

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.

Bridgepoint, which also owns the University of the Rockies, grew from just 12,623 students in 2007 to 77,892 in 2010. Its profits also exploded, going from just $4 million to more than $216 million annually. About 85 percent of its revenue comes directly from the federal treasury.

But if Bridgeport and Warburg Pincus are billing top dollar, they're unrepentant misers when it comes to educating kids. In 2009, Bridgepoint spent less than $700 per student on actual instruction. By comparison, the nearby University of Iowa spends seventeen times that figure.

What Bridgeport doesn't short is its marketing, spending $2,714 per student to keep the turnstiles spinning. Overall, the fifteen largest for-profit colleges spend nearly $13 billion a year on recruiting and marketing.

Needless to say, it's a terrific business if you don't have to worry about educating kids. Nearly 80 percent won't complete their program within six years — almost double the failure rate at traditional schools.

The tactics have become so brazen that even accreditors are taking notice. Last month, Ashford conceded that the Western Association of Schools & Colleges had denied its accreditation renewal, noting that the school had just 50 full-time faculty members to teach 90,000 online students. Within a week, Bridgepoint's stock price had plunged 50 percent.

It's not the only so-called "for-profit education provider" that has seen its market value plummet. Over the past year the stock price of Sanford-Brown's Career Education Corporation has dropped from $24 to its current trading price of just over $3 per share.

In an earnings call last week, CEC's president Steve Lesnik acknowledged that the company has made a few "missteps" while continuing to trumpet the merits of for-profit colleges amid the backlash.

"It's a year of transition as we and others in the private sector education deal with public criticism, as well as regulatory initiatives aimed at limiting the sector's growth in providing post-secondary education in America," said Lesnik.

In 2010 slightly more than 85 percent of CEC's revenue came from federal educational funds, according to a Senate study. The same Senate report found that the company spent 26 percent ($477 million) of its 2009 revenue on marketing and recruitment. Meanwhile, 53 percent of students enrolled in CEC schools in 2008 and 2009 withdrew before completing their degree.

"It's basically consumer fraud rendered to a business model," says Nassirian of the for-profit business model. "Over-advertise, oversell, overcharge and under deliver. They found a system where the pitch goes to one guy and the bill to someone else."


Failure at a Luxury Price

For-profit colleges like to place their alarming failure rates in charitable terms. They claim to disproportionately serve low-income students who struggle in school.

But if they're serving people of lesser means, why are they charging so much money?

On average, a four-year degree from a for-profit runs twice what in-state tuition costs at a public school, according to the U.S. Department of Education. When it comes to two-year programs, the disparity widens: For-profits charge three to four times the rates of their public counterparts. Yet they've still managed to lull the political class into believing their competition is driving down tuition.

During the Republican primary Mitt Romney praised a major donor and co-chairman of his Florida fundraising team — Bill Heavener, owner of Full Sail University — for helping to "hold down the cost of education." What Romney failed to mention is that a 21-month degree in video-game art at Full Sail costs over $80,000. And that's not unusual.

A four-year bachelor's degree in business from Indiana-based ITT Tech costs almost $89,000. That's more than twice the in-state tuition at more venerated Indiana University.

Worse, subprime degrees from places like ITT and Full Sail are typically held in such low regard that it's difficult for grads to find jobs that pay enough to cover their loans. Nearly one in four for-profit students default on their loans within three years of leaving school, more than double the rate of public-school students.

But there's nothing like advertising to paper over your shortcomings. So for-profits carpet-bomb the airwaves to make earning a degree seem as easy as downloading an app. Who hasn't seen those late-night TV ads for "college in your PJs," or the Education Connection commercial featuring that rapping, dancing waitress? These ads drive viewers to websites that generate leads for schools' sales staffs, prompting an unending stream of solicitations. And when those leads are exhausted, schools buy lists from companies such as the California-based marketing firm QuinStreet, which made its name providing leads to subprime-mortgage brokers.

In June, QuinStreet reached a settlement with attorneys general from twenty states, including Missouri, who'd accused it of fraud for operating gibill.com. The website was made to look as if it were run by the government to help veterans, but it was actually just a lead generator for for-profit colleges.

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