EDMC claims its sales pay is not just based on bodies enrolled, but such things as business ethics, professionalism and job knowledge. Kathleen Bittel would beg to differ. She was an EDMC recruiter when Nelson arrived and will readily attest to the change in atmosphere.

Over the next three years, the sales staff increased from 950 people to more than 2,600. "Once Goldman Sachs took over, and they brought in [Nelson], everything changed," she says. "Everything became much more cutthroat. It was just more oppressive and very high-pressure.... They were watching you constantly. We used to joke it was like being on the cotton plantation, and they were the overlords coming by on their horses. The only thing they were missing were the whips — but they had the whips verbally."

Like Lawrence, Bittel had studied psychology and proved adept at forging bonds. She'd gone back to school in her forties to support her family of four after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. She understood the difficulties of raising kids, working full-time and going to college. At first, she admits to "drinking the Kool-Aid," believing Argosy's online program could help people like her.

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.

But after six months on the job, she was allowed to take Argosy courses for free. That's when she discovered she'd aided a bait-and-switch. Many of the features she heralded to students were barely functional or didn't exist. The Worldwide Professionals Network, where students could find graduate mentors in their field, was nothing more than a bulletin board. Promised MP3 downloads of classes also didn't exist.

Worse, the classes themselves had less content than a political sound bite. "When I saw what they were passing off as college, I was appalled and mortified," Bittel says. "I'm a fabulous salesman if I believe in my product. But I was blown out of the water. I couldn't sell it anymore."

On the sales floor, she would soon go from golden child to problem student. Managers threatened to fire her. She protested that she'd excelled at EDMC's other barometers, like leadership, calls made and conversations engaged. None of that mattered, they told her.

"Those are just put in there because the law says we're not allowed to pay you directly," she recalls her boss saying. "We don't look at those. Those don't really matter. The only thing that matters is how many bodies you bring in."

Bittel wasn't the only worker feeling the pressure. A man she carpooled with would cry on the way home.

"If you weren't unscrupulous, you struggled," she says. "Half the people I worked with, their previous job was in the mortgage industry. They targeted people in that industry.... They were the ones that did the best because they were so unscrupulous."

She eventually transferred to EDMC's career-placement department, where the same deceit wore a different outfit.

She was supposed to help Art Institute grads find jobs. But the school was churning out students with abysmal portfolios — if they had one at all.

She was also supposed to generate stats on how many of them found employment in their fields. The numbers were used to not only sell future students, but by accreditors in maintaining a program's standing. So EDMC, she says, was prepared to rig these stats by any means necessary.

Bittel's boss liked to say that "every student is placeable. It's all a matter of technique." This "technique," she says, involved convincing people to sign affidavits saying they were employed in their field. She witnessed cases where someone with a degree in video-game design was counted as working in his field because he sold video games at Toys "R" Us. She was told to convince a Starbucks clerk that making the menu sign each day was using her graphics-design degree.

Once, Bittel saw a coworker lying on a form about a graduate's salary. The same employee showed her how to doctor e-mails so that students' replies favored the Art Institute. Both times she reported the scams to her boss. But instead of being fired, the coworker soon received EDMC's North Star Award for exceptional performance.

EDMC is hardly alone in its transgressions. Two years ago, the feds conducted a sting on for-profit colleges, with investigators masquerading as prospective students. They tested the sales practices of fifteen schools. Four encouraged outright fraud. They were all found to be deceptive.


Congress Sees No Evil

In the age of austerity, you'd think Congress would be anxious to root out waste, especially after allowing mortgage fraud to decimate the economy. But money talks loudly enough to make any congressman hard of hearing. So despite a twenty-year history of fraud and failure, for-profit colleges appear as bulletproof as ever.

Washington's been aware of the racket since Sam Nunn, a Democratic U.S. senator from Georgia, held high-profile hearings in 1992 demonstrating how for-profits were recruiting students from welfare offices, housing projects and homeless shelters — anything to get bodies through the door. They were subsequently barred from paying salespeople based on enrollment.

It would take just a decade for Washington to eviscerate these protections. In 2002, President George W. Bush created a series of loopholes and announced that violators would no longer be punished.

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