A librarian at a southern California campus of Everest College abruptly resigned last week, deeply upset that the for-profit school had admitted into its criminal justice program a 37-year-old man who appears to read at a third grade level. The man, who shakes, speaks haltingly, and may suffer from a developmental disability, told the librarian he expected to be a police officer after completing the program. But the librarian, Laurie McConnell, is certain he can never obtain such a job.
McConnell, who had been devoting much of her time at work to helping the student with his reading assignments, wrote to the campus’s president on May 21 that the student would be “impossible to place in the field” and had “no idea of the ramifications of signing the enrollment agreement” at Everest. But the president, Richard Mallow, did not give her a response. McConnell quit on May 27, four days after she first contacted me to say that the student was “being defrauded” by Everest. “He breaks my heart,” she told me, “and I feel completely helpless.”
Everest is owned by for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges, which is facing a lawsuit for fraud by the attorney general of California and is under investigation by 17 other state attorneys general and four federal agencies. Kent Jenkins, vice president for public affairs and communications at Corinthian, told me today that the campus believed it was appropriate to take a chance on admitting the student. He also raised the possibility (see below) that Corinthian would refund some or all of the student’s costs if he ended up dropping out.
Corinthian in recent years has received as much as $1.46 billion annually in taxpayer money, about 83 percent of its total revenue. That $1.46 billion represents nearly 4.5 percent of the colossal $33 billion that for-profit colleges have been getting annually from federal student aid.
Some of Corinthian’s current revenue comes from the Ontario, California, student, whose name I won’t publish because I want to protect his privacy and dignity. I’ll refer to him as “Tom.” The two-year Everest associates degree program in criminal justice costs about $45,000, and “Tom,” who enrolled two months ago, has taken out federal student loans to help cover the costs beyond the federal grant aid he receives. McConnell and a current employee of the Everest Ontario Metro campus who has spoken with “Tom” each told me they do not believe he understands that he will have loan obligations when he leaves Everest. The current employee asked to remain anonymous because of concern about losing her job.
Like Laurie McConnell, this current employee was disturbed by her school’s enrollment of “Tom.” “It’s so obvious he is being exploited,” she told me. When she spoke with “Tom” and realized that he did not grasp the debt obligations he had accepted, she “got choked up.” She told me late last week that she had just gone to cash her paycheck and “I felt like it was blood money.”
Everest’s criminal justice program
According to the school’s website, the criminal justice program at the Ontario Metro campus of Everest College “is designed to prepare you for a career in corrections, probation, immigration, and security administration. Through our comprehensive program, you can gain the skills necessary to maintain law and order, protect life and property, and conduct administration, planning, and research services.” The site adds that “Some career opportunities include” corrections officer, security officer, and social worker assistant. Graduates receive an Associate of Science (AS) Degree in Criminal Justice.
The Everest website’s required disclosure page states that the 96-week criminal justice program costs $40,000 in tuition and fees plus $4,783 for books and supplies. The same disclosure page reports that the program’s job placement rate as calculated for purposes of the school’s private accrediting body is 67 percent, but the placement rate pursuant to the stricter guidelines of the state of California is only 20 percent.
Notwithstanding those mixed results, many instructors and staff at the Ontario Metro campus clearly do care about their students and want them to succeed. And that is why, according to the current employee with whom I spoke, staff at the school are “up in arms” about the school’s admission of “Tom,” a student who almost certainly cannot obtain the job he seeks but who would be left with the large amount of student loan debt from the program, whether he completes it or not.
One of the biggest concerns about for-profit colleges has been that, in order to keep revenues increasing, they have accepted large numbers of students whom they likely know will be unable to succeed in the program and in the relevant job market. The student may drop out quickly, or gain few skills even while graduating, but the school will have deposited the student’s grant and loan checks. Investigations of the industry, especially Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) comprehensive report, chronicle a boiler room recruiter culture, with a relentless drive to put “asses in classes,” regardless of the impact on students.
McConnell says she has “no qualifications to teach special ed” but, out of concern for “Tom,” volunteered to spend hours one-on-one helping him to read his assignments. It was very slow going. Tom struggles over simple words.
I’ve heard “Tom” speak and read. He talks slowly, with hesitation, his words difficult to understand.
On “Tom”‘s Facebook page, he posts pictures of video games, and one-word status updates indicating visits to Jack in the Box, Donut Palace, and other fast food outlets. He posted about 7-Eleven holding a free pizza contest, with a jumbled comment urging people to enter. A posted photo shows him, apparently shirtless, staring into the camera, with an ungrammatical caption expressing his interest in having a girlfriend. Other posts indicate that he has signed up with a direct marketing sales company. And there’s an obscene status update, which from its text I suspect was the result of someone hijacking his device or account to play a cruel trick; it’s been posted since 2012. “Tom” also has posted profiles on a dating site, where he describes himself through misspelled words. Where he is asked to fill in his “Political Affiliation,” “Tom” writes that he doesn’t know what that means. (His actual responses are more sadly evocative than these descriptions, but I’m trying to prevent the curious from Googling to track “Tom” down. Please — don’t.)
According to one of “Tom”‘s two LinkedIn profiles, he obtained his high school diploma in 1995 from a school in the Ontario area. How he was able to get his high school degree would seem like a separate story about the public school system. It’s possible the school utilized an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for disabled students. “Tom” also completed a few classes at nearby Chaffey community college.
According to McConnell, Mallow, the campus president, was telling staff that it would have been “discrimination to not accept ["Tom"].”
On May 21, McConnell emailed Mallow:
I wanted to let you know that I have been working extensively with ["Tom"], and I am very concerned about him. He will be impossible to place in the field, as you probably know, he wants to be a police officer. He does not have the mental capacity to achieve this goal. He does not have a driver’s license and cannot read beyond 3rd, maybe 4th grade level.
I spent two hours reading with him on Friday, and, in that time, we got through about 5 sentences. He rarely is able to comprehend the sentences we’ve read, and most of the words in his textbook are well beyond his ability. He is also unable to sound words out effectively. Our time together consists of us taking turns reading and then discussing what we read. The majority of the time he is unable to fully comprehend the meanings of the sentences. I have found that by the next day he has very little memory of the sentences and words we worked on the day before.
I know there have been concerns regarding discrimination; however, I must tell you that he does not have the ability to read the documents he was asked to sign; therefore, he would have no idea of the ramifications of signing the enrollment agreement.
According to McConnell, when she returned from lunch, her phone showed a call from Mallow. She called him back and left a voicemail. She didn’t hear from him again. At some point after that, Mallow went on vacation. He returned from vacation today, according to Corinthian’s Kent Jenkins.
The current Everest employee told me she is “disgusted… We look to our president to do something, and it’s not happening, and it’s heartbreaking.”
In addition to appealing to Mallow, McConnell twice emailed the California attorney general’s office, which has not yet responded.
“Tom”‘s enrollment at Everest
It’s not clear what motivated “Tom” to show up at Everest this spring seeking to enroll. The school advertises regularly on television in the area, on programs such as “The Wendy Williams Show.” McConnell and the current employee both told me that “Tom” first visited a different Everest campus in Ontario, where he was apparently advised that he should go to the Ontario Metro campus, which that day was hosting a taco truck.
According to McConnell, the Ontario Metro recruiter was concerned about enrolling “Tom” and discussed it with her supervisor, who said it would be discriminatory not to accept him. Mallow “was informed” of the situation, McConnell asserts in an email she sent to the California attorney general’s office, “and did nothing to stop this enrollment. Rather, he signed off on it.” According to McConnell, this recruiter subsequently resigned.
McConnell’s first email to the AG’s office noted that “Tom” took the Wonderlic Scholastic Level Exam and scored a 4. “This is supposed to be the equivalent of a fourth grade education,” she wrote. “Having spent quite a bit of time with him, I feel he is well below the fourth grade level. ["Tom"] does not know how to sign his name in cursive: just block print. He is unable to spell the city he was born in…. If you wonder how he signed his enrollment agreement, it’s all done electronically.”
In a followup email to the AG’s office on May 23, McConnell added, “After working with him extensively for the last 6 weeks, I have found that he cannot read beyond a 3rd grade level. We read some children’s books together, which were fairly difficult for him. He still believes he will be able to be a police officer when he finishes the CJ program. However, the other day he asked me how long school is. He doesn’t understand how the terms work.”
McConnell told the AG’s office that the Everest campus enrolled “Tom” “knowing full well that he is ill-equipped to handle the coursework.” She continued, “The entire campus knows he will be unsuccessful in his attempts at education and, ultimately, becoming a police officer. This is due to no fault of his own-our campus is not equipped to deal with special needs students like ["Tom"]. From what I understand, they figure he’ll SAP out (to be put on academic probation and eventually be dropped). This is not a one-term process. They know that it could take several terms for this to occur and; therefore, he will owe over $10,000.” She added, “The outcome for him will be defaulting on his loans and the loss of any hope of getting his degree. However, the campus president is telling everyone that it is discrimination to not accept him. To this, I asked how it could possibly be discrimination if he does not understand what he signed. Why had no one asked if he had someone who could act as an advocate?”
In fact, no reasonable interpretation of the applicable law would require a college to admit a developmentally disabled student who is not capable of doing the coursework. The relevant federal laws, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibit a college from denying access to people with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to carry out the requirements of the academic program, or could do so with reasonable accommodation by the school. Those laws do not require Everest Ontario Metro campus, nearby California State Polytechnic University, Pomona College, or any other college to admit a developmentally disabled student regardless of that student’s capacity to do the work. Under these laws, colleges are not required to fundamentally change their programs to fit the student, or to make accommodations that would be unduly burdensome either administratively or financially.
Jenkins of Corinthian Colleges cited “Tom”‘s record of graduating from high school and taking some community college classes as evidence of his suitability for enrolling in the criminal justice program: “The student you mention had demonstrated the ability to successfully handle college course work elsewhere before enrolling with us… Any student who enrolls in one of our schools must have a high school diploma or the equivalent. We also determine whether a potential student has previously studied at another school and is employed. When a potential student has a high school diploma, has successfully completed courses at a local community college and has a job, this strongly suggests that the student could succeed at our school.”
I told Jenkins it might have been plausible for campus management to believe that “Tom” could complete the associates’ degree program, with extensive help from the school, and perhaps to have some concern, however unwarranted, about a claim of discrimination if he were rejected. But I asked him whether he believed, having watched a video of “Tom” that I brought to his attention, that “Tom” could ever be a police officer, which he told Everest staff was his reason for enrolling. After a pause, Jenkins told me he couldn’t say for sure.
McConnell and the current Everest employee spoke with “Tom” and concluded that he did not understand that he would owe additional funds for his student loans beyond the $130 to $196 monthly payments he has been making while enrolled.
When McConnell raised her concerns with her direct supervisor in a staff meeting, a week or two after “Tom” enrolled, the supervisor replied, according to McConnell, “Look at it this way, someone else could be taking advantage of him. At least we know he’s safe here.”
McConnell reports that several weeks ago “Tom” arrived at the campus and attempted to drop out. “He told the receptionist that he could not afford the program because of his bills,” McConnell wrote. The receptionist tried to find a staff member to speak with “Tom.” However, McConnell wrote, “after being unable to speak with anyone about this, he stayed enrolled.” Jenkins says he has no information to indicate that “Tom” had attempted to withdraw.
McConnell says she spent most of her time at work toward the end of her time there trying to help “Tom” to prepare for a quiz, but “Tom” simply could not comprehend the material. When she raised her concern with “Tom”‘s course instructor, the teacher replied, “Don’t worry about it; he will pass.” McConnell told me that two of “Tom”‘s instructors had designed a special test for him, one they thought he might be able to pass. The current Everest employee told me that at least some of “Tom”‘s instructors “are trying their best” to help “Tom,” are “really concerned,” and have themselves sent emails to the campus president expressing that.
Jenkins told me that the Everest campus had provided a tutor who has been working with Tom: “When we find a student is having difficulty with his or her course load, we provide that student with tutoring and carefully monitor that student’s progress. To remain on our rolls, the student must earn passing grades.”
McConnell and the current employee both acknowledge that “Tom”‘s experience at the Everest campus has its positive aspects — he gets personal attention and the opportunity to feel part of something. But they say that such assistance could be provided for far less than $45,000 and without the cruel joke of leading him to believe he will achieve his dream of becoming a police officer.
Before walking out of the door for good, McConnell says, she told her supervisor, “What you’re doing is wrong; it’s making me sick.”
The same day that she quit, May 27, an Everest human resources employee called McConnell, and left a voicemail saying the school wants her back and offering to make “Tom” “whole,” if that would persuade her to return.
There is no doubt that “Tom”‘s situation has now gotten the attention of Everest management. Late on May 27, the deadline for the public to submit comments to the Obama Administration on its proposed “gainful employment” rule to regulate career education programs, I filed and published my own comment, which made a brief reference, based on my discussions with McConnell, to a “mentally disabled student” enrolled in a criminal justice program at “a campus owned by Corinthian Colleges.” Even though Corinthian “owns over 107 campuses across North America,” managers at Everest Ontario Metro became aware of my comment and believed they knew exactly who I was talking about, according to the current employee.
Jenkins suggested to me that Corinthian might make a decision to give “Tom” some or all of his money back if he doesn’t succeed in the program. He subsequently provided a written statement that says, in part: “The student … has been endeavoring to complete classes at our school and can withdraw at limited or no personal financial cost. We are offering the student an opportunity to succeed in class and we are not burdening the student financially…. The student … has been enrolled with us for less than two months and has not completed an academic period. A student in the early stages of his or her studies has not incurred major financial obligations; at this point, the total amount of tuition paid or loans taken is comparatively modest. We also have the ability to wave all tuition payments in unique individual situations.”
This is not even an unequivocal promise to refund “Tom”‘s money if he does not succeed in the program. It also does not say that the school was considering such a refund before I made my inquiry.
Everest / Corinthian’s troubling record
Based in Santa Ana, California, Corinthian Colleges has perhaps the most troubling record of any of the large, publicly-traded for-profit college companies. Corinthian, which operates Heald and WyoTech colleges, as well as Everest, faces a major lawsuit filed in 2013 by the California attorney general, Kamala Harris. The suit charges that Corinthian has engaged in “false and predatory advertising, intentional misrepresentations to students, securities fraud and unlawful use of military seals in advertisements.” Corinthian is also under investigation by a group of sixteen state attorneys general (Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and Pennsylvania) into its recruiting and business practices, and now faces a separate lawsuit, filed in April, by Massachusetts AG Martha Coakley.
Federal investigators also are probing Corinthian. In June 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a subpoena to the company concerning student recruitment, degree completion, job placement, loan defaults and compliance with U.S. Education Department rules. In September 2013 Corinthian reported that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating claims that the company violated the False Claims Act with respect to its recruiting and financial aid practices and by, among other things, manipulating attendance records to keep federal aid for students no longer in attendance. In December 2013, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau notified Corinthian that it expected to pursue legal action against the company for violation of federal laws with respect to private students loans.
And in January, even the U.S. Department of Education, whose enforcement efforts have generally failed to address for-profit colleges abuses, moved toward taking tough measures with Corinthian, saying in a letter to the company that there were signs of “systematic deficiencies” in its operations and charging that the company “has admitted to falsifying placement rates and/or grad and attendance records at various institutions and because of ongoing state and federal investigations into serious allegations.”
Jenkins’s statement to me defended Corinthian’s record:
There is clear, objective evidence that Corinthian Colleges offers our students a quality education and treats our students honestly and fairly. This is true for our students overall and for the individual student you mention…. Overall, the facts show that Corinthian helps its students succeed in the classroom and the workplace….
· According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, Corinthian’s schools have an overall graduation rate of 61 percent. Community colleges nationwide have a graduation rate of less than 20 percent.
· Corinthian’s most recent companywide, three-year cohort default rate is 19 percent. For community colleges nationwide, the cohort default rate is 21 percent.
· In 2013, Corinthian’s schools had an overall job placement rate of 69 percent. Community colleges do not track job placement.
But Jenkins’ statement does not mention that the costs of a bad outcome at Corinthian are far greater than those at a community college. The in-state annual tuition for students at nearby Chaffey, a community college, is $1,104, whereas the annual tuition for Everest’s criminal justice program is more than $20,000.
Corinthian fared poorly under a trial run of an earlier version of the gainful employment rule, which would take away eligibility for federal student grants and loans from schools whose graduates and dropouts are consistently unable to repay their student loans. Schools with high prices and poor records of training and placing students tend to flunk the gainful employment test, because their students borrow too much and earn too little after leaving.
Corinthian is a member of the for-profit college trade association APSCU, which is led by former congressman Steve Gunderson (R-WI) and is leading the opposition to the gainful employment rule. Corinthian itself also spent $310,000 in the first quarter of 2014 for its own lobbying team, including former congressman Vic Fazio (D-CA) from the law firm Akin Gump.
Current members of the Corinthian Colleges board of directors include National Urban League CEO Marc Morial and Sharon P. Robinson, CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Leon Panetta joined the Corinthian board for a second stint after serving as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, but he quit just eleven weeks later after a couple of writers (including me) criticized him. Major institutional investors in Corinthian include Wells Fargo Bank and Graham Holdings, the company run by Donald Graham that until last year also owned the Washington Post newspaper. Corinthian’s CEO, Jack Massimino, received just over $3 million in compensation last year.
In the face of revelations of abuses at Corinthian and in the for-profit college industry generally, the company has seen declining enrollments, and its stock price has plummeted. On its most recent call with investors, the company raised the possibility of being acquired by another business or selling some of its components. Market analysts see an increasingly bleak future for the company. One research company concluded in a report to investors in February, “Simply put, we believe management is running out of options.”
But instead of implementing reforms to improve Corinthian, the company’s admission of a student who cannot possibly succeed in his chosen career field suggests that at least some of its units may be continuing to pursue a strategy of signing up as many students as possible, and banking taxpayer money, without regard for the consequences. Such behavior highlights the urgent need for the Obama Administration to issue a strong gainful employment rule that would compel for-profit colleges like Corinthian to promptly improve their performance and their conduct, or else lose taxpayer aid.
This article also appears on Huffington Post.