April 19, 2016

Troubled For-Profit Colleges ‘Eager to Assist’-Enroll-Students of Shut-Down School


The headline of a Kansas City Star article posted today reads, “Some private for-profit schools come to the aid of former Wright Career College students; Vatterott Educational Centers, Brown Mackie College and National American University offer assistance.”

The article includes this passage:

One of the schools reaching out to Wright students is St. Louis-based Vatterott Educational Centers. It said it will consider credit transfers for former Wright students in five markets — the Kansas City area, Wichita, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Omaha.

“We are saddened to see the impact of Wright Career College’s closure on its students,” Rene Crosswhite, Vatterott’s chief executive, said in a statement. “We are eager to assist (them) in meeting their goals and completing their education.”

The article adds that the Kansas Board of Regents staff is “talking with other colleges, including National American University and Brown Mackie College, about Wright course credit transfers.”

Kansas-based Wright Career College shut down suddenly last week and filed for bankruptcy, leaving in educational limbo about 1,000 students in five cities.  Wright is a non-profit college, but it has been accused by its students of fraud and misrepresentation, in a lawsuit that the school’s operators called “absurd.”  Wright is accredited by the controversial Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), which has developed a record of ignoring problems at some of the worst for-profit schools.

What the Star article doesn’t mention is that the schools so “eager to assist” these Wright students have inflicted plenty of harm on some of their own enrollees.

Vatterott College, owned by TA Associates, has a controversial record.

In 2014, a Missouri appeals court upheld a jury verdict against Vatterott for deceiving a single mom, Jennifer Kerr. A jury in Jackson County, MO, had awarded Kerr $27,676 in actual damages and $13 million in punitive damages; the trial judge cut the punitive award to about $2 million because state law caps these awards.

Kerr, from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, saw Vatterott’s TV ads and visited the campus in 2009 to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.  A Vatterott recruiter told Kerr that the school didn’t have a nursing program, but it did offer a medical assistant’s degree. With that credential, the recruiter said, Kerr could make $15 to $17 an hour, and her Vatterott credits would transfer to a nursing program and put her on the “fast track” to being a nurse. But after signing for more than $27,000 in loans and being in the program for over a year, Kerr discovered that her program wasn’t a medical assistant program at all — it was a medical office assistant program. You might not need college for that. Vatterott staff then told her that a medical assistant’s degree would require more classes and another $10,000.

Jennifer Kerr was not the first student to be deceived by Vatterott College.

The 2010-2012 comprehensive investigation of the for-profit college industry by then-Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) obtained internal training documents from Vatterottthat seemed to instruct recruiters  to use exploitative tactics: “We deal with people that live in the moment and for the moment. Their decision to start, stay in school or quit school is based more on emotion than logic. Pain is the greater motivator in the short term.”  Another Vatterott document described the target market for recruiters: “We serve the UN-DER world, Unemployed, Underpaid, Unsatisfied, Unskilled, Unprepared, Unsupported, Unmotivated, Unhappy, Underserved!”

After Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, it was often reported that the young man was on the verge of attending college.  Less well known was the name and type of school that had signed him up and was ready to cash his federal financial aid checks: It was for-profit Vatterott.

Vatterott’s recruiting abuses have led to bad outcomes for enrolled students. The percentage of Vatterott students who default on their student loans within three years of dropping out or graduating has been a very-high 26.6 percent. In 2012, eight of Vatterott’s 39 programs failed all three initial tests of the Obama administration’s “gainful employment” rule, which established bare minimum standards to penalize schools that consistently leave their students with insurmountable debt.  Student bulletin boards are full of complaints about the quality of a Vatterott education.

In 2009 and 2010, three top Vatterott executives pleaded guilty to a criminal conspiracy to fraudulently obtain federal student grants and loans for ineligible students in 2005-06 by providing false general equivalency diplomas (GEDs) and doctoring financial aid forms.

Meanwhile, another of the schools reportedly in touch with the Kansas regents regarding accepting Wright students is Brown Mackie College, owned by Education Management Corporation (EDMC). EDMC is the second-largest for-profit chain and one with its own long trail of deceptive practices and abuses of students.

Sending students from one questionable career college to another is an approach that has appealed to failing schools, which wants to cut its losses, and to receiving for-profit schools, which are not just “eager” but desperate for new students in an era of rapidly declining enrollments for this disgraced sector. Unfortunately, both state and federal authorities, anxious to find a quick solution, have been complicit.

When for-profit Corinthian Colleges abruptly shut down last year under the weight of allegations of deceptive acts, the U.S. Department of Education was advising students that they could transfer to a number of other troubled for-profit colleges, including Bridgepoint’s Ashford University, Graham Holdings’ Kaplan University, Apollo’s University of Phoenix, DeVry, Career Education Corp’s American InterContinental University, Education Management Corp.’s The Art Institutes, and Alta Colleges’ Westwood College. The Department eventually modified its list, but only after twelve state attorneys general and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) complained.

Community colleges and other institutions would make a valuable contribution to addressing this situation if they developed and enhanced efforts to absorb and train some of this student population — and accept the credits they have earned already.

The career college student population — low-income single parents, returning veterans, and others struggling to build better lives — deserve better than to be treated like refugees, moving from failed state to failed state, descending deeper into poverty, confusion, and hopelessness.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article said Wright Career College was a for-profit institution. I knew, but somehow forgot, that Wright is a non-profit. I regret the error, and I have updated the headline and text to correct it.

This article also appears on Huffington Post.