April 12, 2023

Predatory Abuses Continue At Keiser University

Predatory Abuses Continue At Keiser University

Arthur Keiser, a Florida college operator who has received hundreds of millions in income from your tax dollars, has been aggressively litigating in the federal courts, including now at the U.S. Supreme Court, to prevent the federal government from implementing a settlement agreement that cancels the federal loans of former students of his schools who claim they were defrauded. Keiser publicly insists the planned student debt relief for his own former students, as well as students at 149 other schools with questionable records, is unjust because, he says, “There’s no evidence of misconduct” at his schools.

But new accounts from recent employees indicate that, in fact, predatory misconduct at Keiser’s schools continues to the present.

Keiser’s schools offer programs ranging from health care to business, criminal justice to culinary arts, and have some 20,000 students enrolled at campuses across the entire state of Florida, in North Carolina and South Carolina, in China and Nicaragua, as well as in programs online. We recently reminded our readers, in the face of Keiser’s claim that his schools are absolutely innocent, that his flagship Keiser University has settled cases with Florida’s attorney general and with the U.S. Justice Department over alleged illegal student recruiting practices, and that the Internal Revenue Service imposed penalties after it found that Arthur Keiser improperly charged rents above fair market value for properties he leased to Keiser University, the non-profit school he runs.

In 2020, we published an extensive investigative report describing numerous troubling issues at Keiser’s schools. Relying on accounts from more than fifteen current and former Keiser officials and employees, as well as Keiser students, we wrote about the troubling overlap of personnel and resources between non-profit Keiser University and Southeastern College, a smaller for-profit school owned by Arthur Keiser and his wife Belinda; about questionable business dealings between Keiser University and the Keisers and other board members; about recruiting abuses and academic failings at Keiser schools; and about personal misconduct by Keiser officials.

Last year, senior Democrats in Congress, including senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and the then-chairs of the House Veterans Affairs and House Education and Labor committees, called on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Keiser’s schools. And last November, the Department determined that Keiser University’s accreditor, SACS, was out of compliance with numerous federal regulations and directed it to provide more information regarding its oversight of Keiser University and that school’s conversion to non-profit status. Keiser, whose regular campaign donations and spending on Washington lobbyists has helped secure the fealty of some key Washington politicians, such as current House Education and the Workforce chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC), was not happy about that.

Keiser is also clearly displeased about the possibility of some of his former students getting some of their debts canceled. But now there is even more to report about abuses at Arthur Keiser’s schools, based on accounts from numerous former employees, most of whom worked at the schools recently, and all of whom ultimately declined to be named in this article, citing concerns for their careers:

(1) aggressive, predatory recruiting at Keiser University, including recruiting for the school’s online division of low-income people seemingly unprepared for college programs, and recruiting to campus-based health care programs people with insufficient English language skills to understand the course work; and

(2) the steering of students at North Carolina-based non-profit St. Andrews University, where Arthur Keiser gained influence, into taking some of their courses online at Keiser University.

Predatory recruiting in the Keiser U. online division and at campuses

A former Keiser employee contacted me late last year after spending a little more than a year as an admissions representative for the school’s undergraduate online division. “The school is completely corrupt and preys on students,” he wrote me. What he described when we got on the phone sounded like the high-pressure sales, boiler room operations of notorious online for-profit schools like ITT Tech and American Intercontinental University.

In the admissions office, the ex-rep says, staff would get names and contact information for prospective students, often obtained from third-party lead generation operations, and call, seeking to enroll them. The person on the other end often said something like “Why are you calling me? I already got called by twenty schools.” Some said they already had asked not to be called again.

Managers claimed  to reps that the people whom they were calling had reached out to Keiser University for information, but, says the ex-rep, instead “it’s people who accidentally clicked on a button.” Some prospects did say they were responding to Keiser ads blasting on Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok.

The ex-rep quickly realized his job was less education and more telemarketing. “The leads are crap, the calls are crap,” he says.

The Keiser University online students were not concentrated in Florida, where the school’s ground campuses are, but instead were spread across the country. The ex-rep estimated that at least 70 percent of the students he enrolled were Black. Many were single mothers with three or four kids. Some were older people in their 70’s and 80’s.

“I would google some of the cities” where the prospects lived, the rep says. “Towns of 1000 people. We target people with no money and charge way more for school than what we should.”

The programs most heavily pitched by Keiser online reps, he says, were medical billing and coding, then medical assisting, and then psychology.

A supervisor told the rep that even if a prospect did not seem like a good fit for a program, tell them they are anyway. The rep says the supervisor also “told me to tell recruits things that weren’t true – like you need a criminal justice degree to get a job with TSA or Border Patrol. Not true.”

Keiser also has a “Legal Studies” program offering a bachelors degree, not the kind of law degree that allows students to take the bar exam and practice law.  According to the Keiser University website, the program “trains students for careers in law and law-related fields (business, government and criminal justice) and also prepares students to pursue a law degree.” If students asked if the program was accredited by the American Bar Association, which accredits actual law schools, Keiser reps would say it is accredited by NALA, and “it’s the same thing.” But NALA is an association that provides paralegal certification, not law school accreditation.

Generally, the ex-rep says, “We are not straight-up lying to people.” But the Keiser recruiters told students “vague things – redirecting them.”

Reps told prospects that if they enrolled they would get Microsoft Office software for free, without noting that Microsoft gives the software away free to just about any college student.

If people asked “if it’s a scam school, we said no,” says the rep.

Many reps lacked in-depth knowledge about Keiser programs — unsurprising, perhaps, given that there was high turnover on the admissions team, and that employee training, says the ex-rep, focused on learning recruiting scripts, dialing, and notating prospect responses, rather than on the details of Keiser University academics.

The reps aimed to get students to sign up — to take the school entrance exam and pay the $60 application fee. Then making sure all the enrolled students showed up for class. To do so, they gave the newly-enrolled students little tasks to keep them engaged, like checking in with the financial aid office about their loans, and visiting the online school bookstore, because, he says, “if they have time to think about it they might not move forward.” As long as the students logged in to Keiser’s Blackboard app, they were locked in for four months of payments. His supervisor stayed on him to get the students to log in.

The reps came to believe they needed to get four or five such “starts” — new enrollments — every 30 days, with classes at Keiser online starting every 30 days. If you didn’t hit that mark, the ex-rep says, you would “be afraid you would be fired.”

If you got an enrollment, the ex-rep says, “that felt good, because they left you alone” for a while.

There was a “leader board,” regularly sent to admissions team members by group email — I reviewed one of them — listing team members by the number of enrollments they had obtained. In the message, a manager wrote to reps, “In admissions, there aren’t any short cuts. We have to conduct out reach via call, text, email to reach our students. There aren’t short cuts to the conversations we need to have.” The manager added, “Our purpose is to inspire and make an impact to each student we come in contact with. We have one chance to make a lasting impression.”

Recruiters did not get commissions for each enrollment — federal law prohibits that, although Keiser University in 2015 settled a whistleblower lawsuit alleging the school was paying such commissions. But they got raises, the ex-rep says, based on performance, basically making numbers. “Is that OK,” he asked me, “for a nonprofit?”

The reps sat in three-wall cubicles, wired in to headsets. Keiser stopped using an autodial system, the ex-rep says, “because we were calling people five or six times a day,” which seemed like overkill. (There is now a class action lawsuit, recently moved from federal court to state court after Keiser lawyers failed to get it dismissed, alleging that Keiser University has engaged in aggressive robocalling.) Instead the Keiser admissions reps used dialing portal software: “You just press F2” on the computer keyboard to call a prospect. The result was that reps were still calling recruits five or six times a day, just doing it semi-manually. Reps used another program, TextLane, to pursue prospects via text message.

Reps were subjected to call reviews by supervisors, who listened to calls between reps and prospects and asked, What could you have done different? Reps were told, you should find out more about the prospects. How do the prospects know they can’t afford attending Keiser? One supervisor, addressing prospects’ objections about the high cost of tuition, said, Tell them they can take another job, cancel cable or gym membership, take on debt.

As to the actual cost of tuition, the ex-rep says that on the calls, “We never told them the price until the end of the script.”

The rep spoke with a man who worked as a baggage handler at JFK airport in New York. He was making $25 an hour. He asked about medical assisting. The average worker in that field, the rep knew, makes about $15 an hour. “We would tell people,” he said, that a medical assisting degree “will get you into the medical industry.”

The rep talked with his supervisors about an article that I had published on this website, detailing problems and abuses at the Keiser schools. They told him not to worry, because “stuff like this goes away.”

When the rep checked on students he had enrolled, he found that most of them had dropped out.

The Keiser supervisors made sure there was “fun stuff in office, pot luck, halloween decorations.” But there was still a “big problem with morale.”  The job was “high pressure sales, but  without the commission.” Of the admissions team on which the rep served, he said, “Everyone is miserable…everyone kept quitting.”

This rep saw Arthur Keiser, Keiser University’s “Chancellor and CEO,” walking around the office and arriving at the campus parking lot in a shiny Porsche. The rep also saw Belinda Keiser, the school’s Vice Chancellor, in the offices.

The ex-rep says he “felt guilty” about his work for Keiser. He even helped one prospect enroll over the phone — not at Keiser but at a more affordable state school.

The rep quit within a year.

A former Keiser executive, who also requested anonymity, echoed the ex-recruiter’s points. At Keiser online, “It’s not admissions; it’s a telemarketing job.” Arthur Keiser, he says, was watching primarily online schools, like the non-profit Southern New Hampshire University, expand and thrive financially. This executive believes Keiser reacts to such success by getting “jealous,” upset that he is “leaving money on the table.”

The largest online program at Keiser, the former school executive says, is its associates degree in medical assisting.  The jobs in that field, as noted, tend to pay around $15 an hour.  Students don’t need a two-year associates degree to get these jobs, he says; a lower-cost nine-to-twelve-month certificate will do. But Keiser can make more money steering the students into its AA program, which is padded with English, math, and history classes that are easier versions of the classes that many other Keiser University students take. Students in the program are required to find their own medical externships, which the school must approve. But, he says, it’s hard to verify that the students are really getting the hands-on training they need.

Instructors at Keiser campuses tell me the school enrolls in its healthcare programs numerous individuals unlikely to succeed in the program or the field, including some foreign-born students who struggle to speak and understand English, leaving them deep in debt and without the careers they sought. “Obviously they didn’t care about the students,” one instructor says. “They just wanted the federal dollars.”

When students couldn’t pass their national board exams, management blamed the faculty.

More recently, some campus officials have admitted Keiser has been enrolling students that its health programs weren’t equipped to assist. There has been turmoil in the Florida nursing school world, not only because of recent federal prosecutions of for-profit college owners for selling fake degrees, but also because the pass rate of Florida nursing students on the NCLEX national nursing license exam has repeatedly been awful — in fact, last in the nation. That reality is forcing some health schools to stop chasing enrollments so recklessly, lest their exam passage rate get even worse and they get in trouble with oversight agencies. It also may have been the impetus for Governor Ron DeSantis to suddenly invest $125 million in nursing education and to replace the membership of the state board governing career education — including the board’s long-time chair, Peter Crocitto, who is Executive Vice Chancellor and COO at Keiser University and Arthur Keiser’s lieutenant for decades.

Keiser University tuition and fees can average around $30,000 a year — about three times the cost, for in-state residents, of the University of Florida, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Students in health care programs there can end up with upwards of $65,000 in debt. Some students max out their federal loans, and Keiser staff often advise them to take out higher-interest private loans.

Keiser University converted from a for-profit college to a non-profit in 2011, in a deal so troubling and advantageous to Arthur Keiser that it made the front page of the New York Times and eventually led to penalties imposed by the IRS. Despite the conversion, the same instructor feels, “it’s not a nonprofit.” Rather, he says, “it’s all about the money.”

“To see our classes packed with students who couldn’t do the work — you could tell the first week — it’s sad,” he says. He adds, regarding Keiser’s fees, “What they were charging, that shouldn’t be allowed.”

Another former admissions representative, who worked at one of the school’s south Florida ground campuses, contacted me. He had quit in 2021 after about two years at Keiser.

Reps there were directed by supervisors to push students into programs they hadn’t asked for. “If a student said they wanted graphic design or art, we would steer them” into something else, because, “they didn’t have that, at least on our campus.” He described the process as “savage… sales-based… unethical.”

The leads at his campus, says this rep, came from a variety of sources — Facebook ads, third party websites, pitches tailored to students looking for living expenses. The campus president told reps to step up on their calls, asking, “Do you know how much we spend on these leads?”

The reps would use phone solicitations to try to get prospects to come to campus for a high-pressure pitch.

During the pandemic, reps worked from home and were expected to use their own computers. When this rep couldn’t load the Keiser network software on his personal laptop, the school loaned him a worn-out old Lenovo model. In the office, some desktop computers were also old, from the early 2000’s.

This ex-rep got COVID. “I was sleeping 14 hours, fever, no taste or smell,” he recalls. “I told them I was sick.” His director told him to “take a little nap, take a break.” A co-worker was in the hospital with COVID.

Keiser supervisors directed recruiters at that campus to return full-time in May 2020, while the pandemic was still raging.

The pressure from supervisors to make numbers was strong, especially just before campus classes started every four months. The situation, he says, was “intense and toxic.” Management would “treat people like numbers, fire people like they don’t matter.” Faced with concerns about staff mental health and stress, managers brought in board games, Jenga, and checkers.

The campus president made disparaging remarks about students, saying they had ADHD and learning disabilities, or that they were “crazy.”

The campus used an entrance exam, but they “rarely turned people away” and often admitted “people who were unlikely to succeed.” A person with low aptitude might be admitted to the nursing program with the expectation that when they faltered they could be pushed to switch to the less-demanding medical assisting program.

Management said the school didn’t have the money for new computers or to replace old desks. But before Arthur Keiser visited campus, they touched up the white paint on the walls.

This rep says he guided a friend away from enrolling at Keiser “because it was so expensive.”

This rep also encountered Arthur Keiser in the parking lot, rolling up in his sports car.

“I’ve worked at dive bars, and mental health clinics,” this former rep says. Keiser University was “by far the most corrupt and toxic place I’ve ever worked.” It “feels like a time bomb.”

Yet another former Keiser admissions rep sent me a picture, which he says he took on the day he quit in 2021, of a chart posted on the wall of this office at Keiser admissions. It’s titled “Contact Strategy,” and the ex-rep explained, “It’s the contact strategy on how to contact one single person. We are expected to call them 21 times – that’s borderline harassment.” He said the same chart was in the employee manual provided when he was hired.

Predatory Abuses Continue At Keiser University

The former Keiser executive called the document proof that Keiser recruiters, to get the enrollments expected of them, “need to slam that phone like there’s no tomorrow.”

A former Keiser campus president reached out to discuss his experience.  He said admissions was “run like a car dealership — the worst boiler room environment I have ever seen.” The school, he says, enrolled convicted felons into programs where a felony conviction would mean “you couldn’t get those jobs.”

Campus presidents, he said, were required to email Arthur Keiser a “Hot Spot” update every day by 9 am, reporting whether there was anything on campus that, as this former president put it, “could lead to negative attention.”

“They were so obsessed with negative publicity,” he says.

Keiser would give campus instructors his business card, suggesting they were free to call him personally. But if an instructor called, the campus president would get a complaint from a Keiser lieutenant: Why the fuck is your instructor calling Art?

After a 2o11 undercover investigation by the federal Government Accountability Office exposed deceptive recruiting at for-profit colleges, he recalls, he was permitted to curb predatory practices at the campus.  Staff “stopped cheating on the Wonderlic” student entrance exam, and they sometimes warned prospective students about debt.

After such changes, more of the admitted students were capable of doing the work. People were happier on campus, he says. One colleague told him, you’ve actually made this an enjoyable place, I used to dread coming here.

But the bottom line from these changes was what really mattered. “Our enrollments went down,” he said. This campus president was fired.

Steering of St. Andrews students to Keiser U. classes

In February 2021, we reported that Arthur Keiser had quietly gained influence over a non-profit liberal arts school, St. Andrews University, based in Laurinburg, North Carolina. Keiser University made multi-million dollar contributions to St. Andrews’s parent school, Webber International University. The Webber board of trustees was replaced, mostly with people connected to Arthur Keiser. A senior Keiser University official, Ellen Bernhardt, was installed as the interim St. Andrews president even as she remained a Keiser employee. And St. Andrews created satellite campuses in North Carolina and South Carolina, at the same locations of campuses of Southeastern College, the for-profit owned by Keiser.

In trying to figure out why Arthur Keiser wanted influence at St. Andrews, we speculated, for one thing, on the benefits that could flow from using St. Andrews’s status as a traditional non-profit school to steer students to for-profit Southeastern. But it turns out that there also was a plan to direct St. Andrews students into taking classes at Keiser University, in its online division.

Multiple former St. Andrews faculty members tell me, and school records reflect, that, in 2020, while Bernhardt was president, she told a faculty executive committee meeting that St. Andrews students who were failing their classes could enroll in four-week online classes at Keiser University, have their failing grades wiped out, and be eligible to pass their courses and get credit.  Faculty members were not eager to implement the provision, and it’s unclear how much it was used. Faculty questions directed to Bernhardt about the details were met with evasive answers. It’s unclear if the St. Andrews arrangement with Keiser University was consistent with Department of Education rules governing such situations.

Keiser’s current relationship with St. Andrews is also unclear.  In January, Ellen Bernhardt abruptly resigned as campus president and left St. Andrews, just days after the arrest of a St. Andrews student and wrestling team member for alleged sexual assaults of three fellow students. The arrest came in the wake of a 2021 lawsuit by another St. Andrews student alleging she was assaulted by a member of the school’s soccer team.

A spokesman for Keiser University, contacted for comment on issues concerning both Keiser University and St. Andrews, asked for written questions, which I provided. He did not respond again.

Keiser’s attempt to block debt relief for former students

Arthur Keiser is now trying to stop the Department of Education from canceling debt relief for his former students through intervention in a court-approved settlement between the Department and former students of numerous for-profit and career colleges. In the case of Sweet v. Cardona, former students claimed they were deceived by their colleges and that the Donald Trump-Betsy DeVos Department of Education unlawfully rejected or ignored their claims for cancellation of their federal student loan debts.

The Biden administration reached a settlement agreement that would provide some $6 billion in debt relief for about 264,000 former students who claim they were deceived by their schools. Keiser’s Keiser University and Everglades University, through their parent organization Everglades College, joined by two for-profit college chains, went to court to object to the agreement, claiming they would be tarred by their inclusion on a list of 151 schools whose aggrieved students would automatically get loan cancellation. These are schools that the administration says have “strong indicia regarding substantial misconduct… whether credibly alleged or in some instances proven, and [a] high rate of class members with applications” to the Department for loan relief.

The students’ lawsuit, brought under a law that allows discharge of student loans where students can show they were deceived by their schools, is separate from the broader initiative by the Biden administration to reduce student loan debt, an effort that was challenged last month in a U.S. Supreme Court argument.

Keiser and the two other schools sought, unsuccessfully, to convince the federal district court in San Francisco to void the entire Sweet settlement and deny debt relief for all the students from all 151 schools, or at least to deny the relief to the former students of their own schools. The court rejected Keiser’s effort, and Keiser appealed, continuing the fight to keep his own former students in debt.

On March 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit dealt Keiser another defeat, refusing to halt debt relief for the schools’ former students pending the court’s review of the appeal. Keiser (supported by 20 Republican state attorneys general) is now trying to get an emergency stay of that decision from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Responses to that petition from the government and the students’ lawyers is due in federal court today.

Keiser/Everglades is represented in the case by lawyer Jesse Panuccio, a former Trump Justice Department official who, in this same lawsuit, represented Betsy DeVos in her lengthy and ultimately successful effort to dodge a deposition by the students’ lawyers.

Arthur Keiser was until recently the chairman of, and remains a member of, NACIQI, the Department of Education’s advisory committee on accreditation, where he has repeatedly complained that the Department has increased its scrutiny of accreditors, including the agencies that accredit his own schools.

UPDATE 04-12-23 11:35 am:

Lawyers for the students in the Sweet case have today filed a brief with the Supreme Court, opposing Keiser’s stay application, as has the Biden administration.

In a statement, Eileen Connor, president of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, called Keiser’s petition to the high court “a desperate attempt to bypass the normal appellate process” and an effort “to distort reality.”

UPDATE 04-13-23:

The U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition filed by Keiser and the two other schools seeking to stay the settlement.

Predatory Abuses Continue At Keiser University