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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. 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 more than $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 the venerated Indiana University.
Worse, subprime degrees from places like ITT and Full Sail typically are 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 defaults on his 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 like QuinStreet, which made its name providing leads to subprime mortgage brokers.
Last month, QuinStreet reached a settlement with 20 state attorneys general who'd accused it of fraud for operating gibill.com. The website was made to look as if it was run by the government to help veterans, but actually it was a lead generator for for-profit colleges.
"The thing that made those lists valuable was the foreknowledge that these were people in dire straits, who were in over their heads and financially desperate, and therefore much more susceptible to a pitch out of the blue," Nassirian says.
The idea is to prey on people's hopes and desires, offering that yellow brick road to the American dream: an education and a better job. Workers are trained to identify emotional weaknesses and exploit them. That's undoubtedly what made Suzanne Lawrence an attractive hire at EDMC. She had a master's in psychology when she went to work for Argosy's online division in Pittsburgh.
"It was really funny because they used a lot of the same skills I was trained to use in grad school as therapeutic skills — like empathy and reflective listening — on the sales floor," Lawrence says. "It was evil and slimy. Your big job was to create trust, make them think you were their friend. The main goal in your first conversation was to find something they called 'the confirmed need,' which was the hot button you were going to push if that person tried to back out on you. Like, 'My dad wasn't really proud of me,' and that's what you write down. You keep that on your file so when you call them and they say, 'I don't want to go,' you say, 'What about your dad? Don't you care about what he thinks anymore?'"
Lawrence worked with more than 2,000 others in a sea of cubicles and an auto-dialer making 500 calls a day. The leads were generally so stale that most calls were no answers, hang-ups or people screaming, "Stop fucking calling me!" Dry-erase scoreboards kept track of everyone's application numbers, horse race–style. Those who sold were loved. Those who didn't were berated, cajoled and threatened, Lawrence says. Managers monitored calls and circled the cubicle bays encouraging workers to "always be closing."
The harsh, boiler-room atmosphere prompted her to make references to Glengarry Glen Ross. No one got it. They were too preoccupied with keeping their jobs.
The pressure prompted all sorts of illicit shenanigans, including falsifying documents, Lawrence says. Salespeople were coached to evade questions about cost and to repeat the lie that "99 percent of our students don't pay anything out-of-pocket to go to school."
She was even instructed to sell online courses to people who didn't own computers. "Tell them to go to the library," her managers would say.
Iraqi War veteran Chris Pantzke was discharged from the Army in 2006 after his convoy was hit by an IED. He suffered from traumatic brain injury, along with post-traumatic stress disorder. The injuries left the former sergeant moody and anxious in closed spaces. Being in a classroom was out of the question.