Bobby Ruffin Jr. was only 14 when a recruiter from Ashford University called. The Birmingham, Mich., boy thought he'd clicked on a link promising help finding money for college. It was actually just a lead generator for the for-profit, online school's sales staff.
At the time, Bobby was an A student. His parents had pulled him from the troubled Detroit schools in hopes that home schooling would deliver something better for their son. He told the recruiter that he wanted to be a doctor. She assured him that Ashford could be a stepping stone to that dream.
Never mind that he was only in the eighth grade.
“She said you'll be working toward a degree as a medical doctor, so when you do graduate high school you're almost there,” Bobby says today. “I'm like, 'This is great, I'm going to talk to my mom.' And she's like, 'No, I wouldn't tell your parents because that would take away from the shock when it happens. If I were you, I'd complete the program, and when graduation comes around let them know. Mom and Dad will be super excited.' “
Admission to Ashford requires a high school diploma or equivalency. So when it came time to fill out the financial aid forms, the recruiter told Bobby to claim that he'd already graduated. He objected, but she insisted “the loan processing company will go back and correct everything.” Still, he left the graduation date blank. Someone filled it in, because Ashford soon was receiving federal student loan money on his behalf.
Of course, it's illegal for kids Bobby's age to receive financial aid. But for-profit colleges haven't always been scrupulous when it comes to raiding the federal treasury. Between student aid and GI Bill programs, most schools receive 90 percent of their revenue from the American taxpayer. And the recruiters — often little more than salesmen paid largely based on how many people they enroll — are driven mercilessly to keep those cash registers ringing.
Students don't get much in return. Though tuition rates can run as high as at America's most esteemed universities, the education generally is substandard. In the end, most kids wind up walking away with a questionable degree bought at top dollar — and a mountain of debt to accompany it.
Bobby took online classes for almost a year. But when he wouldn't endorse Ashford's lying on his financial aid forms, administrators miraculously discovered that he was under 18. Since this left him ineligible for federal aid, Ashford was forced to return his loan money to the feds.
The school wouldn't be eating those costs. Bobby would. Ashford, which declined interview requests for this story, sent him a bill for $13,000.
Last fall, Bobby finally was able to enroll at a real university, Eastern Michigan, where he was named a National Collegiate Scholar. Yet he still owes Ashford. Because that's a private debt, he isn't eligible for deferments while he's in school, and any future wages could be garnished.
Unfortunately, this isn't a scam that targets only the young and naive. The for-profit industry is so rife with deceit, it's been billed as the second coming of the mortgage-loan debacle. And the same people are behind it. Three-quarters of all for-profit students are enrolled at schools owned by Wall Street banks and private equity firms.
All told, they soak $30 billion a year from American taxpayers. But even in the age of slash-and-burn government, Congress has shown no interest in stopping it.
“The problem with the subprime [housing] scam was that it got so big it almost brought down the entire world's economy,” says Barmak Nassirian, a former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “This one's wisely limited to $30 billion a year, which is highly sustainable. In the context of a multitrillion federal budget, that's not even a rounding error.”
Consumer fraud as a business model
You may not know it, but you're sitting on $117,000. That's how much every American is potentially worth in government student aid. Want to attend grad school? Throw in another $114,000.
And as for-profit colleges have discovered, an 18-year-old with 100 large makes for a very easy mark.
In order to get on the gravy train, a school only needs accreditation from some supposedly neutral body. But Congress neglected to say who should do that accrediting, resulting in a system loaded with charlatans. Some agencies have built sturdy reputations over decades. Others are little more than rubber-stamp factories, more geared toward gobbling up members' dues than safeguarding kids.
“It never occurred to [Congress] that as billions of dollars get attached to that, the recognition process, the process would get corrupted,” Nassirian says. “When you say yes, you gain membership dues. After all, you're living off these dues.”
Yet even bargain-bin accreditation takes several years. So the titans of Wall Street found a way around this by purchasing small, failing schools in order to snatch up pre-owned accreditation.
Take Bridgepoint Education. Its majority stockholder is Warburg Pincus, a New York private equity firm. When it needed accreditation for Ashford University, it bought the 85-year-old Franciscan University of the Prairies, a struggling, 300-student religious college in Clinton, Iowa. Overnight, Franciscan was transformed into the online powerhouse Ashford.
Bridgepoint, which also owns the University of the Rockies, grew from just 12,623 students in 2007 to 77,892 in 2010. Its profits also exploded, going from just $4 million to more than $216 million annually. About 85 percent of its revenue comes directly from the federal treasury.
But if Bridgeport and Warburg Pincus are billing top dollar, they're unrepentant misers when it comes to educating kids. In 2009, Bridgepoint spent less than $700 per student on actual instruction. By comparison, the nearby University of Iowa spends 17 times that figure.
What Bridgeport doesn't short is its marketing, spending $2,714 per student to keep the turnstiles spinning. Overall, the 15 largest for-profit colleges spend nearly $13 billion a year on recruiting and marketing.
Needless to say, it's a terrific business if you don't have to worry about educating kids. Nearly 80 percent of students won't complete their program within six years — almost double the failure rate at traditional schools.
The tactics have become so brazen that even accreditors are taking notice. Last month, Ashford conceded that the Western Association of Schools & Colleges had denied its accreditation renewal, noting that the school had just 50 full-time faculty members to teach 90,000 online students. Within a week, Bridgepoint's stock price had plunged 50 percent.
“It's basically consumer fraud rendered to a business model,” Nassirian says. “Over-advertise, oversell, overcharge and under-deliver. They found a system where the pitch goes to one guy and the bill to someone else.”
We've got your money. Now beat it.
Mary had been a good student all her life, earning a master's degree in psychology from William & Mary University in Virginia. When the military transferred her husband to Tampa, she chose Argosy University, the only area school offering a psychology doctorate geared toward clinicians rather than researchers. Mary, who doesn't want her real name disclosed, figured it was legit because Argosy was accredited by the American Psychological Association.
She aced her studies with a 3.7 GPA. All she needed was an internship to graduate. That's where her problems began.
Argosy University, with 19 campuses, is owned by Education Management Corporation (EDMC), whose investors include Goldman Sachs and Providence Equity Partners, a Rhode Island private equity firm. To wring out more profit, Argosy began taking on more students than it could handle, says Mary's lawyer, Florida state Rep. Rick Kriseman.
But Argosy didn't have the professional connections to supply enough internships. So, like air traffic controllers, it decided to place students in holding patterns.
Mary was asked to accept a practicum instead. It's like a lesser form of internship, which wouldn't bring her any closer to her doctorate.
She was upset but went along, spending the next eight months volunteering at a mental health facility. But when she finished, Argosy still didn't have enough internships. Her instructors ordered her to take a second practicum.
She didn't have much choice. Mary had already invested four years and more than $100,000. She spent another five months volunteering. By then, her instructors had begun to question her intellectual rigor.
They not only flunked her out of the program but refused to let her defend her work before a board of teachers and peers, then denied her a chance to address administrators before they rejected her appeal. (EDMC refused repeated requests for comment.)
Mary was shocked. “I was an A student,” she says. “It was baffling to me how this could happen at the last minute. You have to understand the shame of going to school and being an A student and becoming a flunked-out person. It's so foreign and confusing.”
Yet Kriseman would discover a pattern at play, finding three more students who had suffered a fate similar to Mary's. “When the school did not have those [internship] slots, they found reasons to either dismiss the students or to make it so uncomfortable for them that they left of their own accord,” he says.
Argosy's problems seemed to be nationwide. Across the country, in the psychology program at Argosy-Seattle, the school had assured its doctoral candidates that accreditation was moments away — since without certification, their degrees would be all but worthless. It wouldn't be until later that administrators confessed that their application had failed — and they were closing the entire program.
Failure at a luxury price
For-profit colleges like to place their alarming failure rates in charitable terms. They claim to disproportionately serve low-income students who struggle in school.
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.
But a saleswoman for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, also owned by EDMC, convinced him that her school's online photography program was perfect for his situation.
He struggled immediately, getting migraines from staring at his computer. “There would be several days I'd get up at roughly 8 a.m. and wouldn't go to bed until 4 a.m.,” Pantzke says. “That's how bad it was because I was falling so far behind.” He punched a hole in the wall next to his laptop and “dishes took flight.”
In one online class, the teacher didn't have Internet access for more than a third of the course. Only after pestering three different advisers was Pantzke finally put in touch with the school's Disability Services Office. Despite the recruiters' original promise of specialized help, the Art Institute balked at his request for additional tutoring.
Then Pantzke appeared on PBS' Frontline for a story about for-profit colleges. Shortly before the Frontline piece aired, a vice president contacted Pantzke, asking him to sign a release saying “that I was doing fine and things were going great.”
He refused, but soon he noticed a miraculous lift in his academic fortunes. Despite turning in one slapdash assignment he knew wasn't any good, he received an A. “Once I started making waves, I started passing my classes with A's and B's,” he says. “I don't know if my grades were true, and it made me doubt my photography ability.”
His tenure at the Art Institute came to an end on Easter, when he was hurt in a serious car accident. Unable to type for six months, Pantzke decided he'd instead study photography on his own. In just 18 months at the Art Institute, he'd run up $26,000 in debt and burned through an additional $65,000 of his GI Bill benefits — with almost nothing to show for it.
Yet if Pantzke got away, there were plenty of other servicemen where he came from. A story by Bloomberg News caught a recruiter from Ashford University visiting the Wounded Warrior Barracks at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. It seems that injured veterans — notably those with head injuries — are particularly receptive to the for-profit sales pitch. The story's opening line said it all: “U.S. Marine Corporal James Long knows he's enrolled at Ashford University. He just can't remember what course he's taking.”
Federal data show that for-profits increasingly are targeting veterans. In 2009, the for-profits took in almost as much military money as public colleges — although they were educating just one-third of veteran students. Last year, eight of the top 10 educational institutions collecting GI Bill benefits were for-profit, taking in a stunning $626 million.
“I think sometimes the emphasis is on signing up the student as opposed to whether or not the student is really ready to be successful at that school,” says Holly Petraeus, an official with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and wife of Gen. David Petraeus. “The top 10 recipients of GI Bill aid, eight are for-profit schools, and they are very heavily engaged in marketing to the military — quite successfully, frankly.”
It's all about the Benjamins
The University of Phoenix will never be confused with Yale. According to one 2010 report, 90 percent of its students fail to graduate within six years.
Still, by pure monetary standards, former CEO Todd S. Nelson was a success. During his tenure, he tripled revenue for University of Phoenix's parent company, the Apollo Group. Enrollment surged to more than 300,000.
Unfortunately, he accomplished this the old-fashioned way — by cheating. Since 1992, it's been illegal to pay recruiters based on how many students they bring through the door. Phoenix did it anyway, until two recruiters blew the whistle, initiating a suit that ultimately cost the school $88.3 million in settlements and fines.
Under pressure, Nelson was forced out in 2006, walking away with a generous $18 million severance package. Founder John Sperling put a polite spin on the exit, saying only that Nelson was “preoccupied” with stock price to the detriment of the school's long-term health.
Yet if Nelson's profit motives were too lusty for Phoenix, they were a match made in corporate heaven for Goldman Sachs. The Wall Street bank had partnered with two private equity firms to buy EDMC. Nelson was hired as the company's new CEO. Former Maine governor John McKernan Jr. — the husband of U.S. Republican Sen. Olympia Snow — was named chairman of the board. Over the next five years, the company's revenue would nearly triple to $2.8 billion.
Last year, Nelson took home $13.1 million in salary and stock. By the standards of for-profit executive pay, he was working on the cheap.
Gregory Cappelli, his replacement at the University of Phoenix, received $25 million last year. CEO Robert Silberman of Strayer Education raked in an astounding $41.9 million in 2009. Yet even this pales next to Jonathan Grayer, the former CEO of Kaplan University, who walked away with a $76 million severance package — courtesy of Kaplan's parent company, the Washington Post Co.
By comparison, Harvard president Drew Faust collected a meager $875,331 in 2010.
Nelson's bad-boy practices have, predictably, caught up with him. Last year, the Justice Department and attorneys general from five states charged EDMC with fraud for paying recruiters based on the revenue they generated. Six more states have joined the suit.
EDMC claims its sales pay is based not just on bodies enrolled but also on 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 40s 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.
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 soon went 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 also was supposed to generate stats on how many of the students found employment in their fields. The numbers were used not only to sell future students but also 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, “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 co-worker lying on a form about a graduate's salary. The same employee showed her how to doctor emails so that students' replies favored the Art Institute. Both times she reported the scams to her boss. But instead of being fired, the co-worker 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 15 schools. Four encouraged outright fraud. All were found to be deceptive.
Congress sees no evil
In this age of austerity, you'd think Congress would be eager to root out waste, especially after allowing mortgage fraud to decimate the economy. But money talks loud enough to make any congressman hard of hearing. So despite a 20-year history of fraud and failure, for-profit colleges appear as bulletproof as ever.
Washington has been aware of the racket since U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., 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 subsequently were 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.
Then Bush and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, opened the door even wider, working to repeal a rule that required schools to educate at least 50 percent of their students on campus. It gave birth to an online gold rush, with for-profits flooding the Internet. Last year, 6 million students enrolled.
The industry had discovered the value of paying protection money to Congress. It spent $16 million on lobbying last year alone, buying a dream team of former officials that include former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and no less than 14 former congressmen.
“I didn't know when I got into the issue of for-profit schools that it was the best way for me to have a reunion with every member of Congress as they parade through the door, all representing these schools,” says U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who's held hearings investigating for-profits. “There is so much money on the table they can afford to hire everybody.”
Needless to say, Durbin hasn't gotten far with his probe. He's found some support among fellow Democrats, but not a single Republican bothered to attend his hearings.
“I don't want to hear their sermons from the mount about wasting federal money when they won't even take a look at these obscenely subsidized for-profit schools,” he says. “If they were talking about food stamps, they would cut people off in a second for this level of fraud. This is a wasteful expenditure of hard-earned consumer dollars to some of the wealthiest people in America, and that has to come to an end.”
Congress' shrillest voices on waste refuse to even look at the industry. Despite sitting on the Senate committee examining for-profit fraud, Rand Paul, R-Ky., has expressed no curiosity about this money pit. Nor have fellow committee members Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and deficit hawk John McCain, R-Ariz.. Not one responded to repeated interview requests for this story.
President Obama has stepped into the breach, though with timidity. In July, the Department of Education made it once again unequivocally illegal to base salespeople's pay on enrollment. But other reforms were so watered down as to be meaningless.
Taxpayers probably should be thankful Obama did anything at all. At hearings last year, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called it the most intense lobbying campaign he'd seen in his 32 years in Washington.
To truly appreciate how weak the final regulations were, consider this: The day they were revealed, for-profit stocks soared. The stock prices of EDMC and ITT Tech in particular increased by 20 percent. In one day.
The government ignores the problem at the country's peril. Total student loan debt, now more than $1 trillion, has surpassed credit card debt. These burdens will limit students' ability to contribute to our consumer economy for years to come.
Worse, unlike an underwater mortgage, Congress has made it illegal for people to walk away from student loans they can't pay. The debt will follow them for the rest of their lives.
“This is basically a parasitic industry that is preying upon not just some of the most vulnerable members of our society, but the best of these most vulnerable members, people who listen to the rhetoric we feed them and who are actually attempting to better themselves,” Nassirian says. “This is an industry that takes people's hopes and dreams and cashes them out.”
And they won't stop until they've emptied the till.