For-Profit Colleges Only a Con Man Could Love

Barbarians in the Ivory Tower

Worse, subprime degrees from places like ITT and Full Sail are typically 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 default on their 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 attorneys general from 20 states, 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 was actually just a lead generator for for-profit colleges.

Barmak Nassirian, former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers: “Overadvertise, oversell, overcharge, and underdeliver. They found a system where the pitch goes to one guy and the bill to someone else.”
Courtesy Barmak Nassirian
Barmak Nassirian, former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers: “Overadvertise, oversell, overcharge, and underdeliver. They found a system where the pitch goes to one guy and the bill to someone else.”
Iraq-war veteran Chris Pantzke ran up $26,000 in debt and burned through an additional $65,000 of his GI Bill benefits with almost nothing to show for it at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
Courtesy Chris Pantzke
Iraq-war veteran Chris Pantzke ran up $26,000 in debt and burned through an additional $65,000 of his GI Bill benefits with almost nothing to show for it at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

"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 over 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 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.

Military Disservice

Iraq 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 (PTSD). 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 immediately struggled, 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 he finally put in touch with the school's Disability Services Office. But 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 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."

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