Barbarians in the Ivory Tower

America's for-profit colleges offer education only a con man (or a congressman) could love.

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 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.

"It's basically consumer fraud rendered to a business model," Barmak Nassirian says.
Courtesy of Barmak Nassirian
"It's basically consumer fraud rendered to a business model," Barmak Nassirian says.
Suzannne Lawrence, who worked as a recruiter at Argosy University, says the pressure to recruit students prompted all sorts of illicit shenanigans.
Courtesy of Suzanne Lawrence
Suzannne Lawrence, who worked as a recruiter at Argosy University, says the pressure to recruit students prompted all sorts of illicit shenanigans.

"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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My Voice Nation Help

Education is an extremely important part of life. If schools are built for profit, the whole purpose of a school is a sham. They shouldn`t be considered legal if they are for profit. Shocking how they walk away after doing this kind of fraud. Forcing students to pay up through payday loans or other various types of loans. While the government spends hundreds of billions on the military to fight someone else`s war.


Guess writing about how sketchy these for-profit universities are is good enough. Because the full page ad for Argosy University on pg. 12 of this weeks Observer just doesn't send the same message. I get that the Observer needs funding, but you couldn't even make it two weeks? Village Voice ftw...


For-profit "schools" shouldn't even be legal, let alone able to get away with this level of fraud.  Sad thing is, though, a lot of this doesn't sound that much different from my experience at UTD's Jindall School of Management.


I was enrolled in a for profit school program for graphic design in the early 1990's. I decide after 4 months that it was not for me and was not on the up and up. Meaning there were computer graphics coming on the scene and this school (college) had no computers available and was not looking into getting any either.

I was told by the financial aid office that I was responsible for the loan that I had taken out and would need to pay that back to the government or to Sallie Mae.

I said forget about that and started researching the school and the members of the "Oklahoma State Board for Private Schools that served as the "watchdog" over these private school and any improprieties. 

I found out that the people that owned the private colleges were no only on the Oklahoma State Board but the man that owned the school I was attending was the President of the Board!

So I decided to attend their meeting and state my case in front of the entire board!

Needless to say my loan was "forgiven" and I never heard from them or Sallie Mae again!

Perhaps if more students did something simular these school would close up and go away permanently... 

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.


Why should neither the for-profit schools nor Congress be worried about the money?  After all, it was someone elses money.


...get your degreeeeeeee..... set yourself freeeeeeeee........




*smiles, humming*


VVoice is just carrying water for lefty academics who don't like competition.  The larger problem is not-for-profit colleges, many of which have the same danged problem, but are too poorly run to have any money over at the end of the day.  The higher ed bubble will burst pretty soon and the cocooned & mostly un-hireable academics will be slapped in the face by reality.  The various for-profit schools will be part of the solution after the bubble bursts.


sounds like a real redistribution of wealth underway.(taking from the poor and middle class to give to the rich)


I'm not sure Bobby can be held to the contract since he was a minor when he signed it.  Perhaps Bobby should speak with an attorney.


South Harmon Institute of Technology

Sotiredofitall topcommenter

"Higher Education" has become a scam on many levels, not just at the for-profit outfits.  The UT Austin football program had operating profit with $70.1 million in fiscal 2010 and I still get phone callas asking for donations to support school academic programs.


 @roo_ster You obviously didn't read the article but are just spouting typical, tired partisan rhetoric. 


 @Sotiredofitall  Add to that the practice of high school administrators  to push ill prepared students into ANY type of higher education in order to improve the school's stats and you have a real problem.  There was a counselor at a school I taught at that comvinced an economically disadvantaged special ed student that she could go to community college on student aid.  She could only take "developmental" classes and after two years had no college credits and a debt she will struggle a lifetime to repay.

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