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 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.

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

"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," says Nassirian.

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 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, says Lawrence. 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, says Lawrence. 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

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 (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 advisors 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 As and Bs," he says. "I don't know if my grades were true and it made me doubt my photography ability."

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14 comments
calhouncounty
calhouncounty

Bobby is a National Collegiate Scholar who uses baby-talk: "I'm like" and "she's like" when he speaks? How is Eastern Michigan any better than Ashford?

jesskalinowsky
jesskalinowsky

Could be we do not have the complete story, maybe they were sued?  I certainly hope so, as it is disgusting that people want to take advantage of a minor child like that!

counsel
counsel

The "Whatever" Press

 

Seriously?  You couldn't find a lead story that even mentions Texas, much less Houston?  At least it wasn't another rapper piece.

jesskalinowsky
jesskalinowsky

This is SO infuriating!!!! Someone should sue Ashford socks off, if they are still in business. A minor cannot sign a contract like that, and if there was forgery involved send the whole bunch to prison.  The University of Phoenix does the exact same thing, and have gotten away with it for years.  They tell you your credits are transferable, they are NOT transferable. They tell you an Associate Degree is transferable , it is NOT.  They advertise people getting advanced degrees, most employers scoff at a degree from University of Phoenix.  It is a serious FOR BIG PROFIT SCHOOL will to twist words and put a spin on them that makes them sound legit, THE ARE NOT legit!  Their classes are a joke!  Their teachers are a joke.  I took some of their classes, but thankfully my employer was footing the bill, and I did not lose a penny. The classes/courses I took were a total waste of time! NOT one was transferrable.. The University of Phoenix LIES to the potential student. They LIE to Vets!  It is a SCAM OF A UNIVERSITY!    

Hanabi-chan
Hanabi-chan topcommenter

Hey counsel? Just because the story does not mention Texas in a particular instance does not mean that the issue has no bearing on our state. The problem of for-profit "colleges" is nationwide.  We have offices for some of them here in Houston. The commercials play here.  Are you not paying attention?

 

 

Hanabi-chan
Hanabi-chan topcommenter

 @jesskalinowsky I was surprised that no one has sued Ashford for that. I am not a lawyer, so anyone who is knowledgable can answer that question. I was under the impression that if a contract signed by a minor is not valid.

jbottoms
jbottoms

 @Carlos I am so glad to see this article and to hear from you, Carlos, I was almost (thankfully, not) taken in by the smoke and sugar blown in my face by Ashford's salespeople (er, umm, ahem!) i mean <making air-quote> "academic advisors" ... real slick bunch, hard to resist with noses that would make Pinoccio jealous.

counsel
counsel

 @Hanabi-chan It's a local free press.  You pretty much proved my point exactly. 1) It's old news, 2) that it has some tenuous "bearing" on the state might have been worth mentioning in the article and you still didn't understand you were validating my comments each time you went to outside sources to come up with that.  The could have made the effort to come up with one of the local dupes for one of their many anecdotes just to make the effort to tie it in locally. Didn't.  The author, of course, has no ties to Houston other than the Press fobbing off their writing to him.

 

Turn the paper over to Downing, Spivak, and Malisow.

smoothopr_2
smoothopr_2

The Strayer,PHoenix are along the Beltway 8

clarice.jovan
clarice.jovan

 @Hanabi-chan I agree. This can definitely be disputed in court. I wish the family the best of luck. 

Hanabi-chan
Hanabi-chan topcommenter

There..not their damnit! Stupid Mondays!

Hanabi-chan
Hanabi-chan topcommenter

I just saw an ad for Ashford over the weekend. First time, aside from this article, that I heard of this place. 

 

I think their is a  Phoenix building on Space Center Blvd near Bay Area in Clear Lake. Or they are just the major tenant.

 
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