Barbarians in the Ivory Tower

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

Worse, the classes themselves had less content than a political soundbite. "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 would soon go 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."

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.”

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 was also supposed to generate stats on how many of them found employment in their fields. The numbers were used to not only sell future students, but 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 that "every student is place-able. 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 videogame design was counted as working in his field because he sold videogames 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 coworker 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. They were all found to be deceptive.

Congress sees no evil

In the age of austerity, you'd think Congress would be anxious 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's been aware of the racket since U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) 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 were subsequently barred by 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 Congressman 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-Missouri) 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. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), 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."

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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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