The Art Institutes are the latest for-profit colleges to be included in the federal government’s crackdown on for-profit colleges.

Whistleblowers at schools like Kaplan, University of Phoenix and Everest University have alleged that the schools engage in illegal recruitment practices that lead to hundreds enrolled in degree programs that never lead to salaried jobs.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed suit against the company that owns the schools, Education Management Corporation, alleging that it fraudulently collected $11 billion in government aid by recruiting low-income students between July 2003 and June 2011. According to the suit, the company collected $2.2 billion of that money in 2010 alone — amounting to almost 90 percent of its revenue for that year.

Students at for-profit colleges often graduate with thousands of dollars in debt, and rarely end up finding work that suits their degree, if they even stay at the schools long enough to obtain one. In testimony made before a U.S. Senate committee last fall, a whistleblower claimed that her job as an assistant director of admissions was only to “keep the student enrolled and attending the classes for one week.” After the first week, assistant admissions directors were discouraged from speaking to students.

That same whistleblower, Kathleen Bittel, also claimed that there were around 600 photography students pursuing a bachelor of arts or associate degree at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh campus alone.

“Where are 600 photography graduates going to go? You cannot absorb that many in one city. How are they going to make money?” she said, in testimony (.pdf) before the Senate last fall. Bittel also noted that, though there are approximately 1,600 admissions recruiters at Education Management Corporation, “there are only nine career service advisors to accommodate the graduates of all of their online programs.”

Bittel claimed that the requirement of meeting quotas was often more important than actually helping the students — and tallying up how many students went on to become gainfully employed in a field related to their degree was a next to impossible task.

“Early on in my employment with career services, a co-worker showed me how to manipulate information received from a student, to ensure that the student could be listed as ‘gainfully employed’ for the purposes of the company’s statistics,” Bittel said in her testimony. “This same co-worker later came to me exhibiting two documents: one was a signed Employment Verification form from the graduate stating they were working in their field earning $8,000 a year, the other a printout from salary.com estimating that the average salary in that field and in their zip code would be $25,000, which would meet the salary threshold of $10,500 to justify marking them as employed in their field. ‘Which one do you think I’m going to turn in?’ they laughed as they tossed the graduate’s document in the trash and entered the salary.com data into the student’s file.”

There are currently four Art Institute campuses in the state of Florida — in Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Miami — and each offers various degrees in culinary arts, interior decorating and fashion. According to the school’s Fort Lauderdale site (.pdf), 86 percent of its 2009 graduates “were working in a field related to their program of study within six months of graduation, at an average starting salary of $27,240.”

Under former Attorney General Bill McCollum, Florida launched its own investigation into for-profit schools. That investigation, into eight for-profit college chains, remains ongoing.

Current state Attorney General Pam Bondi made the decision to join the federal anti-fraud suit against Education Management Corporation last month.

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