Pic via edmc.edu

A panel of former for-profit university students, professors and recruiters discussed the controversial higher ed institutions yesterday, making strong claims about questionable practices at schools like the Art Institutes, Argosy University, Brown Mackie College and South University — all of which are owned by the Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corporation.

For-profits have come under fire for their recruitment practices, which are currently the subject of nationwide investigations. Education Management Corporation and its 105 schools (including nine in Florida) were all named as defendants in an $11 billion lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice last August.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, called the for-profit industry “consumer fraud on steroids,” arguing that the schools sell education as a good, making it more prone to exploitation. Unlike a doctor, who has ”an ethical obligation to dispense advice in your best interest, not the best interest of the practice,” for-profits aren’t looking out for their customers.

Suzanne Lawrence, a former recruiter for the Art Institutes, said she was trained to “always be closing” when it came to luring in potential students — selling them on an experience that doesn’t exist. “I would try to have that student imagine a mahogany desk … within a brick-and-morter school.” In reality, she said, she was speaking to them from one of hundreds of cubicles in a building the size of a football field.

Kathleen Bittel, who began her for-profit college recruitment career years before Lawrence, said she was taught “exactly” the same thing. Bittel’s coworkers “used to call it ‘asses in classes,’” she said.”It wasn’t about the benefit of the student, it was about the bottom line.”

Lawrence says she and other recruiters like her were even trained to bring up personal things, such as the disappointment a potential student’s parent might feel because he or she hadn’t attended college. Also important? To remember to never give the students (whom she said were referred to as “leads”) the full price.

Students at for-profits pay big — in many cases, five time higher than at nonprofit state colleges. But the value is questionable, and many never see a return on their investment. Nonprofit schools spend more on their students (around 3.5 times more per student) and those students benefit as a result. But for-profits aren’t as competitive: They might be advertised as elite institutions, but in reality, they are open-enrollment schools, and anyone can get in.

Jeremy Dehn, a former professor at the Art Institute, said it was “difficult to teach” a classroom full of students with such a broad range of experience, knowledge and expectations.

Many for-profit students drop out before graduation, incurring tens of thousands of dollars in debt without any gainful employment to help pay back their loans.

Even those who do graduate rarely end up putting their degrees to good use. For-profit schools are notorious for manipulating job-placement statistics, and recruiters are encouraged to show that graduates are working in their field, even if they’re not.

Bittel said a coworker “outright taught [her] how to manipulate the data.” If a student found a job in which he or she used the skills acquired while obtaining a degree at least 25 percent of the time, she said, the student was counted as working in his or her field. In one example, Bittel cited a student with a graphic design degree who worked at a Starbucks. According to Bittel, she “was expected to convince this student to sign off on a form that would allow [her] employment to be counted in the statistics,” even though the graduate was not using her degree 25 percent of the time at her job.

Dehn said he recently ran into one of his old students, who had also found a job upon graduation. After obtaining a film and video degree (which Dehn says cost her $94,000), she now works at a movie theater.

There are currently around 500,000 students enrolled at the University of Phoenix, and over 3 million enrolled at for-profits overall — a “conservative estimate,” according to panelist Kevin Kinser.

Education Management Corporation spokesperson Jacquelyn Muller had this to say about yesterday’s panel:

We were surprised to learn that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents property service workers and with whom we have no existing relationship, had recently created a website designed to attack EDMC. The union’s website, masked as an educational resource for students, does nothing more than attempt to smear the reputation of EDMC and its institutions with inaccurate, and out of date misinformation. This shameless and misguided effort is an insult to our students, our faculty and our institutions.

[Yesterday’s] webinar, which EDMC was not invited to participate in, is further evidence that the union is pursuing a one-sided and highly misleading agenda.

In addition to being accused of fudging the stats related to their graduates, for-profits are said to cater to a niche population: minorities, those with low-incomes and veterans — most of whom are financially vulnerable. While the schools argue that they are offering opportunities to those who might not otherwise attend college — not everyone can get in to Harvard, after all — critics say they are preying on the weak.

“Like every scam,” Nassirian said, there’s an element of truth to the for-profit industry. You can attend school, and you can get a degree. Whether you get a stable job with that degree is another question. Overall, he argued, “it’s a toxic product being financed in a very toxic way.”

Update:

This piece has been altered to clarify some of the testimony.

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