For Some For Profit Schools – It’s Not About the Students

I have always believed that For- Profit schools are an oxymoron. 

“I saw students who never should have been there, students with whopping gaps in learning abilities and major psychiatric problems who were just not capable of doing the work,” said Ms. Amaya, an administrator at Harris’s Linwood campus, and then at its Wilmington, Del., campus, from 2009 to 2011. “The bosses were always like, ‘Stop asking why they’re enrolled, just get them to graduation however you can.’ ” Her charges are part of a federal lawsuit filed by seven former employees against Harris and its parent company, Premier Education Group, which owns more than two dozen trade schools and community colleges operating under several names in 10 states. Premier had 17,000 students in 2012.

The suit contends that while charging more than $10,000 for programs lasting less than a year, school officials routinely misled students about their career prospects, and falsified records to enroll them and keep them enrolled, so that government grant and loan dollars would keep flowing.

Though they vary widely in quality, for-profit schools have drawn scrutiny in recent years for aggressive recruiting, high prices, low graduation rates and heavy borrowing by students who often have poor job prospects afterward. In a separate case in New Jersey, dozens of former Harris students say that the school lied about what professional certifications they would qualify for after completing their courses; some were given a brochure saying they could sit for a dental assistant certification exam — an exam that had not been offered for years. Premier settled a similar case a few years ago before it went to trial.

The former employees’ federal suit also charges that the school enrolled people who should not have been in its programs — like a student enrolled for massage therapy, though he had been convicted of a sex crime, which would prevent him from being licensed. They say the schools enrolled students who had not graduated from high school, though their programs required it, including some who presented diplomas from known fraudulent “diploma mills.”

The company’s lawyers and executives flatly denied many of the charges, and said others, like phony diplomas, reflected only isolated instances resulting from having a hard-to-serve clientele.

Some of the complaints against Harris, which has eight campuses in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, echo those made against other for-profit schools, and were documented in investigations directed by the Government Accountability Office. Those include high-pressure enrollment tactics and misleading promises about job prospects upon graduation.

Compared with traditional, nonprofit schools, both public and private, for-profit schools disproportionately enroll low-income and minority students who qualify for significant government aid, and the schools rely far more on that aid for revenue. Federal records show that in 2011-12, Premier collected $112 million in federal Pell grants and federal student loans. For-profit schools also spend heavily on advertising, their students are far more likely to borrow money to pay for tuition, and those who borrow rack up more debt and are more likely to default.

Students at for-profit schools often do not realize that cheaper alternatives exist through public community colleges and trade schools. A study published by Public Agenda found that the majority of people who had attended for-profit colleges and trade schools did not understand the distinction, learned of their schools through advertising and did not consider any other schools.

The most striking allegations against Premier involve students who were not capable of doing the work because they lacked the mental stability, academic skills or English proficiency, yet were kept on the books so the schools could collect their federal aid, which requires that a certain percentage of students make progress toward completion. When teachers gave them failing marks, the former employees charge, administrators changed the grades and falsified the attendance records.

The former employees contend that school executives often skewed aptitude tests used to screen applicants by giving students extra time, letting them keep smartphones that could be used to help answer questions, and faking the scores by filling in correct answers after students had turned the tests in.

Several students interviewed outside Harris campuses said that when they took the tests, they were told not to worry because the results did not matter, and one said that she was surprised that she was accepted because she had not understood or answered most of the questions. Most of the students said they found Harris through ads or by word of mouth, then met with recruiters who sometimes pressed them to enroll immediately, saying that space was limited.

Premier’s lawyers noted that no government agency requires the use of any aptitude test. “Maybe what they want is for Premier to discriminate based on disability,” Mr. Farrell said. “We deny passing anyone who didn’t deserve to be passed at a Premier school.”

The lawsuit is unusual in that it is filed under the federal False Claims Act, charging that the conduct of Harris and Premier defrauded the federal government. Under that law, a defendant can be found liable for triple the actual damages, potentially enough to put Premier out of business, and the whistle-blowers can reap hefty paydays, collecting as much as 30 percent of any verdict award, which Premier’s lawyers say is a motive for the suit.

The case against Premier was filed in 2011, but was unsealed and available to the public last fall.

Premier is bigger than most for-profit chains but its name is not well known; it operates under eight different school names like Harris School, Branford Hall and Salter School, each relatively small and operating and recruiting in a limited region. And Premier, like most for-profit school companies, is privately held, making information about its structure and finances hard to come by. The company is controlled by a single family based in the Philadelphia area; it is a limited partnership whose members are family trusts and individuals.

This investigation should not be considered an indictment of all for-profit  schools.  But there needs to be a better job of education potential students of the dangers of those that are fraudulent.