A national consumer watchdog group is calling on Washington and other states to rein in abuses at for-profit schools and protect students from inferior educational programs that leave the students tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Washington is one of 33 states that do a poor job of policing abuses at for-profit colleges, with weak regulations that offer little protection for students, according to the National Consumer Law Center.
The center’s report, released in June, comes at a time when six for-profit Everest College campuses have been put up for sale in Washington as part of a larger deal between the parent company, Corinthian Colleges, and the U.S. Department of Education.
Corinthian is under investigation by a number of agencies, as well as attorneys general in 16 states, including Washington, for allegedly deceiving students by misrepresenting job-placement rates and the earnings of its graduates, and for its student-lending practices. That investigation is being led by the Iowa attorney general’s office.
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The company denies any wrongdoing.
Everest Colleges have not turned up as problem schools for the Washington agency that regulates career colleges. It says it has received 22 complaints from Everest College students and graduates at the six state campuses since 2005 — not an unusual number, nor one that would indicate a problem with the schools, said Jim Parker, manager of the consumer protection unit for the Washington Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board.
Some of the complaints were dismissed; others were resolved by mutual agreement or a settlement, such as a refund.
The state attorney general’s office has received 14 complaints in the last three years, most of which were forwarded to the Workforce Board.
Robyn Smith, counsel for the National Consumer Law Center and the author of the report on how improve state oversight, said the number of complaints is not a good indicator of a problem. In most states, students don’t know where to go to lodge a complaint, she said.
And the Workforce Board itself admitted it could make it easier for students to know where to seek assistance.
“As an agency, we could do a better job of getting the message out to the public and the consumer,” Parker said.
In July, the federal Education Department increased financial oversight of Corinthian and withheld financial-aid payments. That action left the company — which gets most of its revenue from federal financial aid — so strapped for cash that it decided to wind down operations, selling 85 of its U.S. campuses and closing 12 others in the next six months.
In Washington, its schools in Seattle, Everett, Renton, Bremerton, Vancouver and Tacoma are for sale.
Washington’s Workforce Board monitors 325 private career schools in this state — schools that teach everything from bartending to welding, commercial truck driving, massage therapy, income-tax preparation, hypnosis, and medical and dental assisting.
Some call themselves colleges, and others call themselves academies, schools or training institutes. They have a combined enrollment of 28,000 students.
Three Workforce Board employees handle consumer protection, but only about 10 percent of their job is devoted to investigating complaints about career colleges. Most of their time is spent licensing the schools, and employees also do site visits and review curriculum materials.
The agency can suspend, revoke or deny a school a license, as well as issue cease-and-desist orders for unfair business practices.
Asked if three employees were enough to do the work, Parker said: “Well, I’ll just say that our resources and staff are stretched pretty thin. With three people, and 325 schools — it’s a lot.”
Parker said the agency can tell prospective students if a school is licensed, but it’s up to the student to research whether the school offers a quality education, and if it has appropriate accreditation for the degree being sought. The Workforce Board keeps a searchable database of statistics on school performance such as completion and employment rates, and encourages students to do their homework.
Smith, of the Consumer Law Center, said her group believes “It’s unfair and unrealistic to place the burden on students to police the schools themselves.”
State agencies need to do much more than provide information, she said. “When you’re crafting laws and policies, you really want to look at who’s most able to bear the risk, and who’s most able to protect themselves.”
The law center notes that many students at for-profit schools are low-income and minority students, veterans, working parents, first-generation and non-English-speaking. These students are more likely to drop out, incur enormous debt, and default on that debt.
“By failing to properly regulate for-profit schools, states are failing these students and helping to create a higher education system that reinforces economic inequality,” the center’s report says.
Parker, of the Workforce Board, said because students at career colleges come from nontraditional backgrounds, success needs to be measured differently than at traditional colleges and universities. “It’s a very challenging population to deal with, and Everest has taken on that challenge, and that does come with some risk,” Parker said.
But Smith said she doesn’t agree that low-income, nontraditional students can’t be expected to do well. “That, to me, is a cop-out,” she said.
Smith said there are plenty of schools that do a good job helping low-income students finish their education. “When schools are charging this much money for an education, they should make an effort to work with these students … One of the things they market is how innovative they are.”
Her organization calls for 10 reforms.
Among them: Establishing minimum completion and placement rates, focusing enforcement on for-profit schools because evidence shows such schools have a long history of consumer fraud, creating a fair and thorough process for investigating and resolving student complaints, and making consumer protection the primary duty of the state agency that oversees for-profit schools.
Limit to complaints
All that might have helped Everest College-Tacoma graduate Brittney Pike, who was unhappy with the school long before she graduated in 2011.
Her instructors raced through lessons, then left students to work on their own for hours and hours. Study aids included all the answers to the tests, which were multiple-choice; in effect, it was an exercise in memorization, Pike said.
But it was only after she began applying for jobs as a medical assistant — her program of study at Everest — that she discovered no one in the industry took her diploma seriously. Worse, she learned that she needed to pass a national exam to be certified to work in the field, something the school never told her she needed to do, she said.
Pike also said she believes she was deceived about the size of the loan she accepted. She owes $16,000 for nine months of training at Everest — thousands more than a year of tuition at the University of Washington.
Pike, who had her first child not long after graduating, was juggling the demands of motherhood in those early months after graduation and didn’t immediately know where to turn for help. She eventually filed a complaint with the Washington attorney general’s office in October 2012 — only to find that time had run out for her to file a grievance.
State law requires that students file complaints within a year of graduation or leaving the school.
“My complaint was too old — there was nothing I could do,” she said. “They recommended that I speak to a private attorney, file a claim in small-claims court.” Because she couldn’t afford an attorney, her complaint ended there.
Smith, of the Consumer Law Center, called the one-year limit on complaints “a bit ridiculous.” She said the training board should track complaints regardless of how old they are because they may reveal a pattern of issues at a school, which could lead to an investigation.
Pike says she’s kept in touch over the years with four other Everest classmates who graduated with medical assistant certificates. None have found jobs in the field, she said.
Although Everest doesn’t break down student success by program, Corinthian spokesman Kent Jenkins said the school has an overall graduation rate of 61 percent, and 69 percent of Corinthian grads find jobs in their field.
Pike is struggling to pay off her $16,000 loan.
“I’m in such a huge hole, and I don’t have anything to show for it,” she said.