Ashley Kyle had the strongest of reasons to trust Everest College, the for-profit career-college chain with a campus in her hometown of Everett.
A dozen years ago, her mother attended the school for a medical-assistant degree, and eventually got a job at Swedish Hospital. So Kyle, who is 20, left her job at Domino’s Pizza last year and enrolled in Everest’s program for pharmacy technicians.
Her experience was nothing like her mother’s, but very much like more than a dozen recent Everest graduates who contacted The Seattle Times after it reported that the schools were being investigated and sold.
The Everest graduates said the school misrepresented the wages they could make after graduating, and did a poor job of teaching and preparing them for national certification exams.
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Only a few said they were able to find work in the field they had studied. All took out thousands of dollars in federal and private student loans. Most are still paying them off.
Though they represent only a handful of Everest graduates, their claims mirror allegations from investigations across the country — that Everest and its parent company, Corinthian Colleges Inc., deceived students by misrepresenting job-placement rates and the earnings of its graduates.
Earlier this month, 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 and close 12 of its U.S. schools in the next six months.
The remaining 85 schools — including Corinthian’s Everest College campuses in Seattle, Renton, Everett, Tacoma, Bremerton and Vancouver — are now for sale. Corinthian spokesman Kent Jenkins said the company has received numerous inquiries; he’s confident the schools will find buyers.
Additionally, attorneys general in 16 states, including Washington, are investigating Corinthian’s student-lending practices and whether the company misled students about employment rates.
California’s attorney general has filed suit against Corinthian, alleging false and predatory advertising, and Massachusetts’ attorney general has also sued Corinthian, claiming it pushed students into high-interest subprime loans and misrepresented job-placement rates.
Jenkins, Corinthian’s spokesman, said the company has a corporate-verification team that examines placement data for accuracy, and that team reported accuracy issues it discovered on two campuses to regulators and accreditors. He said the cash-flow crisis that led the company to put the schools up for sale happened after the Education Department gave Corinthian an extremely short time frame in which to turn over hundreds of thousands of records.
A positive experience
The Everest schools are among more than 300 state private career schools, most of them for-profit, that are licensed and monitored by the state Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board.
Board spokeswoman Marina Parr said the board has received no complaints about the Everest colleges.
If career colleges weren’t doing a good job, they wouldn’t remain in business, said Gena Wikstrom, executive director of the Northwest Career Colleges Federation, an industry group. They thrive because small, focused schools work better for some students than other options, such as publicly funded community colleges, which can be large and intimidating, she said.
That seemed to be the case for one student who contacted The Times, Sandra Reyes of Mount Vernon. Reyes went to a community college for 1½ years and “did not like it all — there were way too many students in one classroom, the teachers were always busy,” she said.
Reyes heard good things about Everest from family and friends who went there and found jobs after graduation. She’s enrolled in the medical-assistant program at Everest’s Everett campus.
“The teachers are awesome — they help you with everything they can,” she said.
When Ashley Kyle enrolled in the eight-month pharmacy-tech program at Everest College in Everett, she was impressed by numbers the college touted showing high placement rates and high wages for their graduates.
But as classes progressed, Kyle grew worried that her teacher was fumbling his way through material. “Toward the end, with the math and stuff, he had no idea what he was doing,” she said.
Kyle did an externship — a kind of internship for career-college students — at Walgreen’s, and learned more there than she did in the Everest classroom. She studied furiously for the national pharmacy-technician exam and passed it earlier this month, but felt the school had done very little to help. For the most part, she said, she taught herself.
Kyle has a federal loan and a private loan with an interest rate of 9.9 percent. She’ll owe about $300 a month for the next 10 years. And she now knows that pharmacy techs didn’t make as much as she’d been told by Everest officials.
“They took advantage of me being really naive,” said Kyle, who has just started her job search.
Trista Beldin, 26, a pharmacy student at Everest’s Renton campus in 2010, had a similar experience. At first the courses were challenging, but a strong teacher left the program and was replaced by one not nearly as rigorous.
She did externships at two pharmacies, where the staff “seemed to be pretty stunned at some things that I didn’t know, like certain ways to label medications or the doses for certain medications,” said Beldin in an email.
Beldin realized that about half the topics on the national pharmacy test weren’t covered by the Everest classes, so she did not take the test. She got a job as a pharmacy assistant, but it paid only a little more than minimum wage.
Beldin dropped out of the field, and now works as a receptionist at an auto dealership. She owes $16,000 in student loans.
“I feel like I went to school for absolutely no reason at all,” she wrote.
Jenkins, of Corinthian, said the schools overall have a graduation rate of 61 percent, better than the national graduation/transfer rate at community colleges, which is about 30 percent. (Washington community colleges do much better than the national average, with a graduation/transfer rate of about 47 percent.)
And Jenkins said 69 percent of Corinthian grads find jobs in their field.
“I think, unfortunately, no one in higher education has a 100 percent graduation-to-job-placement rate, and because of that, there will inevitably be some folks who may not be happy,” he said.
Loans, class credits
In a 2012 U.S. Senate investigation, Corinthian was noted for charging some of the highest tuition prices of any of the for-profit colleges examined.
It also had some of the highest student-withdrawal rates and, among publicly traded education companies, the highest loan-default rates — 36 percent.
Corinthian refuted the Senate’s findings, Jenkins said, and added that its systemwide loan-default rate has since dropped to about 19 percent. Its private-loan-default rate is much higher — about 50 percent, he said. Corinthian financed many private loans itself.
The Senate investigation noted that public schools often charged much lower tuition.
That’s true in Washington state, where Edmonds Community College, for example, offers a pharmacy-technician program for $4,000 in tuition and fees — about a quarter of what Everest charges. The Edmonds program has a 71 percent employment rate, and graduates typically make $16 an hour.
Credit transfers are another concern about career colleges.
While Washington’s community colleges have transfer agreements with four-year colleges that help make the transition smooth for students, credits earned at for-profit career schools often don’t transfer.
Beth Adolphsen, medical-assistant-program director at Everett Community College, knows a dozen students who received degrees at for-profit schools and then enrolled in community college after they couldn’t find a job.
Because some for-profit programs are not accredited, and because transcript and course descriptions are unclear, few of the credits transfer, she said, and students often have to start from scratch, she said.
That said, the route through community college can be complicated.
Pharmacy-tech students who have never worked in health care must take a three-month-long set of foundational classes on the health-care system, which costs an additional $2,000, said Elizabeth Patterson, director of allied health education and special projects at Edmonds Community College.
Because technicians need to understand ratios and proportions when mixing drugs, they must also show they’ve mastered basic algebra; if they do not, they have to take a math class, Patterson said.
When they entered Everest College-Bremerton in 2009, Lisa Carry and her husband, Mark Peasley, weren’t typical Everest students.
The two retired to Port Orchard in their 40s after successful careers in Texas, but the recession took a toll on their retirement savings, and they wanted to return to work for a while. Everest seemed like a fast route to solid job skills.
Carry spent about $16,000 for an eight-month medical-assistant program. Her teacher was excellent, and she found full-time work in a doctor’s office after graduation. She’s already paid off her loans.
But Carry said many of her classmates seemed woefully unprepared for the degree they were seeking. “It was very evident they were bringing students through the program that weren’t going to make it … kids with no math skills, who didn’t know how to spell,” she said.
Peasley, her husband, entered the Everest-Bremerton program in medical billing and coding.
His teacher “didn’t really teach, she just read from the book,” he said. He was also dismayed to see his classmates flailing in math, given that solid math skills are a requirement for medical billing.
The college promises to place its students in externships, but they could not find one for Peasley, and he could not finish the program. Eventually, he stopped looking, and went back to being retired.
He’s still paying off the student loan.
Everest also sells itself on the strength of its career networking and job-placement offerings. But Margaret Noonan, 52, of Tacoma, was dismayed by the results.
Noonan studied to be a medical-administrative assistant at Everest-Tacoma beginning in 2012. She had a 4.0 GPA, but said the school did little to help her find a job. Most of the leads Everest sent her, she said, came from Craigslist.
“When I tried to complain to the big head office … basically I was told it was my fault I wasn’t hired yet,” she said.
Noonan is now working as a baby-sitter. She owes about $20,000 in federal and private loans.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.