This article on Certified Schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, non-profit media organization dedicated to inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with NBC Nightly News and NBCNews. com.
OAKHAM, Mass. – The timing seemed well chosen. The five people with whom Jessica Evers lived had gone to work and go to school, leaving her alone to take care of her toddler and surf the Internet looking for schools. At the time, in 2010, she was 22 years old and her project was to find a good job and leave this small three-bedroom house located in Hudson, Massachusetts.
And then, almost as if talking to her directly, a television commercial caught her attention.
With catchy music and the promise of a new career, advertising has introduced Evers at Salter College. The school had a half-hour campus and offered certificate programs, which would allow it to start a career faster than the associate degree program.
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She immediately visited the website, which described the financial assistance she could get and, most importantly, promised career placement services to help "students and alumni in every aspect of their career." job search ".
It seemed perfect. Just as it was supposed to do. Evers, who was unemployed, called the next day to make an appointment with the admissions office.
"My dream was to have a job, to improve and improve my life for my child," she said.
Certificate programs are often aimed at people like Evers, who have tried to survive with just a high school diploma but who have found only low-wage jobs, which makes any autonomy impossible. Certificates generally take less time than a degree and train students in cosmetology, truck drivers and medical assistants, among others.
For-profit schools, such as Salter and others owned by its parent company, Premier Education Group, have focused on this market. Each student can bring thousands of dollars in federal grants and loans. With millions of potential customers and a guaranteed funding flow, this is a business model that can yield significant dividends.
For-profit schools award nearly a third of certificates, but the promised launch for the middle class often does not materialize. According to the federal database published by the Department of Education and analyzed by the Hechinger Report, most students who incur debts to attend school earn less than high school graduates.
Some certificate programs send students to interesting and well-paid careers, but the results of the for-profit sector are worse than those in the public sphere. For-profit graduates are less likely to find a job than comparable graduates of public certificate programs, and if they manage to get a job, they earn less, according to a study released last year by Brookings Institution.
First corresponds to this model. A survey conducted jointly by The Hechinger Report and NBC News, including the review of hundreds of pages of documents (court records, investigation records and complaints filed with agencies of the United States). State), as well as interviews with 42 former students of Prime Minister, constitutes a case study showing the magnitude of the problem of higher education: how the control gaps allow businesses Doubtful backgrounds continue to recruit vulnerable students and make substantial profits on taxpayers' money.
In 2016-17 alone, Premier schools enrolled more than 10,000 students in nine states on the east coast, providing $ 65 million in federal funding, according to federal data. The company earned more than $ 175 million in profits between 2004 and 2014, according to a lawsuit filed in 2016 by a former CEO of the company, alleging premiums were to be paid. (The lawsuit was later dismissed.) Still, a Massachusetts state agency and New Jersey and Delaware whistleblowers have accused First Schools of falsifying placement rates, student achievement and attendance records. In recent years, multi-campus default rates have exceeded 20%, sometimes exceeding 30%, while most students earn less than $ 25,000 six years after enrollment, according to federal data.
Only eight of the 42 students surveyed for this article reported having a positive experience on the Premier campuses. More than 20 other people reported being in debt and looking in vain for jobs in the field or finding low-paying jobs making it difficult to repay their loans.
Despite their disappointing results, for-profit companies such as Premier have benefited from an unstable surveillance system to largely pass under the radar of law enforcement. Although government agencies can investigate programs, the decision to do so depends on the priorities of those responsible. Nonprofit accreditation agencies monitor the quality and results of these campuses, but critics say they often fail to respond significantly when problems are discovered, leaving considerable time for schools to continue functioning.
State Secretary for Education, Betsy DeVos, who pledged to repeal the Obama era rules to increase student accountability and protection, rescinded a measure essential to the success of schools by helping students obtain gainful employment. She argued that the role of the federal government should be to promote transparency rather than punish poor schools, and that students should have a range of choices at their disposal. Education advocates who have criticized DeVos' attempts to lower regulation say that for-profit schools are already taking advantage of students and that the situation will be worse without existing protections.
Prime Minister refused to respond to specific student complaints, citing federal privacy laws, but said that the school is transparent with students about what it 's about. wait for the program and help graduates find jobs.
"We continue to work with our students, the community and our accreditors to improve results," Senior Vice President Wade Charlton wrote in an e-mail.
The sales pitch
When Jessica Evers went to Salter College, she listened to an admissions officer explain that with a medical office certificate, she could be hired in a doctor's office, as a receptionist, or that she captured and archived data. He added that 97% of Salter graduates had found a job and that the school would help find one too, recalls Evers. He also told her that she could hope to earn at least $ 14 at the hour.
The $ 15,000 price tag was worth it, as the school assured her that she would find work; she decided to register that day.
"You're promised a job, so finally, I say," OK, I'll be able to pay it back, "she said.
The prime minister said the disclosure forms signed by all students indicated that the school did not guarantee employment.
Evers would probably have been more likely to repay the loan if she had enrolled in a community college. According to federal data, graduates of public college certificate programs earn an average of nearly $ 9,000 more than those in for-profit programs, in part because the programs they complete train them for better jobs paid.
In 2014, the Attorney General of Massachusetts, whose priority was to investigate for-profit schools, accused Premier Education Group of inflating placement rates for years and promising help at work. which never materialized. The Prime Minister has denied all allegations of wrongdoing. The company has consented to a total settlement of $ 3.74 million and the disclosure of information on the websites of its Massachusetts schools and in commercials, including the fact that the school does not guarantee not the job. Premier also had to inform these students 72 hours before they could register.
Two years later, a new investigation in the state alleged similar practices. Premier denied committing a wrongdoing, but reached a $ 150,000 deal with the Division of Professional Licensure. The company stated that it has entered into agreements in both cases to "avoid the uncertainty and costs associated with future litigation".
Students who have attended the premier schools of other states in recent years have described sales pitches similar to those of Evers. Some claimed to have been informed of the specific salaries they could expect, which they later understood to be exaggerated.
Prime Minister said that staff do not discuss salaries with students during registration. If students ask questions about wages, they are directed to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Premier said.
Mariah Hayes, who visited the Branford Hall campus in Albany, New York in 2016, told counselor staff that medical assistants started at $ 14 an hour or more, or about $ 28,000. per year. According to federal data, most graduates of the Branford Medical Assistant program in 2011 and 2012 earned less than $ 21,000 in 2015.
"They talk a lot about" You can do that "and then in reality, you do not do it," said Hayes.
A disorganized education
Evers quickly fell into a manageable routine, studying while his daughter was napping during the day and going to school at night. But the problems started to emerge. For example, rather than answering her questions, one of her teachers told her to read the manual, she said.
Evers also said that the school was disorganized. More than a dozen other students from several first-rate schools agreed, saying it sometimes took weeks to get books and teachers resigned or were fired.
"We do not believe the allegations are accurate or reflect the experience of our students," said Charlton, senior vice president, in an email.
And then there were incidents that went beyond chaotic operations. Shannon Huey, a graduate of last year's medical assistance program, Harris School of Business in Dover, Del., Said administrators were changing grades and establishing attendance records for students who were late or late failure. Charlton said that the Prime Minister could not justify this claim, but that a very limited number of individuals on any campus had the opportunity to enter notes or attend classes.
A lawsuit as a whistleblower against Premier, filed by seven former employees of Delaware and New Jersey in 2011, alleged the same practice on other Harris campuses. These employees reported that schools encouraged them to change their students' files for financial reasons; the school would cease to receive federal government funding for any student who failed and was excluded from the program.
The prosecution also alleged that the prime minister misled potential students about placement rates and encouraged staff to "give up all academic standards".
The Prime Minister agreed to a settlement of $ 3.4 million in July. The company admitted to having committed no wrongdoing and, as in the case of its two previous agreements, indicated that it had arranged to avoid the uncertainty and costs of the company. 39, a continuation of the dispute.
As proof that it offers quality education, First notes that all of its campuses are accredited. But some accreditation agencies are less strict than others regarding the application of standards.
For years, most Premier schools have been overseen by the Accreditation Council of Independent Colleges and Schools, an agency presiding over such poor results that at the end of 2016, the Obama administration revoked the federal recognition that allowed him to function.
The council appealed and was reinstated in 2018. In recent years, he began to take more action against schools, including several of the Premier campuses he oversaw. In December 2016, Premier was informed that the accreditation of his Branford Hall campuses would be withdrawn after three consecutive years of placement rate in his main campus lower than 60%, the lowest rate allowed by the agency . (Yet, just a year and a half earlier, the agency had accredited a new campus in Branford.)
Prime was opposed to the action, arguing that it was "arbitrary and capricious". In August 2017, the agency decided to officially withdraw the campus accreditation posting the lowest placement rate. an appeal by Premier was unsuccessful.
National accreditation agencies use placement rates to evaluate the quality of teaching of certified schools. According to Premier's revelations published in 2018, approximately one-third of his programs had placement rates of less than 60%. Only a quarter of Massage Therapy graduates at Salter College have found employment in this field; The same is true for one-third of students attending the Harris School of Business dental assisting program in Wilmington, Delaware. The placement rate in the Branford Hall security and computer networking program in Jersey City was zero.
The Prime Minister says that it works continuously to improve student outcomes.
In the summer of 2012, Evers graduated from Salter and it seemed like everything was going as planned. Or almost as expected. Evers had accepted a full-time job at the doctor's office where she had completed her clerkship – a multi-week experience required for graduation. Evers said she'd offered her $ 12 an hour, less than the $ 15 she had been told she could expect, but more than that. she had never won in retail jobs at Lowes or Target.
Then she got her first salary: $ 11 at the hour. She left soon after, because she said the environment was violent, assuming she would easily find another job.
She lost track of the number of jobs for which she had applied – sometimes 15 per week – without being heard.
At first, she called the school for help at least once a week. Each time they told her to send her resume, what she did. "I have never had an answer," she said. Sometimes she went to school to ask for help in person. Nothing worked.
The prime minister said he could not comment on individual student complaints because of privacy laws, but that in Evers' case, Salter College "spoke to him several times to get help with employment ".
The question of whether schools should be held responsible for problems such as those faced by Evers is a matter that has been debated for many years by federal regulators. In 2015, the Obama administration announced a new rule that linked federal financial aid to the amount of graduates' earnings. Vocational programs in which graduates owed at least 12% of their total annual income in the form of debt and 30% or more of their discretionary income would fail. Failure twice in three years would render a program ineligible for federal assistance.
When the first results were published in 2017, more than 800 programs failed. almost all were in for-profit institutions. Premier's programs passed the overall ratings, but most failed at half of the assessment – their students were in debt beyond 30% of their discretionary income.
Charlton, the senior vice president, said in an email that the company had made changes since.
"The institution has worked tirelessly in recent years to reduce both the cost and the duration of the program," said Charlton. "As a result, most of the programs listed in the paid employment data published in 2017 that failed in the one-time category … are no longer offered by the company."
Nearly two-thirds of programs that did not result in gainful employment had stopped recruiting students in August 2018, according to data compiled by New America, a left-wing think tank.
Under DeVos, however, the Ministry of Education first stopped producing these data (which essentially eliminated the consequences for failed programs), and then repealed the rule this month. The change will come into effect in July 2020, although schools are allowed to implement it immediately. As part of this decision, the Ministry also removed the requirement for schools to publish debt and investment information on their websites and, after two extensions of the time limit, to delete the mandate given to schools to provide this information directly to future students. .
"The institutions will save a lot of time and money by eliminating the heavy disclosure requirements," the ministry writes in the final rule. He decided that putting data online in a centralized consumer tool, rather than requiring schools to publish them individually or directly to students, was "the way to share information."
Drowning in debt
Evers is now unemployed – she says that all the jobs she could get would not cover what she would have to pay for looking after her three children, ages 9, 3 and 1 . Her husband, Jonathan, has a good job as a welder. But just before Christmas 2016, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating condition that worsens over time.
"I'm afraid of having my house removed. I'm afraid my kids do not have a bed to sleep in a few days, "Evers said.
Evers was able to defer the repayment of its loan while not earning money, but this adds to the ultimate financial burden as interest accumulates. She now owes $ 24,000, one-third more than the $ 18,000 she originally borrowed, and she does not know where to go for help. She is not alone – people who can not pay their student loans have few options, even though, like Evers, they think they have not followed the studies for which they have paid.
In 2016, the Obama administration updated the regulations to allow students to obtain the cancellation of their loan if they prove to the federal government that their schools illegally induced them into fault. But before the new rules can come into force, DeVos announced that the Ministry of Education would rewrite them.
Near a decade – and tens of thousands of students – after Evers' first visit to Salter, some signs seem to indicate that Premier is starting to feel the heat. The company announced that it will operate 15 schools in September, up from 22 in 2018. Evers alma mater is no longer accepting new students. The prime minister said that he was making school closure decisions based on consumer demand. But the business is also expanding. This spring, he opened a new school in Philadelphia.
In hindsight, Evers thinks she would have done better not to register.
"They did not care if I was a person," she says. "They just saw me as a dollar sign as I walked through the door."