Lindstrom: Stop the Fraud and Abuse at Career Colleges

Posted June 28, 2010 at 12:57pm

The Department of Education will soon release a key new rule to rein in the career college sector. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group is among more than 30 student, higher education and consumer organizations awaiting the ruling. We applaud the efforts of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, to shed light on the problem by holding a series of hearings, which began Thursday. Students and taxpayers need protection.

[IMGCAP(1)]Constance Brown agrees. Her story depicts a sector rife with fraud and abuse:

“I wanted a more satisfying and higher-paying career in health care,” she says. “I moved to Jacksonville, Fla., working as a certified nursing assistant, and I was accepted at Sanford-Brown Institute in the 18-month diagnostic medical sonography program. It would cost me $35,000.

“Back in 2006, finalizing my enrollment, I found out that the facility in Landover, Md., was not accredited. So I asked: ‘Is the school accredited?’

“Misleadingly, I was told ‘Yes.’ Because I didn’t know any better, I didn’t know exactly what type of accreditation to ask for, so I when I heard ‘Yes,’ I assumed the best. It was all good news — I had qualified to get into the program, the school was accredited with real professors and I was offered the loans I needed to pay for it. Excitedly, I signed the papers.

“Much later in the school year, as we started our clinical work at different medical facilities, my classmates and I began to learn about other programs. We found out that the students with whom we were competing in the career field were going to graduate with the knowledge and ability to take the registered sonography exam. At Sanford-Brown, we were not getting the same preparation.

“We had a meeting with our ultrasound director to ask her why we had to work full-time, 32-40 hours a week, for 12 full months, but the other students didn’t have to, and yet they were going to come out of their program with the right credentials. She reassured us that the school as a whole was accredited to teach ‘allied health.’ She then admitted that the program I was in was not accredited with the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, which is the type of accreditation necessary for a job in the field. She also said that facilities like to hire non-registered technicians because they can pay us less money!

“Sadly for us, it was too late to get our money back. Today I am $35,000 in debt and still working the same job I had before the program. I’ve applied far and wide to work performing ultrasounds, only to be told that I don’t have the right credentials. My credits and grades earned at Sanford-Brown do not transfer to similar programs at other places.”

Constance’s experience is not unique. Her debt burden is high: One in four graduates with a bachelor’s degree from a for-profit college carries more than $40,000 in student loans, which is double the amount of debt that a graduate carries from a nonprofit college. Students at for-profit colleges make up only 7 percent of those in higher education but 44 percent of those defaulting on their federal loans.

Her instruction was inferior. One in four federal Pell Grant dollars and one in four federal Stafford loan dollars flows to the career education sector. Yet little of it is spent on student training.

Constance couldn’t get ahead. Soaring debt is hard to pay back when graduates aren’t prepared to get the higher-paying job for which they thought they were being trained. Student loan debt follows borrowers throughout life. Constance didn’t get the skills she needed to repay it, the law says she cannot walk away from it and her earnings and Social Security could be reduced because of it.

Many career education programs overcharge and under-deliver, targeting vulnerable students because of the federal aid dollars for which they qualify. Students graduate with record debt levels and little job prospects, while Wall Street investors profit from the flood of financial aid dollars that rolls in. We believe that these programs should meet students’ expectations of an improved livelihood and taxpayers’ expectations for how federal financial aid should be used.

We hope that the Department of Education and our Congressional leaders hold to these convictions as well.

Christine Lindstrom is the higher education program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.