How I Helped a For-Profit University “Steal” Taxpayer Money

How I Helped a For-Profit University “Steal” Taxpayer Money November 21, 2018

For more than 12 years, I worked as an enrollment counselor for an online for-profit University. Each day my job required me to convince adults to enroll in Bachelor’s degree programs. For more than a decade I enrolled more than 2,000 adult students into programs. During that time I realized that the company I worked for used deceptive business practices, sales techniques, and shady management to achieve enrollment growth. Online for-profit schools are financial predators that mask themselves as legitimate schools.

When I interviewed for a position as an Enrollment Director in 2004, the supervisor convinced me I would change lives. As a 25-year-old idealist, I jumped at the opportunity to impact the lives of others.

In April 2004, I began my work at the university. I started working in their graduate school programs. After about a year, I moved to their business programs. I remained in the business sector for the rest of my career there.

In the mid-2000s the education market was booming. The program I sold did not rely on business theory in the instruction. Instead, the degree “taught” practical business application. Individuals that were reluctant to take a traditional business degree at a brick and mortar school flocked to our program.

The program I worked in did not require courses in statistics, business calculus, microeconomics, and macroeconomics. Administrators told us that theory based courses did not have practical application in the real world.

Frequently, I wondered how the school could prepare a student for a career in business leadership without primary economic education.  My fears were consistently brushed aside by management, and school leadership told us individuals didn’t need to understand economics to work in business.

Each day I spoke to students around the country about enrolling in business degrees. Most of my day I spent talking with stay-at-home parents or unemployed/underemployed adults.

Who I spoke to on a daily basis sharply contrasted who the company told me I should be recruiting. The company told me the target audience for the degree I “sold” was someone already working in the business field. Unfortunately, less than 10% of my day was spent talking to anyone with business experience.

Even though administrators designed the program for individuals with business experience, I enrolled anyone that wanted to start the program. Management instructed Enrollment Counselors to begin new students in general education courses. Our degree was costly compared to public universities. Due to the exorbitant cost of the program, we were instructed to persuade students to use financial aid to pay for the classes.

According to leaders at the university, they believed everyone deserved access to education. Because of that belief in access, the school had minimal admission requirements for enrollment. Individuals without college education did not have to take the ACT or SAT.

Management told us to enroll anyone that wanted to start. In meetings and one on ones, management reinforced that we cannot discriminate against anyone that wants to start the program. However, the bulk of people I spoke to each day had never held a professional business position, lacked basic writing skills, and had no money to pay for courses.

For years I felt conflicted about the ethics of enrolling students ill-equipped to manage the curriculum and the desire of the university to increase enrollment growth. Each month management required Enrollment Counselors, like me, to enroll a specific number of students.

The focus of my department was on recruiting and enrolling students. Our leadership gave us scripts and training about what the school offered to prospective students. We told new students that they could expect to have the following:

Academic support and advisors to guide them through their programs

  • Faculty that engaged weekly with them in the online courses
  • Rigorous and industry competitive curriculum
  • Financial aid support and guidance to manage the tuition and fees
  • Access to tutors and mentors if needed
  • Writing and math support
  • Access to a career center and listings of hundreds of positions

On each call with students, I followed a script to outline our platform. Management required me to ask specific questions and provide details about the program, cost, and resources.

Students that spoke to anyone in my department thought they were talking to education consultants. Even though my job title was “Enrollment Counselor,” I was not a counselor at all. My job was a sales position.

My job required that I hit specific enrollment numbers every month. Management tracked my call metrics, and my reviews were based on my management of my applicants through enrollment. While senior leaders said I could not be paid based on admissions, my annual salary was contingent on my overall enrollment numbers.

Individuals in the department that enrolled the most students received the highest compensation. For almost a decade, I was a top performer in my department. My salary, before I left in 2016, was the highest on my immediate team.

For years I ignored many red flags about my job because of the salary I earned. I didn’t look at my overall retention rate of students I enrolled. Additionally, I didn’t think about what happened to my students after they started. Once a student enrolled in a program, the student was no longer my problem.

Over time it became impossible to ignore the concerns of my former students. Each day I fielded angry calls about financial aid, refunds, faculty issues, academic counselor issues, and disputes about grades. My job title permitted me from mediating the complaints. Instead, I was forced to send the calls to other departments.

My former students emailed me consistently about not having any support. Others complained that faculty rarely engaged in the courses. Some said they didn’t think faculty even read their assignments. Students with business experience complained about others in the class that lacked basic writing skills.

The new students I enrolled with no education background complained they had no academic guidance or help from faculty. Throughout years, I watched hundreds of students fail out of classes due to lack of support.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of my job was managing students that were only enrolling to obtain financial money. Because the school had no admission requirements, anyone with a high school diploma could apply and start the degree. Individuals looking for a quick payday enrolled to gain access to financial aid refunds.

Most of the people that enrolled for fraudulent purposes were easy to spot. These students had no educational background, no career goals, and only ever wanted to know about when a financial aid refund would be awarded.

When I brought up my concerns that people were fraudulently enrolling to obtain the financial aid, management told me my job was to recruit students and not to worry about their intentions. My supervisor gave me a script to cover all the financial requirements.

In order to “weed out” fraudsters, I was told to explain payment terms, default penalties, and government requirements regarding Federal Financial Aid. Even with the compliance language, people still enrolled with the sole purpose of obtaining the refund.

After years of ignoring the red flags, I realized I had to look at my retention and completion rates for students. On the day I looked at my overall retention, I remember my stomach dropping to the floor. During the years I enrolled in the business programs, less than 10% of the students I enrolled finished their degrees. If you compare that to the average completion rate of a public school of 59%, my student’s completion rate was dismal.

The spreadsheet of my enrollments showed hundreds upon hundreds of “discontinued” students. The majority of the students I enrolled never completed their first course. In order to cross-reference my fears, I looked up several of the people that dropped out in their first course.

Most of the people that dropped out of their first courses stayed in the class long enough to get the financial aid refund. After receiving the refund, they dropped their course and left the university.

I’ll never forget the moment I realized that I enabled hundreds of people in ripping off the federal government. My chest felt tight, and I had a panic attack in my office.

For over a decade, I enrolled students for my employer that stole money from the government. My employer was able to keep a chunk of the federal money based on the number of days the student remained enrolled. Both my employer and the students were stealing financial aid money.

When I brought my concerns to my immediate supervisor, leadership told me that school policies complied with federal laws. Even though most of my students never completed their degrees, management and leadership seemed unconcerned.

At this point, I was forced to make an ethical choice. Despite having a salary that reached nearly six figures, I knew I could no longer work there. I knew students enrolled to gain access to Federal Financial Aid, and I had employers that understood this and did nothing to stop the practice.

As the overall Financial Aid Debt in the U.S. Government swelled, for-profit schools, like my employer, were responsible for billions of dollars in debt. Studies completed that measured default rates of for-profit schools indicated 47% of students default on their student loans. Federal Financial Aid is funded through tax dollars. When someone defaults on financial aid, they are stealing money from the average taxpayer.

When I walked away in 2016, I had to leave because I felt like a thief. I believed my employer valued profit over everything else, and education was secondary to their profit goal. Additionally, I no longer wanted to be a part of an organization that used loop-holes in Federal Financial Aid laws to steal from the government.

Today I can sleep easier at night knowing I’m no longer contributing to the massive financial crisis in our country. However, my old employer still exists, and they continue to use the same loopholes to steal federal funding. Somethings will never change.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Beth H

    As one who nearly fell prey to a pure for-profit school, an interesting read. Sadly, many are not aware of the predatory actions of some of these schools. Even schools that are fairly legit have some highly questionable business practices (speaking from experience).

  • Yes, higher education is not perfect by any means. But profiting off education is wrong. The idea of enrollments being an indicator of long-term success is crazy – given the horrible retention rates.

  • TheBookOfDavid

    From the surrounding context, I am guessing you meant this:

    My job title permitted prohibited me from mediating the complaints

  • Jim Jones

    My job title permitted prevented me from mediating the complaints. Instead, I was forced to send the calls to other departments.

    Makes more sense???

    Pity the poster didn’t copy the records or spreadsheets and provide them to a federal prosecutor.

    BTW, my little wake up call: Google (americans college english free)

    Also see:

    How Berea College Makes Tuition Free with its Endowment – The Atlantic

    Berea College, in Kentucky, has paid for every enrollee’s education using its endowment for 126 years. Can other schools replicate the model?

    https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/10/how-berea-college-makes-tuition-free-with-its-endowment/572644/

  • Jim Jones

    Profit, per se, is not a crime. In fact, the real crime here is the management and control by the federal government. They should be tracking monies spent versus employment outcomes.

  • Jim Jones

    I taught for 6 months for one. It seems too common to be an accident.

  • Beth H

    Agreed,,it’s no accident!!