Higher Education

‘They just saw me as a dollar sign’: How some certificate schools profit from vulnerable students

When government turns a blind eye, for-profit colleges fail to fulfill promise of a fast path to a new career and leave students in debt

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certificate programs

Jessica Evers is one of the tens of thousands of students who have enrolled in Premier Education Group schools over the last decade, bringing with them hundreds of millions in federal funding.

OAKHAM, Mass. –  The timing seemed fortuitous. The five people Jessica Evers lived with had left for work and school, leaving her alone to care for her infant daughter and browse the internet for schools. Back then, in 2010, she was 22 and her plan was to find a good job and move out of that small three-bedroom house in Hudson, Massachusetts.

And then, almost as if it were speaking directly to her, a television commercial caught her attention.

With upbeat music and promises of a new career, the advertisement introduced Evers to Salter College. The school had a campus a half hour away and offered certificate programs, which would get her into a career faster than an associate’s degree program.

She immediately visited the website, which described financial aid she could get and, crucially, promised career placement services to help “students and alumni in all aspects of their job search.”

It looked perfect. Just like it was supposed to. Evers, who was unemployed, called the next day to make an appointment with the admissions office.

“My dream was to have a job, to better myself and 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 have found only low-wage jobs, making it impossible to support themselves. Certificates typically take less time to earn than a degree and train students to be cosmetologists, truck drivers and medical assistants, among other jobs.

For-profit schools, such as Salter and others owned by its parent company, Premier Education Group, have zeroed in on this market. Each student can bring thousands of dollars in federal grants and loans. With millions of potential customers and a guaranteed stream of funding, it’s a business model that can pay significant dividends.

For-profit schools award nearly a third of all certificates, but the promised launch to the middle class often doesn’t pan out. At the vast majority of for-profits that focus on certificates, most students who take on debt to attend end up earning less than the typical high school graduate, according to federal data posted by the Department of Education and analyzed by The Hechinger Report.  

Some certificate programs send students into meaningful, well-paying careers, but the for-profit sector’s outcomes are worse than those in the public sphere. For-profit graduates are less likely to find work than comparable graduates of public certificate programs, and if they are able to get jobs, they earn less, according to research published last year by the Brookings Institution.

Premier fits this pattern. A joint investigation by The Hechinger Report and NBC News, involving the review of hundreds of pages of documents – including court filings, records of investigations and complaints made to state agencies – as well as interviews with 42 former Premier students, forms a case study showing the magnitude of a problem facing higher education: how shortfalls in oversight enable companies with questionable track records to continue to recruit vulnerable students and profit off taxpayer money.

In 2016-17 alone, Premier schools enrolled more than 10,000 students across nine states along the East Coast who brought with them $65 million in federal funding, according to federal data. The company posted more than $175 million in profits between 2004 and 2014, according to a 2016 lawsuit filed by a former company CEO who alleged that he was owed bonus pay. (The lawsuit was later dismissed.)

Yet in recent years, default rates at several campuses have exceeded 20 percent, in some cases reaching above 30 percent, while most students earn less than $25,000 six years after enrolling, according to federal data. Premier schools have been accused by a state agency in Massachusetts and whistleblowers in New Jersey and Delaware of falsifying job placement rates, student grades and attendance records.

On the day this article was published, the Massachusetts Attorney General announced that Premier will not be allowed to operate in Massachusetts as of 2020 and must provide $1.6 million in student debt relief. The punishment came as part of a settlement with Premier over allegations that the company did not provide “critical information” on job placement and graduation rates to students.

Only eight of the 42 students interviewed across multiple states for this article said they’d had a positive experience at Premier campuses. More than 20 others described going into debt and unsuccessfully searching for jobs in the field or finding low-paying positions that make it difficult to repay their loans.

Related: Tangled up in debt

Despite their dismal outcomes, for-profits like Premier have taken advantage of a spotty system of oversight to largely fly under the enforcement radar. Although state agencies can investigate the programs, the decision to do so depends on the priorities of officials. Nonprofit accrediting agencies monitor the quality and outcomes of these campuses, but critics say they often fail to respond in a meaningful way when problems are uncovered, giving schools significant time to keep operating.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has vowed to repeal Obama-era regulations intended to increase accountability and student protections, on July 1 rescinded a key measure of schools’ success in helping students get gainful employment. She has argued that the federal government’s role should be to promote transparency rather than punish low-performing schools, and students should have a full range of choices available to them.  Education advocates who have been critical of DeVos’ attempts to roll back regulations say for-profit schools are already taking advantage of students and that it will be worse without existing protections.

“Students should have choices when it comes to higher education,” said Yan Cao, a fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation, who studies higher education.

But Cao said it’s the government’s job to protect students from schools that are likely to leave them in worse financial shape — just as government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration protect consumers from other dangers.

“When you say, I want to have a choice when it comes to food,” Cao continued, “that doesn’t mean that the FDA allows food that’s going to make consumers sick to go out into the marketplace, because that’s not a choice that consumers want or that serves anyone.”

Premier declined to respond to specific student complaints, citing federal privacy laws, but said the school is transparent with students about what to expect from the program and supports graduates in finding jobs.

“We continue to work with our students, the community and our accreditors to improve outcomes,” Premier Vice President Wade Charlton wrote in an email.

The sales pitch

When Jessica Evers went to see Salter College, she listened as an admissions staff member explained that with a medical office administration certificate, she could get hired in a doctor’s office, as a receptionist perhaps, or doing data entry and filing. He said that 97 percent of Salter graduates got jobs and the school would help her find one too, Evers recalled. He also told her she could expect to make at least $14 an hour.

certificate programs

When Jessica Evers first visited Salter College, located in a strip mall in West Bolyston, she says staff told her graduating would launch her career. It didn’t.

It checked all the boxes Evers was looking for. The price tag of $15,000 seemed worth it given the school’s assurances that she would find work; she decided to enroll that day and take out the loans.

“You’re promised a job, so eventually, I’m like, ‘OK, I’m going to be able to pay this back,’” she said.

Premier said the disclosure forms that all students sign state that the school does not guarantee employment.

Her chances would have been higher if she had enrolled at a community college. Graduates of public-college certificate programs on average earn almost $9,000 more than graduates of for-profits, according to federal data, in part because the programs they complete train them for better paying jobs.

In 2014, the Massachusetts attorney general, who had made it a priority to investigate for-profit schools, accused Premier Education Group of inflating job placement rates for years and promising job help that never materialized. Premier denied all allegations of wrongdoing. The company agreed to a total settlement of $3.74 million and to make disclosures on the websites of its Massachusetts schools and in state advertising, including that the school does not guarantee employment. Premier was also required to give students these disclosures 72 hours before they could enroll.

Two years later, a new investigation in the state alleged similar practices. Premier denied wrongdoing but settled with the Division of Professional Licensure for $150,000. The company said it made settlements in both cases to “avoid the uncertainty and costs associated with future litigation.”

Related: New research questions the value of certificates pushed by colleges, policymakers

Students who have attended Premier schools in other states in recent years described similar sales pitches as the one Evers received, centered on the promise that the school would help them find a well-paying job. Some said they were told specific salaries they could expect to make, which they later realized were exaggerated.  

Premier said that staff do not discuss salaries with students upon enrollment. If students ask about salaries, they are directed to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Premier said.

Heather Nagy graduated from the company’s Branford Hall Career Institute in Windsor, Connecticut, in 2017 and remembers being assured by admissions staff and teachers that she would make at least $16 an hour in a medical billing job — or about $32,000 a year. The only job offer she got was for $10.50 an hour without benefits.

Mariah Hayes, who attended Branford Hall’s Albany, New York, campus in 2016, said she was told by staff in the advisement center that medical assistants started at $14 or more an hour, or about $28,000 annually. Most of Branford’s 2011 and 2012 graduates of the medical assistant program made less than $21,000 in 2015, according to federal data.

“They talk a lot about ‘You can make this,’ and then in reality, you don’t,” Hayes said.

A disorganized education

Evers soon fell into a manageable routine, studying while her daughter napped during the day and heading to school at night. But problems began to crop up. For instance, rather than answering her questions, one of her teachers told her to just read the textbook, she said

Evers also said the school was disorganized. More than a dozen other students across several Premier schools agreed, saying that it sometimes took weeks to get books for classes and that teachers were constantly quitting or being fired.

“We do not believe the allegations are accurate or reflective of the experience of our students,” Charlton, the Premier vice president, said in an email.

And then there were incidents that went beyond chaotic operations. Shannon Huey, who graduated last year from the medical assistant program at another Premier chain campus, Harris School of Business, in Dover, Delaware, said that she witnessed administrators changing grades and forging attendance records for students who were behind or failing. Charlton said Premier could not substantiate the claim but “a very limited number of individuals at any campus have the ability to enter grades or attendance.”

A whistleblower lawsuit against Premier, filed by seven former employees in Delaware and New Jersey in 2011, alleged the same practice at other Harris campuses. These employees said that the schools had encouraged them to change student records for financial reasons; the school would stop getting federal dollars for any student who failed and was dropped from the program.

The suit also alleged that Premier had misled potential students about job placement rates and pressured staff to “renounce all academic standards.”

Premier agreed to a $3.4 million settlement in July. The company admitted no wrongdoing and, as with its previous two agreements, said it settled to avoid the uncertainty and costs of continued litigation.

Related: As feds pull back, states step in to regulate for-profit colleges and universities

As proof that it offers a quality education, Premier notes that all its campuses are accredited. But some accrediting agencies are less stringent than others about enforcing standards.

For years, the bulk of Premier’s schools were monitored by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, an agency that presided over schools with such poor outcomes that in late 2016, the Obama administration revoked the federal recognition that allowed it to operate.

The council appealed and was reinstated in 2018. Over the past several years, it began taking more actions against schools, including several of the Premier campuses it oversaw. In December 2016, Premier was notified that its Branford Hall campuses would have their accreditation withdrawn following three straight years of job placement rates at its main campus below 60 percent, the lowest the agency allows. (Yet just a year and a half earlier, the agency had granted accreditation to a new Branford campus.)   

Premier objected to the action, arguing that it was “arbitrary and capricious.” In August 2017, the agency decided to officially withdraw accreditation from the campus with lowest job placement rates; an appeal by Premier was unsuccessful.

National accrediting agencies use job placement rates to evaluate the educational quality of certificate schools. According to Premier’s disclosures published in 2018, about a third of its programs had job placement rates below 60 percent. Just a quarter of Salter College’s massage therapy graduates got jobs in the field; the same was true for a third of students from Harris School of Business’ dental assisting program in Wilmington, Delaware. The job placement rate for Jersey City’s Branford Hall computer networking and security evening program was zero.

Premier says that it continually works to improve student outcomes.

The job search

In the summer of 2012, Evers stepped up to the microphone in a cap and gown, having volunteered to address her fellow Salter graduates and their friends and family. She thanked her sister and father, telling the crowd that she wasn’t always sure she’d make it to that day: a higher education graduation.

certificate programs

Jessica Evers looks through a stack of letters she’s received about her student loans over the years. She has deferred payment, but the interest keeps accumulating.

Afterward, as her family celebrated, it seemed like everything was working out as planned. Or almost as planned. Evers had accepted a full-time job at the medical office where she’d done her externship —  a weeks-long experience required for graduation. They’d offered her $12 an hour, Evers said, less than the $15 she’d been told she could expect, but more than she’d ever made in retail jobs at Lowes or Target.

Then she got her first paycheck: $11 an hour. She quit shortly after that, because she said the environment was abusive, assuming she’d easily find another job.

She has lost track of how many jobs she applied for — sometimes 15 a week — without hearing back.

At first, she called the school for help at least once a week. Each time, they told her to send in her resume, which she did. “I never got any response,” she said. A couple times, she drove to the school to ask for help in person. Nothing worked.

She found one job, on her own, for $12 an hour. But the office was small and there weren’t enough patients to keep her on staff.

Premier said it cannot comment on individual students’ complaints because of privacy laws but that in Evers’ case, Salter College “has been in touch with her on several occasions for employment assistance.”

Related: Placement rates, other data colleges provide consumers are often alternative facts

Whether schools should be held accountable for problems like those Evers has faced is a matter that federal regulators have debated for years. In 2015, the Obama administration announced a new rule that tied federal financial aid to the amount graduates earn. Starting then, career training programs whose graduates owed 12 percent or more of their total annual income in debt payments and 30 percent or more of their discretionary income would fail. Failing twice within three years would render a program ineligible for federal aid.

When the first gainful employment results were published in 2017, more than 800 programs failed; almost all were at for-profit institutions. Premier’s programs passed the overall ratings, but most failed half of the evaluation — their students had debt loads exceeding 30 percent of their discretionary income.

Charlton, the Premier vice president, said in an email that the company had made changes since then.

“The institution has worked tirelessly over the past several years to reduce both program cost and program length,” Charlton wrote. “As a result, most of the programs listed on the gainful employment data released in 2017 that failed the single category … are no longer offered by the company.”

Almost two-thirds of programs that failed to lead to gainful employment had stopped enrolling students by August 2018, according to data compiled by New America, a left-leaning think tank.

Under DeVos, however, the Department of Education first stopped producing this data — essentially eliminating consequences for any failing programs and then issued a repeal of the rule this month. The change will go into effect in July 2020, although schools are allowed to implement it immediately. As part of the decision, the department also did away with a requirement for schools to post debt load and job placement disclosures on their websites and — after twice extending the deadline — got rid of a mandate for schools to provide this information directly to prospective students.

“Institutions will save considerable time and money by eliminating burdensome disclosure requirements,” the department wrote in the final rule. It decided that putting the data online in a centralized consumer tool, rather than requiring schools to post it individually or give it to students directly, is “the right way to share information.”

Related: As students flock to credentials other than degrees, quality control concerns grow

Like Evers, most of the former Premier graduates interviewed said that they received no, or extremely minimal, help in finding a job and many said the job offers they did get were for less money than they were told to expect. Those that wanted to further their education found themselves stuck in a different way.

Mariah Hayes, the student from Albany, planned to use a medical assisting certificate as a stepping stone to becoming a nurse. No one told her that the classes she took at Branford wouldn’t transfer to a community college. In fact, she recalls being told several times that many people used the school as a first step toward her desired career.

“How can you not tell your students all the information they’re going to need?” she said. “If they had made this very clear to me in the beginning that these credits were not going to transfer, honestly, I never would have never wasted my time to go to school to be a medical assistant.”

Premier said that it follows laws and regulations that require disclosures to all students about the transferability of credits, including in paperwork signed during the enrollment process.

It’s typical for less expensive, public institutions not to accept credits from for-profit schools that don’t meet the same standards. Officials from five community colleges near Premier campuses said that students cannot transfer credits from Premier schools, in part, out of concern that the academic rigor of the courses may not be the same.

Last year, Hayes decided to enroll in community college to study nursing and began retaking classes she’d already taken at Branford. This time around it was “way more intense,” she said, requiring a higher level of academic performance

Drowning in debt

Evers is now unemployed – she says any job she could get wouldn’t cover what she’d have to pay for care for her three children, who are 9, 3 and 1. Her husband, Jonathan, has a good job as a welder, but right before Christmas in 2016 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that gets worse over time. Already, he sometimes misses work because of the pain MS causes, reducing the family’s income. In 2017, the family moved to Oakham, which is cheaper than Hudson. They have no internet service or cable TV.

certificate programs

Bailey Evers was just a baby, when her mom, Jessica, decided to enroll in Salter College. Today, Bailey is 9 and Jessica still owes $24,000 for an education that didn’t lead to a well-paying job.

“I’m scared I’ll get my house taken away. I’m scared my kids may not have a bed to sleep in some days,” Evers said.

Evers has been able to defer her loan payments while she isn’t earning any money, but that just increases the ultimate financial burden as interest accumulates. She now owes $24,000, up a third from the $18,000 she originally borrowed, and doesn’t know where to turn for help. She is not alone  — people who can’t pay off student loan debt have few options, even if, like Evers, they believe they didn’t get the education they paid for.

Related: Would proposed borrower-defense rules help or harm indebted students?

In 2016, the Obama administration updated regulations to enable students to have their loans forgiven if they could prove to the federal government that their schools illegally misled them. But before the new rules could take effect, DeVos announced that the Department of Education would rewrite them.

Attorneys general from 18 states and Washington, D.C., sued over the delay and in October 2018 a federal judge ordered the rules to be implemented immediately. But in the second half of 2018, the department didn’t approve or deny a single claim, even as the backlog had grown to more than 150,000, according to department data. The department says it is waiting for a legal ruling before being able to move forward. As of March 2018, 83 Premier students had submitted claims.

Nearly a decade — and tens of thousands of students — after Evers first visited Salter, there are some signs that Premier is beginning to feel the heat. The company says it will operate 15 schools in September, down from 22 in 2018. Evers’ alma mater is no longer accepting new students. Premier said it makes school closure decisions based on consumer demand. But the company is also expanding. This spring, it opened a new school in Philadelphia.

Looking back, Evers believes she would have been better off never having enrolled.

“They didn’t care that I was a person,” she said. “They just saw me as a dollar sign as I walked in the door.”

Reporting was contributed by Eric Salzman and Kate Snow of NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.

This story about certificate programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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