Their ads promise a fast path to a high-paying future. Come to our school — Everest, Keiser, or ITT Technical — and we'll train you for America's hottest jobs, whether your interests are air-conditioning repair, accounting or medical assistant.
The recession has been good for proprietary schools, for-profit postsecondary institutions that are seeing their enrollments spike as people look for second chances in a lifeless job market. While public universities are in a holding pattern with tighter budgets and bigger classes, the for-profit sector is spending lavishly on new branches and sophisticated marketing.
Log onto Everest University's Web site and you don't get a catalog. You get a live chat with a sales rep. In just minutes, you too can become a student.
These schools say they provide critical job training without taxpayer subsidies, but there's a catch. They survive on a firehose of billions in federal and state student grants and loans, funneled through enrollees who need only be willing to sign now, pay later.
Nimble at adjusting to the job market, schools that once scheduled classes in massage therapy and pastry arts are moving up the academic food chain to high-demand fields like nursing. Florida, anxious to encourage such startups, last week relaxed the state board of nursing's oversight of new programs. Now if benchmarks are met, a program is automatically approved, no site visit required.
Meanwhile, the state agency that licenses all private postsecondary schools is coping with a 55 percent increase in new programs this year. Whether an institution is training truck drivers, bartenders or trauma nurses, the state's paperwork is the same.
Everest, formerly known as Florida Metropolitan University, is one of a number of for-profit schools getting into the nursing education business. On Everest's Brandon campus, students are put on the fast-track from novice to registered nurse in an intense, 21-month curriculum. Similar associates programs at community colleges take two years.
But speed and access to an RN degree do not come cheap. Everest's program costs about four times as much as programs at public institutions. Some Everest nursing students wonder if they are getting their money's worth.
They say instruction is poor and hands-on time with patients in clinical settings is limited.
They've found it impossible to transfer credits earned at Everest to other nursing schools.
And the first class of Everest graduates stumbled when it came to passing the nationwide licensing exam, the key to qualifying for an RN job.
Of 14 graduates in the first class to take the test, 57 percent passed on the first try. The next group of four graduates all failed. Statewide, about 87 percent of all nursing graduates pass the board on the first try.
Everest officials say it's common for first classes at any school to do poorly on the test. The school said it has improved its curriculum and better results should follow. Though five of the 18 students who graduated in October have yet to pass the boards, Everest says all have jobs.
Landing work is important because students at for-profit schools graduate with heftier debts than students at other schools. Meanwhile, default rates by students at these schools have been twice the rate by students at public colleges and universities.
• • •
Here's why you can sell a $40,000 associates in nursing program when there's a $10,000 program in the same market: The less expensive programs, at public schools such as St. Petersburg College and Hillsborough Community College, have four applicants for every seat.
For Sedina Pilav of Tampa, Everest's nursing course — $41,580 not including books and fees — was a last resort.
"I thought I wouldn't get into USF's program," said the 23-year-old, who had flunked organic chemistry at the University of South Florida. "And there were waiting periods everywhere else. At Everest, they called me back in about five minutes."
Scheduled to graduate in the fall, Pilav will start her nursing career with about $45,000 in educational loans. "I feel like we're being prepared very well," she said.
Gareth Nesbeth, a native of Jamaica, may be the biggest debtor in his class of 23 at Everest. By the time he graduates, including basic courses at a community college, he'll owe more than $100,000.
"Everest was the only school I could get into," said Nesbeth, a 32-year-old who needed student status to retain his visa. "But the classes have been excellent."
Everest isn't the only for-profit school to recognize fertile expansion territory. Keiser University has rolled out nine associates nursing programs in Florida since 2002; a program will open in Tampa next year. ITT Technical Institute, better known for classes in criminal justice and information technology, also has planned a nursing program in Tampa.
This surge of interest in training the next generation of nurses is bumping up against constraints. One is the limited number of clinical sites where students can get hands-on experience. One class of Everest students earned clinical hours by teaching kindergarten students to wash their hands.
"It was a teaching exercise," said instructor Darlene Mention. "That's what nursing is about."
Nesbeth, the Jamaican who was one of four students the school selected to talk to a reporter, said, "The administration has had a problem securing clinical sites. I've always gotten good sites, but being a new program, we're limited."
Frank Weiri, a former student, said he got short shrift on his clinical experience. Weiri, who worked three years at Tampa General Hospital lifting patients, expected to get plenty of practice time in health care facilities. But he said assignments frequently were changed or delayed.
Even when he got into a hospital, Weiri said it wasn't that helpful. During four days at All Children's Hospital, Weiri said there were so many students and so few staffers that half his "hands- on'' time was spent observing the operating room.
Everest officials said records show Weiri received the required 120 hours of clinical training. That included 40 hours at the school, doing everything from worksheets to watching a baby being born to a mannequin.
"I think you could get more from watching a birth on YouTube," Weiri said.
Ruth Abbott, national director of nursing at Everest, said the school provides all required clinical hours and is no different from any other program, at the whim of hospitals that change plans. "We have had institutions cancel on us," she said. "Those things happen."
As for Weiri's complaint that observing pediatric surgery shouldn't count, she said, "As crowded as it is at All Children's Hospital, at least you can see kids who are acutely ill."
• • •
The growing number of nursing schools compete for the limited pool of experienced instructors. Abbott said 67 percent of Everest's teachers have master's degrees in nursing or related fields. At local community colleges, that number is closer to 100 percent.
Nicki James is a 42-year-old real estate agent who wants to become a nurse. Though she has earned a 3.8 GPA at Everest, she wonders how much she has learned.
"We had teachers for whom English was not their primary language, which is not wonderful when you're trying to learn new concepts,'' James said. "Then we had an instructor who was deaf and mispronounced medicines, some of which sound extremely similar."
The school says it never received complaints about either teacher.
James knows what it's like to accommodate picky home buyers, and she expected to be treated like a customer at Everest.
"If I'm paying $385 a credit hour and there's something I'm not getting, I want one-on-one help till I get it," she said.
Although one-third of James' class washed out, Everest's director said every effort is made to retain students through tutoring. "We want to make sure the student is successful," said Abbott, who said most attrition was not due to academics.
Patricia Evans, 62, has a master's in teaching nursing and has experience teaching at public and for-profit schools. She taught for 18 months at Everest before quitting in frustration. A nurse for 41 years, she works now at Brandon Regional Hospital.
"I didn't agree with Everest's teaching philosophy and how the students were treated," said Evans, who praised both James and Weiri as top-notch students.
"I was expected to be a drill instructor and students were supposed to sit there, be quiet and suck it in like a sponge. But you've got to teach students to think, to prioritize, to ask questions.
"When I left Everest, I told the director, 'When you care more about what the students are wearing than what they're thinking, you've taken a wrong turn.' "
Abbott said Evans was "very nurturing to students, but she was not able to give them the information they needed in a complex, technical world.''
• • •
Students unhappy with Everest's programsay they have not been able to transfer credits to other schools. Most of Everest's courses are part of a statewide course numbering system that makes transferring possible. Everest officials said that if schools reject their credits, those schools are breaking the law.
But, as state regulators require, Everest must tell students that no institution can guarantee its credits will be accepted. Receiving schools have the final say. Several Everest students have discovered that the answer is no.
James, the outspoken real estate agent from Ruskin, said she explored transferring Everest credits but got turned down by community colleges.
Weiri was dropped from Everest's program in January after he missed a test due to illness. Everest officials said he failed to retake the exam; Weiri, who had a GPA of 3.4, said he was never given the chance.
Now 46, Weiri has been unable to find another school willing to take Everest's credits. His other option is to rejoin Everest's next class in October. Instead Weiri has talked to a lawyer about filing a breach of contract lawsuit against the school.
The school says it has tried to resolve the issues with Weiri and his lawyer.
"These private schools are short-changing students," Weiri said. "No one is really checking up on them."
Everest was licensed by Florida's Commission for Independent Education and accredited by the national Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. The school said its nursing program meets all requirements.
"Personally, I wouldn't want to be part of an institution that would put someone out there who would be a risk to patients," Abbott said.
Despite graduates' poor showing on the licensing exam, Abbott emphasized that she has not received a single call from the Florida Board of Nursing.
"If we'd had a score like this when I was in Michigan, you'd better believe a consultant from the state would have been at my door. They'd be asking, 'What are you doing about it?' "
Times researchers Caryn Baird, Will Short Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@ sptimes.com or (727)892-2996.