“Make the call that will change your life and get you on the right track toward a rewarding future." Sales pitches like that are helping to draw record numbers of students to for-profit schools that offer job training in everything from welding to massage therapy to medical billing. • Buoyed by the recession, these moneymaking career colleges are filling a niche with skill-specific training, flexible schedules and online degrees. • But behind the multibillion-dollar business and promises of better-paying jobs is a minefield for students, critics say. With costs that can exceed $30,000 for a two-year degree, many graduates emerge saddled with debt, and for some, a diploma that employers and other schools may not even recognize.
"The students who sign up don't realize many times what they're getting into," said Angie Moreschi, an investigator at the James Hoyer law firm in Tampa, which is investigating several for-profit schools on behalf of students. "We've had students $100,000 in debt with degrees like fine arts and video game design, and they say they are never going to get jobs that will pay that back."
The burden of much of that debt falls not only on students but the nation's taxpayers. Many students finance these educations with federally backed student loans and are struggling to pay them back.
Recently released U.S. Department of Education data show 44 percent of students in default on their federal loans after three years had attended for-profit colleges — almost double the number at public universities.
Christine Cortez, a Coral Springs single mother, plunked down $30,000 to attend the Institute of Allied Medical Professions in Delray Beach for a diploma she hoped would lead to a medical job in ultrasound technology. But the school did not have an accredited ultrasound program at the time, so Cortez is ineligible to take a certification exam that she said many employers require.
"I feel like I've wasted all this time and money," said Cortez, who has been unemployed since graduating almost a year ago.
She is one of 14 former students who filed a lawsuit against the school in January for selling them "a bill of goods." Institute director Karen Vidal said the suit is "baseless," and the school is seeking to dismiss it. The ultrasound program is now accredited.
Recession bolsters enrollment
The debate over the legitimacy and value of nontraditional for-profit schools and colleges is growing as the industry has soared in popularity. The recession has seen enrollment mushroom with students eager to change careers, go back to school or increase their earning potential.
In Florida, more than 300,000 students attended for-profit colleges last year, an increase of 63 percent over 2004, according to the Commission for Independent Education, a division of Florida's education department that licenses the schools. Students were enrolled in campus or online programs at more than 150 schools, the largest of which were Everest, University of Phoenix, Keiser University and Kaplan University.
Keiser surveys its graduates six months after they get jobs and says that 90 percent are satisfied with their education.
"There are some great schools and there's some bad schools," said chancellor Arthur Keiser. "I believe that we have as good a quality education as anybody in the country for what we do."
Several other schools declined the Sun Sentinel's requests for an interview.
For-profit schools do not attract typical college students entering right after high school. Their base: lower-income, older students who may be working or have children.
Peter Waller, CEO of Corinthian Colleges Inc., which owns Everest, summed up his company's students in a February conference call on earnings: "They are 25- to 27-year-old average age who, frankly, have got lost in life, and we are their lifeline to a career."
But to critics, that lifeline may be more a handicap to some students at career colleges. They say the main motive at some schools is making a profit and that they mislead students with unrealistic promises through aggressive marketing.
'Call right now'
During a recent episode of Maury on daytime talk television, half the commercials were for career colleges.
"I'm a medical assistant. I make more money than I ever imagined," said a woman advertising Everest. "Get up and pick up the phone and make a better future for yourself."
With the toll-free number on the screen, a man's voice added: "If she can do it, you can do it. Pick up the phone and call right now and start on the road to a rewarding career and a better life."
Everest officials did not respond to requests for an interview. The parent company, Corinthian, is one of the largest in the industry and is projecting $1.75 billion in revenues this year.
Everest's Web site doesn't list cost information, but an admissions representative told the Sun Sentinel that one program available at its Pompano Beach campus — offering an associate's degree in criminal justice — costs about $35,000. The school says that can lead to a job as a corrections officer, which at Florida's Department of Corrections pays about $30,000 to $45,000 a year.
Bad credit, no problem
Career colleges make it easy for students to enroll with little or no money upfront. Financial aid representatives help students line up loans. Even candidates with a bad credit history are not discouraged.
Among the frequently asked questions on the Web site for Florida Career College, which has campuses in Lauderdale Lakes and Pembroke Pines: "My credit is terrible! Can I still receive financial aid?" The answer: Yes.
"People are desperate right now to improve their skills and marketability because jobs are so scarce," said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit organization in California that studies student borrowing through its Project on Student Debt. "That adds up to a ripe marketing opportunity for for-profits: 'Come over here. We'll get you started right away, and boom, you'll get a great job.' For far too many, what it really means is you'll take on a lot of debt that you won't be able to pay back."
Among graduating seniors in 2008, 96 percent of students at for-profit schools had loans compared with 72 percent or less of students at traditional universities, according to an analysis by the Project on Student Debt. They also came away owing the most: an average of $33,050 vs. $27,650 for students at private nonprofit schools, and $20,200 for public university grads.
The Career College Association, a trade organization, contends the higher borrowing is a result of the lower-income students attending their schools. "They have more debt because they have fewer financial resources to begin with," said spokesman Bob Cohen.
That same student makeup also explains federal loan-default rates, according to the association. While higher than other types of colleges overall, the rates are similar when compared with individual schools serving low-income students, Cohen said.
"If we as a society want to give lower-income people and working adults access to higher education, there is clearly more of a risk," said Harris Miller, CEO of the association.
The greatest risk, though, is not for the schools, since they receive their money upfront, but to the students taking out the loans and, ultimately, to taxpayers. Unpaid loans follow former students through life, can ruin their credit and lead to serious consequences, including the federal government garnisheeing their wages and withholding their tax refunds. Even declaring personal bankruptcy is not an option to shed student loan debt, except in rare cases.
"You want to be very careful as a consumer taking on a huge amount of debt based on the assumption that you're going to have a great job that will make it manageable to pay off," Asher said.
Career colleges place about 70 percent of their students in jobs, Miller said, though there is no research on whether graduates are financially better off than before they enrolled.
In South Florida, educators, job recruiters and employers say the quality and value of a career-college education varies.
"There are some very fine, in my opinion, for-profit institutions in our local community," such as Keiser, said David Armstrong, president of Broward College, formerly Broward Community College.
Those schools meet the same accreditation standards as public and nonprofit colleges. But others are accredited by less reputable organizations created "for the purposes of being able to qualify (schools) for federal financial aid," Armstrong said.
Career-college students routinely apply to the private, nonprofit Nova Southeastern University only to find their coursework is not accepted.
"I don't think there's a month that goes by that we don't hear some kind of really tragic story of somebody who spent a lot of money at one of these institutions and then tried to transfer into either our institution or a state university, and the credits don't transfer in," said Nova chancellor Ray Ferrero Jr.
Some recruiters say the degrees can still be valuable in the marketplace.
Beth Hanuka, manager of Ultimate Staffing in Fort Lauderdale, said any higher education or training is a benefit for job candidates. "Thumbs up, from our perspective," she said of career-college graduates.
But Andrew Wallace, spokesman for the staffing service CareersUSA, said some employers "absolutely do not put a whole lot of stock in these degrees."
"Would we rule out sending someone on an interview because they had gone to one of these schools? No," Wallace said. "The employer may say, 'No thanks,' but we won't make that judgment."
Employer Adam Rosenberg has a unique perspective. He previously worked at a career college and now interviews job candidates as vice president of human resources for Q Capital Strategies, a Boca Raton financial services company.
"Some of the schools to me, just from experience, are diploma mills," Rosenberg said. "They're into the dollars more than the education."
He said he considers a degree from a for-profit school a "weeding-out factor."
"If all things are equal with a candidate, I will go with somebody that graduated from a traditional college," Rosenberg said.
Mason Jackson, president of WorkForce One in Broward County, said that before deciding on a school, prospective students should do their homework.
"Upgrading your skills is never a bad thing, but people need to look for legitimate schools with quality training," Jackson said. "You just have to weigh any debt you might incur against the return you might get."