20110810-cover-0101Wednesday, August 10, 2011
By Heather Miller
Photos by Robin May

For-profit colleges advertise themselves as a quick route to career success, but do unwitting students just end up with a pile of debt and a worthless ‘diploma’?

The largest university in the country is expanding its footprint in the Hub City with a new campus, we think.
According to Lafayette Consolidated Government, the new building nearing completion on Settlers Trace Boulevard behind East Bayou Baptist Church will house the University of Phoenix, an institution that teaches hundreds of thousands of students worldwide and is owned by the publicly traded corporation Apollo Group. The private, for-profit University of Phoenix already has one campus in Lafayette that’s been open for more than six years, but the only info on its new addition comes directly from the permit office at LCG. Corporate policy prohibits officials with the university’s media department from commenting on “possible future expansions.” Say what?

That an educational institution declines to tout upcoming programs and potential new jobs in the community seems somewhat singular when compared to the open-book policies of public universities and traditional community colleges. Then again, UL Lafayette didn’t bring home $4.9 billion in profit last year.
UoP is the nation’s leader and top innovator of a for-profit higher education industry that’s been emerging for the past 15 years. The college, which offers both on-site and online learning settings and more than 100 degree programs, is a well-known brand thanks to marketing and advertising budgets that often exceed what the company spends on teaching. Just look at the facility in which the Arizona Cardinals play their home games: The University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., site of Super Bowl XLII.

The university-turned-Wall Street favorite first opened in the mid-’90s when a tenured education professor started his own school designed for adults in need of post-secondary training, according to a 2010 PBS Frontline report. The school capitalized on part-time teachers and had new courses starting every week, a one-of-a-kind approach at the time when compared with traditional academia. UoP founder John Sperling’s first Phoenix campus grew so fast that the company went public in 2000, and its model of open admission and flexible schedules has spawned a slew of other for-profit colleges. Unitech Training Academy and Delta College are two local small-scale examples of such prototypes.

Although the companies are privately owned, the majority of funding in for-profit colleges, 75-85 percent according to PBS, comes from federal student loans and grants, which are paid for by taxpayer dollars.

The schools typically serve a working class, low-income population that otherwise may have no other shot at a traditional, four-year college or other higher education alternatives. But with an industry expanding so much over a relatively short period of time, for-profit colleges have come under scrutiny over the past several years and, more recently, stricter federal regulation. The schools’ graduation and job placement rates, enrollment practices, high tuition and percentage of student loan defaults have raised the eyebrows of more than a few higher ed education stakeholders and politicians in recent years.

For Brandy Daigle Watson, a Church Point resident and former diagnostic ultrasound student at Unitech Training Academy, worthless is a word that often comes to mind when looking back on her college years.

Watson, a single mother when she enrolled at Unitech, thought she enrolled in a diagnostic ultrasound sonography program that would place her in a $20-an-hour job as an ultrasound technician after graduation, assertions that were echoed by enrollment employees signing her up. She had no idea when she started at Unitech, located in a bustling strip mall on Ambassador Caffery across from the Mall of Acadiana, that she would eventually join more than a dozen of her classmates in suing the school for misleading students into a two-year program that cost $22,500 and never received the proper accreditation promised by the school.

Watson says when she and other students enrolled, school officials told them the program was in the accreditation process and would receive proper credentials by the time students completed it. But like much of what Watson was told when she enrolled, things didn’t pan out that way.

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 Unitech Training Academy on Ambassador Caffery

The school’s ultrasound program never did get accredited, and graduates left $22,500 poorer than they were when they started.

An ultrasound program must be accredited if graduates want to take the state exam to become a registered ultrasound technician. If the program is not accredited, Watson says, graduates must have worked as an ultrasound technician for at least a year to be eligible to sit for the registry. But even that condition is a catch-22: Most hospitals and private practices won’t hire someone who isn’t already registered or is unable to sit for the exam, she says.

“I went on several interviews, but as soon as I told them where I went to school, they weren’t interested,” Watson recalls. “I don’t think any of the teachers were qualified. We had a new teacher every couple of weeks. If I would have gone to LSUE for the same program, I wouldn’t have had any problems getting a job.”

As for clinicals, or on-site training that the ultrasound curriculum required, Watson says she sat at home for three months in between the classroom and clinicals — waiting for the school to place her in a doctor’s office or hospital as it promised. She eventually found a clinical site on her own at Laborde Diagnostics and was able to receive her unaccredited degree.
She has since been hired full-time at Laborde’s office as a receptionist, not an ultrasound tech — and not for the salary that ultrasound technicians typically take home.

“I went to school every day for two and a half years. I was second in my class,” Watson says. “It’s really upsetting to take that much time and money out of someone’s life and not get anything out of it. And it’s more frustrating because I enjoyed doing the work I was going to school for.”

Watson and more than a dozen others from the diagnostic ultrasound class of 2007 filed three separate lawsuits against Unitech for misleading them about the program accreditation. All three lawsuits were settled for undisclosed amounts, though Watson says the settlement wasn’t enough to cover even half of the loans she took out and still owes the federal government.

Unitech Academy Senior Vice President James Hardage agreed to an interview with The Independent but canceled the scheduled meeting the next day. The ultrasound program is still listed as a degree offered by Unitech on its website, but its unclear whether the program has since received the proper accreditation.

For-profit college students comprise about 12 percent of all higher ed students in the country, according to The New York Times, yet account for almost half of all student loan defaults nationwide. And until it was outlawed this year, many for-profit schools, UoP included, based the compensation of its enrollment counselors on the number of students they recruited. UoP, which paid out more than $65 million in settlements over its recruitment techniques, saw a 42 percent drop in enrollment after only three months of conforming to the new federal law, according to The Arizona Republic.

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 University of Phoenix on Settlers Trace

For some students, like University of Phoenix graduate Ray Lavergne Jr. of Lafayette, the campus proved a perfect match for his educational goals. Lavergne, a human resources director for a Lafayette oil company who has a bachelor’s degree from UL, obtained his MBA in 2006 from the existing Lafayette UoP campus. Lavergne was already working as a safety manager for a smaller oil company when his employer encouraged him to pursue further education. He paid between $20,000 and $25,000 to complete the program, substantially more money than he would have paid had he attended UL. According to tuition figures and estimates compiled from UL’s website, in-state tuition for an MBA at UL is approximately $10,000.

“I got a lot out of the program,” Lavergne says. “At that time, I was a safety manager for a smaller oilfield company, and this certainly has allowed me some benefits for promotion opportunity. Now I’m working for a much larger company in a higher position. In my particular class, we had a variety of students. Two of them were doctors who had opened their own practices and wanted to educate themselves on how to run a business. Everyone in my class was an experienced professional. Fortunately, I didn’t have to take out loans to do the program. But taking out a loan would’ve been worth where I am now.”

And though the classroom setting was ideal and Lavergne is pleased with his outcome, his circumstances differed from those who enroll at for-profit colleges as first-time students with weak academic backgrounds and few resources. A report released late last year by the Education Trust finds that an average of 22 percent of first-time students at for-profit schools finish school within six years, the mark used to measure graduation rates. According to stats provided by UL, 42.2 percent of UL’s first-time, full-time freshman students graduate within six years, and 46.2 percent of freshman students who start at UL and later transfer to another in-state university finish within the six-year period. The national “benchmark” graduation rate at traditional universities is 46.3 percent, according to UL.

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 UL’s Dr. Paula Carson

“You have to be careful and do your research,” Lavergne says. “Even though the University of Phoenix is accredited, it still doesn’t carry the traditional college recognition, which is understandable. It’s a shift from a big university.”

Dr. Paula Carson, assistant vice president for institutional planning and effectiveness at UL, concedes that traditional universities and public institutions cannot accommodate every person who needs to pursue post-secondary training. And with the Obama administration’s goal of having the world’s highest number of college graduates by 2020, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hasn’t argued against the need for more higher education options. He told the PBS news program Frontline in 2010 that he sees no problem with for-profit learning institutions, “but where there’s high-pressure tactics and dishonesty, we have to challenge that in a very serious way.”

“I think we can affirm their motivation to engage in self-betterment,” Carson says of for-profit college agendas. “However, as a practitioner of assessment and assurance of student learning, I have not seen much compelling evidence from these institutions that learning outcomes are carefully deliberated or achieved. The choice of a university is one of the most important decisions, investments actually, that an individual will ever make. Yet unfortunately, we still very much find ourselves in a ‘buyer beware’ market. And many for-profits are spending much money in lobbying efforts to ensure it remains that way.

While we want every interested and able student to seek as much education as they possibly can, one must question whether a substandard education is better than none at all, if for no other reason than the lost opportunity and financial expenditures wasted on it.”

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