J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College offers a nurse aide certification program -- similar to the one that left Mary Morgan more than $10,000 in debt -- for $588.
The practical-nursing program costs about $6,000 at Reynolds. A check of for-profit colleges in the Richmond area found their nondegree programs can cost up to $32,500, although one college declined to disclose its tuition.
"What's too much?" a "career counselor" at one proprietary college asked a caller inquiring about the nursing program. Prospective students must come in for one-on-one counseling, she said, with the advice not to delay because "I'm only going to accept 14" in the next session.
Such is the crowded, confusing and often high-pressure market that students must navigate when they go in search of credentials to help them find a job.
Morgan is a plaintiff in a class-action suit filed this month against RSHT, or the Richmond School of Health and Technology, that alleges she was deceived into thinking she would earn a certification in home health care. She ended up with only the nursing assistant certificate after RSHT arranged for her and others in her class to take a six-week course at another for-profit school.
RSHT is also under scrutiny from the Virginia Board of Nursing. Its practical-nursing program has been operating under conditional approval since 2007 because of the low passage rate of its students on the licensing exam.
News of the RSHT lawsuit prompted calls and emails from more than a dozen former students with grievances that mirrored those in the suit -- that unsatisfactory programs left them with no better job prospects, only large debts from federally financed student loans they are struggling to pay off.
"They promise you the world," said Ashley Timperio, who chose RSHT because its tuition was lower than other career colleges she checked.
Timperio, who lives near the Willow Lawn campus, started in the medical-assistant program but was encouraged to switch to practical nursing after she complained about the quality of instruction.
She recently quit that program in frustration over classes that ended hours early and instructors who talked about their personal lives rather than the subject matter, she said.
For hands-on training, which was supposed to offer practical instruction, the students were taken to nursing homes to socialize with residents, she said. "I could have done that on my own and not paid for it."
Timperio expects the cost for her unhappy experience will total nearly $10,000. "Those student loans, I have nothing to show for," she said.
* * * * *
The for-profit industry has been under fire recently because of its rapid growth, reliance on U.S. Department of Education loans and questionable marketing practices. In August, the U.S. Government Accountability Office told Congress that it had found deceptive recruiting and fraud at 15 schools its undercover investigators visited.
But the industry is made up of schools that vary substantially, state officials say.
"It's really hard to generalize a lot about that sector," said Jeffrey Kraus, spokesman for the Virginia Community College System. He notes that the system has agreements with some for-profit institutions, including ECPI, University of Phoenix, and Regis, Strayer and Troy universities, that facilitate the transfer from two-year to four-year programs.
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