News Column

Students Seeking Job Skills Can Pay Thousands More At For-profit Schools

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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.

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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.

While programs at public colleges may cost less, they are not without challenges. A lawsuit against Virginia Western Community College alleges the school defrauded students when it failed to tell them that its nursing program had lost its national accreditation.

Some John Tyler Community College students also are considering a suit after the college discontinued a surgical-tech program that failed to gain national accreditation. Kraus said he could not comment on either case.

Brian Moran, interim president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, defends the higher costs charged by for-profit institutions as justifiable and understandable. His association, which represents the industry, has filed suit against the Education Department challenging new rules intended to protect students.

Moran, who is also chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said community colleges and other public schools can charge less than for-profits because they are heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

"The actual cost is very competitive. It's the price that is different because of the taxpayer subsidy," he said. "The for-profit college not only does not receive subsidies but it pays taxes."

But others see an industry that exploits low-income students and is itself supported by taxpayer-financed loan programs. The suit against RSHT, filed in Washington by a civil-rights law firm, alleges the school practices a form of "reverse redlining" targeting African-Americans whose credit ratings are ruined when they cannot repay their loans.

Nationally, about 1.6 million students -- some estimates put the number at nearly 2 million -- attend for-profit institutions of higher education. Federal financial aid for these schools totaled about $24 billion for the 2008-09 academic year. For many schools, the loans account for 90 percent of revenue, the maximum allowed by Congress.

A study this month by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found for-profit schools disproportionately attract low-income students, especially females. According to the study, low-income students between the ages of 18 and 26 are likely to be overrepresented at for-profit institutions and underrepresented at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions.

The study says that from 2000 to 2008, the percentage of low-income students enrolling at for-profits increased from 13 to 19 percent, while the percentage enrolling in public four-year institutions declined from 20 to 15 percent.

But Moran says the schools typically attract older students seeking flexible schedules and marketable skills. They are "interested in the degree as opposed to the various and sundry other activities" that draw younger students to traditional colleges, he said.

Moran said the schools' extensive marketing is necessary. "We don't have decades and in some cases centuries of existing," he said, "and we don't have the wonderful sports teams like Virginia Tech and U.Va." to attract students.

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Last year, about 10,000 people earned certificates, diplomas or degrees from for-profit institutions certified to operate by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. But that does not include for-profits offering degrees online that do not have a physical presence in Virginia. Nor does it include for-profits that are exempt from certification.

Under Virginia code, only postsecondary schools with a physical presence in the state are eligible for certification. All in-state private and out-of-state public and private institutions must be certified until they have operated for at least 10 years under the same ownership and have remained fully accredited.

SCHEV's Private and Out-of-State Postsecondary Education office last year certified 342 colleges and vocational schools, including 175 for-profit institutions granting degrees and certificates.

Certification offers a measure of protection for students, including a tuition guaranty fund that can provide restitution if a school closes. It also means the school must be accredited, although new in-state schools have three years to reach that level.

SCHEV can check that the faculty has proper credentials, "but can we say this is a good teacher?" said Linda H. Woodley, director of the Private and Out-of-State Postsecondary Education office.

She recommends that before students sign an agreement, they sit in on a class at the school and talk to potential classmates about their experiences.

Woodley, whose office mediates complaints between certified schools and students, said one of the problems she sees most is that students have not read the agreements they sign. That can lead to disagreements, for example, when a required externship turns out be an hour's drive away or more.

Jodi Power, deputy executive director of the state Board of Nursing, recommends that before choosing a school students check the pass rates on the NCLEX licensing exam, which are posted on the board's website.

RSHT's passage rate for its practical-nursing program has been below 80 percent since 2006, said Tomeka Dowling, the board's nursing education consultant. Last year, 62 of 86 candidates passed, or 72 percent. In 2009, the rate was 42 percent.

The board voted in May to negotiate a consent order with RSHT that would allow the school to continue to operate the program but not accept new students until the passage rate exceeds 80 percent.

The board could move to discontinue the practical-nursing program if RSHT does not agree to the consent order outlining steps necessary to improve practical-nursing instruction.

The nursing board also regulates programs in certified nursing assistant and registered nursing, as well as massage therapy. Other state agencies oversee licensing for some programs. The Board of Cosmetology and Barbering, for example, regulates barbering, cosmetology, nail care, waxing, hair braiding, tattooing, body-piercing and esthetics.

But not all programs that a school might offer carry such oversight or even nationally recognized accreditation.

That can cause confusion for students who think they have credits that will transfer toward a degree program, said Malcolm Holmes, director of marketing and public relations for J. Sargeant Reynolds.

Richmond has a crowded market of postsecondary offerings, with much overlap and duplication of services.

Holmes said a recent survey found 54 institutions of higher education in the Richmond metro area, many offering similar programs.

"It's a lot of competition here for the same population of students," he said.

The community college system has an open admission policy, but Holmes said Reynolds' practical- and registered-nursing programs are not easy to get into. Admission to both programs is competitive, with applicants required to pass screening exams.

And at the end of the program, the students still must pass the state licensing exam, regardless of whether they graduated from a public or proprietary school.

ECPI awards a diploma for its $32,500 practical-nursing program; Reynolds awards a certificate.

But the nursing board's standard for instruction doesn't vary with the price tag or the name of the credential awarded, Dowling said. "It's the same."