City Wages War on Scam For-Profits


If you’ve ridden the subway in the past eight months, you know Garvin Gittens. You’ve seen the posters of him seated on a stoop, elbows on his knees, gazing over the hordes of commuters. Maybe you’ve even read the text floating next to him: “I saw an ad on TV for a two-year school where I could learn graphic design and threw away $25,000 on a worthless diploma. . . .”

The first time I met Gittens, outside the downtown office of the Department of Consumer Affairs, it was a sweltering summer day. He alternately patted his face with a hand towel and proudly scrolled through his BlackBerry photo album. There’s the shot he took of himself in an empty subway car posing next to his poster. There’s the shot of an elderly man whose newspaper was spread to a full-page ad of him. There’s the shot he took of his posters that he spied during a visit to the welfare office.

You can’t blame him for flaunting. In the past few years, the 26-year-old jumped from an unemployed, in-debt graduate of the now-defunct for-profit Katharine Gibbs School to the poster child of the city’s Protect Your Money: Know Before You Enroll campaign.

The media has been all over for-profit schools for years, with numerous reports charging many in the growing educational sector with exploiting low-income students by loading them up with government-guaranteed loans and awarding them diplomas of dubious worth. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office sent undercover investigators to 15 for-profit schools and found that “all 15 made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements,” ranging from telling students to lie on financial-aid forms to misleading them about tuition and likely salary after graduation. (The for-profit umbrella group the Coalition for Educational Success later sued the GAO for “negligence and malpractice.”) But it’s only recently that the city has stepped in with its own crusade.

In May 2011, a Bloomberg-administration task force reviewing the relationship between the city’s education system and workforce found that startling numbers of New Yorkers were showing up at city education providers and financial counselors saying they’d been burned by for-profits. According to Tara Colton, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Adult Education, the most frequent complaints from students at licensed schools were over false guarantees that their credits would transfer and that they’d be placed in jobs after graduation. Many students were also drowning in debt and confused by lending agreements they said their schools had brushed over.

As a result of the findings, Consumer Affairs, the Mayor’s Office of Adult Education, the Office of Economic Empowerment, and NYC Service jointly launched Know Before You Enroll last November. The consumer-awareness campaign—which cost in the six figures to execute—has placed thousands of advertisements in city subway cars, bus shelters, phone kiosks, and newspapers, featuring stories of New Yorkers who, according to the city, were scammed or misled into wasting time and money at for-profit schools. Other cities, including Boston and San Diego, have already expressed interest in bringing the campaign to their residents.

There are about 300 licensed proprietary career schools in the five boroughs, offering targeted training in careers ranging from cosmetology to medical laboratory science. A dozen more proprietary degree-granting colleges, such as Monroe College and Berkeley College, award everything from associate’s degrees to Ph.D.’s. And then there are the countless unlicensed schools, which can look a whole lot like the career schools licensed by the state, but operate illegally, offer no tuition protection, and hand out purely worthless certificates. With no one city or state agency cracking down on the unlicensed operations, it’s easy for such schools to slip through the cracks even after the state issues a cease-and-desist order.

Most of the city’s for-profit institutions the Voice contacted did not return calls for comment on the campaign. Those that did were publicly supportive, but wary of being lumped in the same category as predatory schools. Donald Simon, assistant vice president for governmental affairs at Monroe College, calls Know Before You Enroll “a useful activity on the part of the city,” saying it’s well-known that some schools are “rip-off artists” that prey on unwary students.

Terry Zaleski, executive director and counsel for the Coalition of New York State Career Schools—an association of career schools licensed by the state—is also sympathetic to the city’s efforts. But he is worried that the campaign paints with too broad a brush.

“Our major concern is that students aren’t dissuaded from going to a school that’s the best choice for them by a campaign like this,” Zaleski says, noting the importance of for-profit colleges in providing career training for students of all ages and backgrounds. “This may be pushing people away from the quality education that they should be getting.”

Consumer Affairs commissioner Jonathan Mintz says other members of the industry have shared this fear with him, as well. Yet the city wouldn’t budge when these individuals—who, Mintz says, “would prefer we weren’t talking about this”—requested the removal or modification of the ads.

“They were trying to get us to narrow our focus to a short list of schools rather than to the industry itself,” Mintz says. “And our sense was—and I think this has proven to be true—that this was an industry problem. Not everyone in the industry, of course. But it was not a matter of giving people a list of 20 to 30 bad schools to stay away from.”

Unlicensed schools are always a moving target, often closing shop under one name and popping up under another. Within the past decade in New York, well more than 100 schools have either been fined or have had their licenses revoked for infractions including false advertising, unapproved enrollment agreements, or failure to provide disclosure material to students.

Gittens, for example, attended the then-licensed Katharine Gibbs School, which he had discovered one lazy afternoon while watching the Maury show. A commercial came on assuring him of a career in graphic design after only two years. Signing up was a cinch.

School representatives, he says, showed him a list of reputable companies where he would be set up with a job after graduation (he wasn’t). They promised a grand graduation in Madison Square Garden (it wasn’t). They said his credits were transferable should he want to pursue a bachelor’s degree after getting his associate’s (they weren’t).

Most harmful, though, was how easy they made the financial-aid process. As graduation approached in the winter of 2006, letters reminding him that his repayments were due back soon started rolling in from Gittens’s lenders. Ultimately, with no job, he saw no choice other than to default. (A 2011 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that average default rates for students in for-profit institutions are more than double the rates of students in public or private nonprofit ones.)

Gittens could have received additional financial aid to start from scratch at the Borough of Manhattan Community College or the School of Visual Arts—a well-regarded for-profit—even though they wouldn’t accept his credits. But defaulting on the Katharine Gibbs loans prevented him from tapping into any future funds.

“That’s when things started to go downhill,” Gittens recalls. With no job, no hope of getting the education he wanted, and $25,000 in debt, he was stuck.

Until he went grocery shopping. On a trip to Super Foodtown in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Gittens walked past one of the city’s Financial Empowerment Centers. He found out that he couldn’t file for bankruptcy to escape his student loans, but he could get out of default through the federal income-based repayment plan—a solution that would allow him to apply for more financial aid to return to school. He is waiting to hear whether he has been accepted to the graphic design program at the New York City College of Technology for the fall.

In the meantime, Gittens’s ads have helped prod some 300 New Yorkers to dial 311 and submit online complaints to alert the city about their own experiences. At the same time, local officials who supported Know Before You Enroll have advocated alongside state senator Kenneth LaValle and state assemblymember Deborah Glick to push for the passage of a state bill to increase regulation of licensed schools, make it more challenging to receive licensure, and improve databases that track proprietary schools’ information.

Kevin Smith, deputy commissioner of the state’s Adult Career and Continuing Education Services, says complaints forwarded to the state under the new program have helped one New Yorker get a tuition refund, helped another negotiate an agreement to return to school, and tipped off state agencies about some unlicensed operations. But with a lean staff of 21 overseeing the state’s 500 career schools, there’s only so much they can do.

“Yes, we have bad actors. Yes, things go wrong,” Smith conceded. However, he said, “These schools are taking folks who are destined for one bad track and putting them on a very good and productive track. The sector is important.”

Based on national data, for-profits enroll higher numbers of older students, minority students, and low-income students than other colleges. Some career schools even welcome students without high school diplomas. (Students without GED’s can take an “ability to benefit” test instead, though a new law prohibits them from receiving federal financial aid.)

It is precisely because some for-profits are targeting this demographic that Mintz sees such urgency in this cause.

“[These students] are doing exactly what it is that we as a society want them to do, which is they are seeking better skills in order to better their circumstances,” Mintz says. “So the idea that when they are doing that they are being taken advantage of, or not getting value but instead getting debt as they make this incredible effort, is really just unacceptable.”

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