Illustration by Vlad Alvarez.
Bobby Ruffin Jr. was only 14 when a recruiter from Ashford University called. The Birmingham, Mich., boy thought he'd clicked on a link promising help finding money for college. It was actually a lead generator for the for-profit, online school's sales staff.
At the time, Bobby was an A student. His parents had pulled him from the troubled Detroit schools, hoping that home-schooling would deliver something better for their son. He told the recruiter that he wanted to be a doctor. She assured him that Ashford could be a stepping stone to that dream.
Never mind that he was only in the eighth grade.
"She said, 'You'll be working toward a degree as a medical doctor, so when you do graduate high school you're almost there,'" Bobby says today. "I'm like, 'This is great, I'm going to talk to my mom.' And she's like, 'No, I wouldn't tell your parents because that would take away from the shock when it happens. If I were you I'd complete the program and when graduation comes around let them know. Mom and Dad will be super excited.'"
Admission to Ashford requires a high school diploma or an equivalent. So when it came time to fill out the financial aid forms, the recruiter told Bobby to claim that he'd already graduated. He objected, but she insisted "the loan processing company will go back and correct everything." Still, he left the graduation date blank. Someone filled it in, because Ashford was soon receiving federal student loan money on his behalf.
Of course, it's illegal for kids Bobby's age to receive financial aid. But for-profit colleges haven't always been scrupulous when it comes to raiding the federal treasury. Between student aid and G.I. Bill programs, most schools receive 90 percent of their revenue from the American taxpayer. And the recruiters — often little more than salesmen paid largely by how many people they enroll — are driven mercilessly to keep those cash registers ringing.
Students don't get much in return. Though tuition rates can run as high as America's most esteemed universities, the education is generally substandard. In the end, most kids wind up walking away with a questionable degree bought at top dollar — and a mountain of debt to accompany it.
Bobby took online classes for almost a year. But when he wouldn't endorse Ashford's lies on his financial aid forms, administrators miraculously discovered that he was under 18. Since this left him ineligible for federal aid, Ashford was forced to return his loan money to the feds.
The school wouldn't be eating those costs. Bobby would. Ashford, which declined interview requests for this story, sent him a bill for $13,000.
Last fall, Bobby was finally able to enroll at a real university, Eastern Michigan, where he was named a National Collegiate Scholar. Yet he still owes Ashford. Because it's a private debt, he isn't eligible for deferments while he's in school, and any future wages could be garnished.
Unfortunately, this isn't a scam that only targets the young and naïve. The for-profit industry is so rife with deceit, it's been billed as the second coming of the mortgage loan debacle. And the same people are behind it. Three-quarters of all for-profit students are enrolled at schools owned by Wall Street banks and private equity firms.
All told, they soak $30 billion a year from American taxpayers. But even in the age of slash-and-burn government, Congress has shown no interest in stopping it.
"The problem with the subprime [housing] scam was that it got so big it almost brought down the entire world's economy," says Barmak Nassirian, a former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "This one's wisely limited to $30 billion a year, which is highly sustainable. In the context of a multi-trillion federal budget, that's not even a rounding error."
CONSUMER FRAUD AS A BUSINESS MODEL
You may not know it, but you're sitting on $117,000. That's basically how much every American is potentially worth in government student aid. Want to attend grad school? Throw in another $114,000.
As for-profit colleges have discovered, an 18-year-old with 100 large makes for a very easy mark.
In order to get in on the gravy train, a school only needs accreditation from some supposedly neutral body. But Congress neglected to say who should do that accrediting, resulting in a system loaded with charlatans. Some agencies have built sturdy reputations over decades. Others are little more than rubber-stampers, more geared toward gobbling up members' dues than safeguarding kids.
"It never occurred to [Congress] that as billions of dollars get attached to the recognition process, the process would get corrupted," says Nassirian. "When you say yes, you gain membership dues. After all, you're living off these dues."
Yet even bargain bin accreditation takes several years. So the titans of Wall Street found a way around this, purchasing small, failing schools to snatch up pre-owned accreditation.
Take Bridgepoint Education. Its majority stockholder is Warburg Pincus, a New York private equity firm. When it needed accreditation for Ashford University, it bought the 85-year-old Franciscan University of the Prairies, a struggling, 300-student religious college in Clinton, Iowa. Overnight, it was transformed into the online powerhouse Ashford.
Bridgepoint, which also owns the University of the Rockies, grew from just 12,623 students in 2007 to 77,892 in 2010. Its profits also exploded, going from just $4 million to over $216 million annually. About 85 percent of its revenue comes directly from the federal treasury.
But if Bridgeport and Warburg Pincus are billing top dollar, they're unrepentant misers when it comes to educating kids. In 2009, Bridgepoint spent less than $700 per student on actual instruction. By comparison, the nearby University of Iowa spends 17 times that figure.
What Bridgeport doesn't short is its marketing, spending $2,714 per student to keep the turnstiles spinning. Overall, the 15 largest for-profit colleges spend nearly $13 billion a year on recruiting and marketing.