Starr Golden is quick to admit she’s made mistakes in her life. She just didn’t think going to college would be one of them.
The 41-year-old wife and mother of seven isn’t giving up on her goal to earn a degree, but she’s regretting the costly path she took through Brown Mackie College. After more than a year of study and thousands of dollars in tuition, Golden finds herself with no practical training, no college credit to transfer and more than $15,000 in outstanding loans.
If buyer-beware signals sounded by a whistleblower lawsuit against Brown Mackie’s parent company aren’t enough, let Golden’s story put a face on this cautionary tale.
Returning to school after more than two decades would be a challenge for anyone, but Golden had almost inconceivable hurdles to overcome when she decided in early 2009 to go back to school. A Fort Wayne native, she dropped out of Snider High School at 16 when she became pregnant, returning to earn her GED at age 18 through Fort Wayne Community Schools’ Youth Life Skills program.
I had a bad spell, she said of her early years. I was an alcoholic, but when I turned 35, I was done. I haven’thad a drink in over six years.
Golden credits her faith for her recovery but said she realized she needed a goal – to work with young people struggling as she once did. She said she had learned how to use food stamps and cash checks but not how to make a better life for herself and her family. Golden decided she would study criminal justice and pursue a job in the judicial system as a way to help others.
Why Brown Mackie College?
I saw it on TV, Golden said. They said you could take one class a month. That’s what sold me – the one subject a month was perfect because I had kids at home.
A visit to the school’s attractive building, on Coliseum Boulevard just west of Hobson Road, confirmed her decision.
When you go in there, they make you feel like the most exceptional person, she said. They make you think it’s going to be so easy to accomplish what you want to do.
Golden said the Brown Mackie representative listened to her story and insisted on calling the dean, who he said would want to meet her. The other official arrived, ostensibly to give immediate approval for her admission. Financial aid applications were handled entirely by the college, she said, with her looking over the representative’s shoulder at a computer screen before signing off.
Golden began her studies and found herself enrolled not in criminal justice classes but mostly general education courses. While she wasn’t immersed in her chosen field, Golden was excelling, she said, earning A’s in all her work, making the dean’s list and participating in the college’s law club.
She focused on her career goal by volunteering at local women’s shelters and an outreach program she started at her church, Lifeway Wesleyan in New Haven. She also worked to arrange her own internship, which she knew would be required by the college before she graduated in April 2012.
It was a Brown Mackie instructor who first fueled her suspicions this past summer.
She came to me and said, What are you doing here? You’re too smart to be here,’ Golden said. She said, Have you gone out and talked to anyone about getting a job?’
Golden said the instructor also suggested that she look up some of her classmates on the state’s Odyssey court case management system. When she did, Golden found that some of the students working toward the same criminal justice goal had felony convictions that would preclude them from ever landing a job in the field.
One of the girls works really hard and she’s a good student, but she had multiple felonies. She can never be a probation officer, like she wants, Golden said.
With doubts now growing, she began calling local employers to ask about jobs and internships. Golden said she was repeatedly told: We don’t accept Brown Mackie students.
Brown Mackie College-Fort Wayne is operated by Education Management Corp., the second-largest for-profit college company in the nation. In addition to its Brown Mackie campuses, Education Management runs Argosy University, South University and Art Institute campuses in several major cities, including the Art Institute of Indianapolis. Goldman Sachs owns 41 percent of the company.
In August, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Education Management Corp., accusing the company of violating federal law by tying recruiters’ pay to the number of students they enrolled. It alleges the company collected $11 billion in state and federal financial aid based on fraudulent practices.
Recruiters were encouraged to enroll applicants regardless of their qualifications, including applicants who are unable to write coherently, applicants who appear to be under the influence of drugs, and applicants for EDMC’s online program who do not own computers, according to the lawsuit.
The depth and breadth of the fraud laid out in the complaint are astonishing, Harry Litman, a Pittsburgh lawyer representing the two whistle-blowers who prompted the suit, told the New York Times. It spans the entire company – from the ground level in over 100 separate institutions up to the most senior management – and accounts for nearly all the revenues the company has realized since 2003.
The Indiana attorney general’s office has filed a joint complaint in the federal lawsuit, alleging the six EDMC-managed schools in Indiana received more than $12 million in state financial aid based on false claims and misrepresentations. The states of California, Florida and Illinois also have intervened.
Plea for help
Angered by her plight, Golden contacted the state attorney general’s office, which invited communication from students as part of its enforcement of the state’s consumer protection laws. A law clerk in the office forwarded her complaints to Brown Mackie-Fort Wayne.
The response – from Jim Bishop, the local college president – appears to be a boilerplate letter. While referencing Golden in most cases, it also refers in one instance to a Ms. Jiminez.
Bishop declined to comment on Golden’s charges or to answer any general questions about the school, referring them instead to the Cincinnati office of J. Stephen Dobbins, senior director of communications and public relations. By email, Dobbins responded to questions raised by Golden’s experience.
Prior to enrolling, all potential students must complete (a disclosure form), he wrote. They are required to initial each applicable paragraph in the space provided acknowledging their understanding of the provisions of the paragraph. When students have finished reviewing the entire Student Disclosure Form, they are required to sign their name in the space provided. The Criminal Background section of the Student Disclosure Form is one of the sections students are asked to review, acknowledge and initial.
Dobbins also disputed Golden’s claim that a single Brown Mackie employee would handle enrollment, financial aid and scheduling. The student completes the federal application for financial aid, he wrote, not the financial services adviser.
Brown Mackie’s response to the attorney general’s office was that Golden was fully informed. They submitted a copy of the disclosure form she had initialed upon admission, including the statement that Brown Mackie does not imply, promise or guarantee transferability of its credit to any other institution.
Calls placed to several major employers confirm that Brown Mackie graduates are working in health care and other areas, and some accept the college’s students for clinical internships. But some employers noted that they won’t accept students from unaccredited areas of study or because the school’s two-year programs aren’t sufficient training for positions available. Some confirmed Golden’s claim that they won’t consider Brown Mackie students for internships or jobs.
Tony Hudson, executive director of Blue Jacket Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps ex-offenders with education and job training, said his agency has partnerships with several schools in the area, including Ivy Tech Community College, Harrison College, Indiana Tech and IPFW. It does not partner with Brown Mackie, however.
I don’t really look at the Brown Mackie criminal justice program as one I would want to hire from, Hudson said.
The questions Golden raised about criminal justice majors with felony convictions also are valid; all employers surveyed acknowledged that an applicant with a felony record wouldn’t be hired.
That doesn’t mean employment is out of the question, of course. Some nonprofit agencies hire ex-offenders as part of their mission to offer second chances. But Hudson cautioned that what Blue Jacket does is counsel its ex-offender clients who want to work in criminal justice or law enforcement.
What we do really focuses on creating (career) plans that are intrinsic, but tempered with reality, Hudson said. There has to be a very large reality check.
Golden insisted that in their pitch, Brown Mackie officials promoted their programs as if all doors would be open.
A satisfied student
Joseph Morua challenges her assertion. The Monroeville resident, who graduated with an associate’s degree in criminal justice last December, said a Brown Mackie official asked him if he had a felony record when he first applied and expressed interest in the field.
He also said the college was helpful in lining up an externship at the Allen Correctional Institution in Lima, Ohio, and in landing a job as a corrections officer at the Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Ind.
It’s unbelievable how much knowledge I brought from Brown Mackie, said Morua, 23. They helped me out with my résumé; told me different ways to sell myself – they were very helpful.
Brown Mackie’s Dobbins provided Morua’s name as a college success story, along with the name of another Fort Wayne student who earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice and landed a part-time job after serving an internship arranged by the college. But a check of the second student’s record appears to illustrate the very point that Golden raised – the student has a felony conviction for theft and a misdemeanor conviction for criminal conversion. She received government grants and subsidized loans to earn a degree in a field where her job options will be limited.
While it’s perfectly legal for the college to allow a student to study whatever he or she wants, it’s a bad deal for taxpayers – particularly at tuition costs nearly three times that of the community college just down the road. It’s also a bad deal for the student, whose loan debt can’t be discharged, even in bankruptcy.
Angry but undeterred by her own experience, Golden prepared to transfer to Ivy Tech. It was then she learned that none of her Brown Mackie credits would be accepted there.
That’s where I cried, she said. The only thing that carries over is my debt to the Department of Education.
Ivy Tech isn’t the only school where Golden’s credits would be worthless. Karolyn Smith, credentials analyst for IPFW’s Office of Admissions, explained that the university will accept credits only from a regionally accredited institution.
Just about every school is accredited, Smith said. But how they are accredited is the factor.
Brown Mackie College-Fort Wayne has institutional accreditation through the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a national organization that accredits primarily career and trade schools. While it seems counterintuitive, credits from a nationally accredited institution are not widely accepted for transfer to a regionally accredited school. And coursework from nationally accredited schools may not be widely accepted for jobs requiring licensing. Those would include many positions in education and health care.
All Brown Mackie College schools are accredited by either a regional or a national accrediting agency; each agency is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, according to Dobbins.
Golden said the differences between her enrollment experience at Brown Mackie and at Ivy Tech helped confirm suspicions she had about the for-profit school.
Norman Newman, director of financial aid for Ivy Tech Northeast, describes an admissions and financial aid process designed to ensure students are fully informed.
We handle quite a few first-generation college students, Newman said. And since we’re an open admissions school, we’d like to think that every student has a chance to come in and talk to me or a member of my staff about what they are about to go through with regard to financial aid. I think a student owes it to himself or herself to investigate the program he or she is interested in.
Currently, students are eligible for as much as $57,500 in subsidized and unsubsidized loans as an undergraduate.
It’s kind of like vegetable soup, Newman said. The best thing a student can do is be informed in all areas before making a decision – this is the program I want, here’s where it’s offered, here’s how much it costs, these are my financial aid opportunities. What do the employment opportunities look like at the end of two years? How are we going to make this decision?
Newman’s recommendation for a comprehensive look at college programs, costs, financial aid and job opportunities stands as a good model for all students. While Morua and others are happy with their Brown Mackie experiences, Golden’s complaints, the concerns expressed by some employers and the pending federal lawsuit against EDMC should serve as warnings.
The Obama administration has waged an overdue crackdown on abuses among for-profit colleges, requiring gainful employment rules designed to address the problem of graduates who can’t pay back their loans on time or can’t get a decent-paying job. Unfortunately, it watered down its original proposal under pressure of a multi-million-dollar lobbying push by the industry.
Enrollment numbers suggest that the publicity related to the federal crackdown and the lawsuit has students looking more critically at Brown Mackie and its sister institutions. Nationwide, new-student enrollment at EDMC schools for the three-month period ending Sept. 30 fell by 11 percent over the same period in 2010.
But the college’s target audience – non-traditional students – is often consumed with family and work and might not be aware of the questions raised. Like Golden, many are the first in their families to attend college, and so there may not be anyone close to advise them of warning signs in the admissions process.
They might not understand that accreditation does not guarantee the quality of a program or job placement or that the same academic programs are available through the community college system at a fraction of the cost.
In spite of her unproductive start and worrisome debt, Golden is intent on earning a degree. If her story serves to warn other students of the need to do their homework before enrolling in a Brown Mackie program, Golden will also meet her goal of helping others like her.