For eight years, Leesa Tempest has paid for an education she says was almost worthless.
The Business Computer Training Institute charged Tempest nearly $9,000 for the kind of instruction she says she could get from an inexpensive computer training disk. She still owes nearly $5,000 in student loans.
But now it’s Tempest’s turn to get paid.
She’s one of more than 1,300 former BCTI students who started getting checks late last month from a $13.25 million settlement with the school.
The settlement marks the end of nearly three years of litigation against Gig Harbor-based BCTI, which closed in March 2005 amid government investigations and accusations that it preyed on low-income students.
The lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, claimed the school lured poor students by promising a high-tech education and good-paying jobs after graduation. The lawsuit claimed students didn’t get the education they were promised.
Many wound up in low-paying jobs at fast-food restaurants, retail stores and telemarketing firms while owing thousands of dollars in student loans.
Now the settlement will help them pay their bills.
On Christmas Eve, Tempest got a check for $8,068 – more than enough to cover her student loan debt.
“Thank gosh what we received will actually pay it off,” Tempest said.
MISSION TO HELP CHANGE LIVES
The Business Computer Training Institute operated seven campuses in Washington and Oregon, including sites in Tacoma, Fife and Lacey.
Founded in 1985 by business partners Tom Jonez and Morrie Pigott, BCTI taught such basic computer skills as word processing, spreadsheets and e-mail. It also offered a more advanced course in computer hardware and networking.
Most of BCTI’s income came from public financial aid programs for college students. In 2004 the school received $18.1 million in federal loans and grants for students, plus another $810,144 from Washington state college aid programs.
In court documents and written statements, the school’s owners said their mission was to help people who wanted to change their lives. But a News Tribune investigation published in December 2006 found evidence that the school did many students more harm than good.
The investigation found:
• BCTI recruited at welfare and unemployment offices, sometimes in violation of state law. Its employees falsified admissions tests that allowed ineligible students to receive financial aid.
• The school pressured employees to meet enrollment and retention quotas, and fired them when they didn’t. It pressured teachers to keep unqualified students in class so the school could collect their financial aid.
• BCTI charged $11,000 for basic computer classes that were available elsewhere for much less or even free.
• Regulators were suspicious of BCTI as far back as 1993. The school’s finances were shaky. Its graduation and job-placement rates were substandard. Its students complained of outdated equipment and disruptive teacher turnover.
Despite multiple threats to sanction BCTI, federal, state and private regulators didn’t follow through until Oregon investigators put the school on probation in February 2005.
They concluded that BCTI enrolled students who could not reasonably expect to benefit from its training. They also found that the school misled students, promising “information technology” training but focusing on other skills, such as how to dress appropriately and how to interview for a job.
BCTI closed all of its campuses a month after the Oregon Department of Education placed the school on probation.
Jonez and Pigott have declined repeated requests for interviews and did not return calls seeking comment on the lawsuit settlement. Their attorney, Thomas Merrick, did not respond to messages sent by telephone and e-mail.
In written statements and court records, BCTI’s owners denied any wrongdoing. And the lawsuit settlement, reached last spring, says the school “continues to deny that it engaged in any wrongful or unlawful practice.”
The owners have said students signed disclaimers acknowledging that BCTI couldn’t promise wages or employment. They’ve said many graduates went on to successful careers.
That’s what Tempest hoped to achieve, a successful career.
In 1999 she was a divorced mother of two earning minimum wage at a Rite Aid pharmacy.
She said she met a BCTI recruiter outside a Tacoma welfare office. The recruiter told her that BCTI would teach her about computers and help her get a better job. So she enrolled at the Tacoma campus.
She wasn’t impressed.
“It was just basic knowledge you could have gotten off a $10 (computer tutorial) disk,” Tempest said.
But she stuck with it and graduated. She attended school in the morning, and worked at the pharmacy in the afternoon and at a pizza parlor at night. She borrowed nearly $9,000 to pay for the classes.
Tempest said school officials helped her arrange job interviews. But the employers told her she didn’t have the skills they needed.
So after graduation she was still working at Rite Aid – and nearly $9,000 in debt.
Eric Fuller had a similar experience. Before BCTI he worked construction, moved furniture and held other manual labor jobs. He enrolled at the school in 1999 after meeting a recruiter at a welfare office.
Feller said the recruiter talked of “good-paying computer jobs.” After graduation, Feller made minimum wage in a temporary job. He, too, had big debts.
Later, Feller earned an associate’s degree from DeVry University and now works as a computer systems analyst.
“I think it was a waste of time and money,” he said of his BCTI education. “You really didn’t have any marketable skills.”
MOST CLAIMANTS TO GET $8,068
Like Tempest, Feller got $8,068 from the settlement. So will his wife, Dawn, who also attended BCTI.
“I’ll be able to pay off some bills,” Feller said. “It’s all going toward bills.”
Under the terms of the settlement, most students involved in the lawsuit will get $8,068. Those who were enrolled at BCTI before March 7, 1999, will get $2,689 because BCTI contended their claims were too old to be litigated.
Former students who did not join the lawsuit cannot collect on the settlement.
Settlements for 42 students who were enrolled when BCTI closed are still in limbo because the U.S. Department of Education claims it should get the money. The department waived the students’ loan debt when the school closed and now claims it should be reimbursed.
Attorney’s fees under the lawsuit settlement are about $4.3 million – one-third of the net settlement after the costs of litigation are covered.
Attorney Darrell Cochran said the money students receive won’t make them whole. But it will help.
“It helps a lot of people crawl out of some very debilitating debt,” Cochran said. “It’s going to help turn people’s lives around.”
David Wickert: 253-274-7341
You can find our December 2006 investigation, “A troubled legacy,” at www.thenews tribune.com/news/projects/bcti.