Some graduates of beleaguered Everest College allege deceit

The Seattle TimesJuly 14, 2014 

Ashley Kyle had the strongest of reasons to trust Everest College, the for-profit career-college chain with a campus in her hometown of Everett.

A dozen years ago, her mother attended the school for a medical-assistant degree, and eventually got a job at Swedish Hospital. So Kyle, who is 20, left her job at Domino’s Pizza last year and enrolled in Everest’s program for pharmacy technicians.

Her experience was nothing like her mother’s, but very much like more than a dozen recent Everest graduates who contacted The Seattle Times after it reported that the schools were being investigated and sold.

The Everest graduates said the school misrepresented the wages they could make after graduating, and did a poor job of teaching and preparing them for national certification exams.

Only a few said they found work in the field they studied. All took out thousands of dollars in federal and private student loans. Most are still paying them off.

Though they represent only a handful of Everest graduates, their testimonies mirror allegations from investigations across the country   that Everest and its parent company, Corinthian Colleges Inc., deceived students by misrepresenting job-placement rates and the earnings of its graduates.

This month, the federal Education Department increased financial oversight of Corinthian and withheld financial-aid payments. That action left the company   which gets most of its revenue from federal financial aid   so strapped for cash that it decided to wind down operations and close 12 of its U.S. schools in the next six months.

The remaining 85 schools   including Corinthian’s Everest College campuses in Seattle, Tacoma, Renton, Everett, Bremerton and Vancouver   are now for sale. Corinthian spokesman Kent Jenkins said the company has received numerous inquiries; he’s confident the schools will find buyers.

Additionally, attorneys general in 16 states, including Washington, are investigating Corinthian’s student-lending practices and whether the company misled students about employment rates.

California’s attorney general filed suit against Corinthian, alleging false and predatory advertising, and Massachusetts’ attorney general also has sued Corinthian, saying it pushed students into high-interest subprime loans and misrepresented job-placement rates.

Corinthian has vigorously denied all of the allegations.

Jenkins, Corinthian’s spokesman, said the company has a corporate-verification team that examines placement data for accuracy, and that team reported accuracy issues it discovered on two campuses to regulators and accreditors. He said the cash-flow crisis that led the company to put the schools up for sale happened after the Education Department gave Corinthian an extremely short time frame in which to turn over hundreds of thousands of records.

A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE

The Everest schools are among more than 300 state private career schools, most of them for-profit, that are licensed and monitored by the state Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board.

Board spokeswoman Marina Parr said the board had received no complaints about the Everest colleges.

If career colleges weren’t doing a good job, they wouldn’t remain in business, said Gena Wikstrom, executive director of the Northwest Career Colleges Federation, an industry group. They thrive because small, focused schools work better for some students than other options, such as publicly funded community colleges, which can be large and intimidating, she said.

That seemed to be the case for one student who contacted The Times, Sandra Reyes of Mount Vernon. Reyes went to a community college for 11/2 years and “did not like it all   there were way too many students in one classroom, the teachers were always busy,” she said.

Reyes heard good things about Everest from family and friends who went there and found jobs after graduation. She’s enrolled in the medical-assistant program at Everest’s Everett campus.

“The teachers are awesome   they help you with everything they can,” she said.

When Ashley Kyle enrolled in the eight-month pharmacy-tech program at Everest College in Everett, she was impressed by numbers the college touted showing high placement rates and high wages for their graduates.

But as classes progressed, Kyle grew worried that her teacher was fumbling his way through material. “Toward the end, with the math and stuff, he had no idea what he was doing,” she said.

Kyle did an externship   a kind of internship for career-college students   at Walgreens, and learned more there than she did in the Everest classroom. She studied furiously for the national pharmacy-technician exam and passed it earlier this month, but felt the school had done very little to help. For the most part, she said, she taught herself.

Kyle has a federal loan and a private loan with an interest rate of 9.9 percent. She’ll owe about $300 a month for the next 10 years. And she now knows that pharmacy techs don’t make as much as she’d been told by Everest officials.

“They took advantage of me being really naive,” said Kyle, who had just started her job search.

Trista Beldin, 26, a pharmacy student at Everest’s Renton campus in 2010, had a similar experience. At first the courses were challenging, but a strong teacher left the program and was replaced by one not nearly as rigorous.

She did externships at two pharmacies, where the staff “seemed to be pretty stunned at some things that I didn’t know, like certain ways to label medications or the doses for certain medications,” said Beldin in an email.

Beldin realized that about half the topics on the national pharmacy test weren’t covered by the Everest classes, so she did not take the test. She got a job as a pharmacy assistant, but it paid only a little more than minimum wage.

Beldin dropped out of the field and now works as a receptionist at an auto dealership. She owes $16,000 in student loans.

“I feel like I went to school for absolutely no reason at all,” she wrote.

Jenkins, of Corinthian, said the schools overall have a graduation rate of 61 percent, better than the national graduation/transfer rate at community colleges, which is about 30 percent. (Washington community colleges do much better than the national average, with a graduation/transfer rate of about 47 percent.)

And Jenkins said 69 percent of Corinthian grads find jobs in their field.

“I think, unfortunately, no one in higher education has a 100 percent graduation-to-job-placement rate, and because of that, there will inevitably be some folks who may not be happy,” he said.

LOANS, CLASS CREDITS

In a 2012 U.S. Senate investigation, Corinthian was noted for charging some of the highest tuition prices of any of the for-profit colleges examined.

It also had some of the highest student-withdrawal rates and, among publicly traded education companies, the highest loan-default rates   36 percent.

Corinthian refuted the Senate’s findings, Jenkins said, and added that its systemwide loan-default rate has since dropped to about 19 percent. Its private-loan-default rate is much higher — about 50 percent, he said. Corinthian financed many private loans itself.

The Senate investigation noted that public schools often charged much lower tuition.

That’s true in Washington state, where Edmonds Community College, for example, offers a pharmacy-technician program for $4,000 in tuition and fees   about a quarter of what Everest charges. The Edmonds program has a 71 percent employment rate, and graduates typically make $16 an hour.

Credit transfers are another concern about career colleges.

While Washington’s community colleges have transfer agreements with four-year colleges that help make the transition smooth for students, credits earned at for-profit career schools often don’t transfer.

Beth Adolphsen, medical-assistant-program director at Everett Community College, knows a dozen students who received degrees at for-profit schools and then enrolled in community college after they couldn’t find a job.

Because some for-profit programs are not accredited, and because transcript and course descriptions are unclear, few of the credits transfer, she said, and students often have to start from scratch.

That said, the route through community college can be complicated.

Pharmacy-tech students who have never worked in health care must take a three-month-long set of foundational classes on the health-care system, which costs an additional $2,000, said Elizabeth Patterson, director of allied health education and special projects at Edmonds Community College.

Because technicians need to understand ratios and proportions when mixing drugs, they must also show they’ve mastered basic algebra; if they do not, they have to take a math class, Patterson said.

Everest also sells itself on the strength of its career networking and job-placement offerings. But Margaret Noonan, 52, of Tacoma, was dismayed by the results.

Noonan studied to be a medical-administrative assistant at Everest-Tacoma beginning in 2012. She had a 4.0 GPA, but said the school did little to help her find a job. Most of the leads Everest sent her, she said, came from Craigslist.

“When I tried to complain to the big head office ... basically I was told it was my fault I wasn’t hired yet,” she said.

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