For-profit college ads promise "outstanding job placement" and "exciting careers," but some who end up enrolling -- often immigrants and low-income students -- say they leave with little more than debt.
Nelson Forastieri says he signed up for ASA College in midtown Manhattan to study accounting and make a better life for his family. He says the only jobs he could land after graduation were low-level minimum wage jobs that he could have had without his degree. So he has returned to driving a cab, now $15,000 in debt.
"I spent 18 months of my life, borrowed a lot of money and I wasn’t able to change my situation," he said. "I’m doing the same thing I was doing before.”
Rita Valladares enrolled in two nonprofit schools but didn't finish either. In 2008 she enrolled in the for-profit TCI, Technical Career Institutes, in hopes of earning a degree in digital media arts. But she says she dropped out because the classes seemed too elementary, like how to turn on a computer.
“How to use a computer, like how to turn on the monitor and parts of the CPU, the mouse,” said Valladares. “I had to take this class, it was a mandatory class.”
Attorney Jane Greengold Stevens of the New York Legal Assistance Group is helping Forastieri and Valladares. Her clients believe they've been burned by for-profit schools.
“The schools that we are angry at target low-income, minority, immigrant populations,” said Stevens. “The school’s major goal is to enroll people as quickly as possible. The minute they’ve enrolled somebody and filled out a guaranteed student loan application, the school is going to get its money and make its profit."
New York City’s Consumer Affairs commissioner says his office got 650 complaints about dozens of for-profit schools in 2011 and 2012, during the agency's “Know Before You Enroll” campaign.
One person accused a school of "falsifying their job placement status in an attempt to bring in more students." Another accused a school of "committing fraud and false advertising," according to complaints with the agency.
"There should be more rigorous requirements for getting a license,” said Commissioner Jonathan Mintz. “What are your graduation rates? What are your placement rates?"
The state education department, which licenses for-profit schools and investigates complaints against them, said in a statement that it was "working to improve this important educational sector and with the support of newly enacted legislation we are helping thousands of New Yorkers take advantage of the opportunities proprietary schools can offer.”
ASA College declined to comment. TCI college said it reviewed Valladares' file and determined she was treated fairly.
Steve Gunderson, of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said he disagreed with those who say for-profit schools are only after money.
“If you don't have a product that the market supports, you're going to go out of business," he said.