MN universities face more scrutiny

Youssef Rddad

When Art Institutes International graduate Justin Karels first applied to the school, he was told nearly all graduates find a job in their field of study. 
 
But five years and $130,000 later, he said he knew of only one student working as an animator out of his class of 15 from the for-profit college.
 
Karels said he thought the school, which has a location in downtown Minneapolis, misled him and failed to be transparent on his career prospects. After struggling to make monthly student loan payments, he stopped paying.
 
“I feel I paid over [$130,000] just to get a subpar education and not even be able to get an entry-level position,” Karels said. “They took my passion and used it to fill their pocket.”
 
In part due to complaints from students, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education started sending secret shoppers this spring to several Minnesota colleges and universities, including for-profit schools, to let them know they are being watched and to give them feedback about their admissions staff.
 
OHE Student Consumer Advocate Betsy Talbot said the secret shoppers program wasn’t implemented until this spring because there was no student consumer advocacy position until she started in the post last year.
 
Talbot said she sent 10 secret shoppers in total. Five went to for-profit schools that received recent complaints, and the rest went to public schools. She said she plans on sending more in the next three months.
 
Drop out and loan default rates are higher for for-profit schools than they are for public schools, according to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
 
Student complaints sometimes involve for-profit schools over-selling their programs and misrepresenting their academic quality, which can leave graduates underprepared for their careers, Talbot said. Other times, she said, schools can mislead students by not bringing up relevant information, like transferable credits.
 
The University of Minnesota’s transfer criteria evaluate incoming transfer students’ credits based on factors like their previous school’s regional accreditation.
 
Karels said he felt Art Institutes International didn’t tell him his credits may not transfer to other colleges when he began to have doubts about the program partway through.
 
He still opted to finish.
 
“There are definitely admissions representatives who are probably not following the expectation of their management,” Talbot said, adding that she hopes secret shoppers give dishonest representatives a higher incentive to follow the rules.
 
OHE can revoke a school’s license, effectively closing it, but Talbot said her office would only use that power if it found a school’s management aided employees in giving false or misleading information.
 
Despite the negative attention they sometimes attract, for-profit schools serve a purpose for students, Talbot said. 
 
“A lot of these schools are providing a gateway for education that other institutions in the area can’t provide,” Talbot said.
 
Retired Northwest Technical Institute instructor Glenn Geissinger, who taught architectural drafting at the for-profit school, said prospective students and their parents need to research schools before applying.
 
“A school can never guarantee a student’s success,” Geissinger said. “Students need to do their due diligence and not take what admissions people say at face value.”