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A Nationwide Scandal in Higher Education

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
A college graduate, saddled with student debt, attempts to pay it off by enticing others into debt. (Model: Levi de Padua; Photo: Joe Toreno)

A college graduate, saddled with student debt, attempts to pay it off by enticing others into debt. (Model: Levi de Padua; Photo: Joe Toreno)

Young, broke, and desperate, Michael Fitzgerald worked at the heart of an emerging nation-wide scandal in higher education. He shares his experience calling college admissions officers and pretending to be an applicant. While the admissions officers would try to sell him on their school, he was monitoring how well they made the sale and whether they made false promises about financial aid or the likelihood of getting a job after graduation. In Fitzgerald’s efforts to get out a bad student loan fix, he found himself helping Big School entice potential students into even worse situations.

Fitzgerald's Pacific Standard feature story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Monday, November 02. Until then, an excerpt:

We were five employees, all college-age, sitting in a gray, two-room office with narrow windows near the ceiling. Each of us had a computer, a phone book, and a tape recorder. With the recorder running, we’d call any one of dozens of for-profit colleges owned by Big School, a publicly traded entity that runs schools in and around the nation’s largest cities, including Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Detroit.

When I called a Big School recruiter, I’d give him or her a fake name and a fake address—somewhere in the same region as the school but not in the same town (I couldn’t risk being asked if I had tried the new sushi place on Broadway, for example). I’d usually look up names and addresses in the cities where I pretended to be living, but then swap out a few key details so that fake me didn’t correspond to anyone real.

Then I’d try to sound interested in but hesitant about attending college. I often mentioned an interest in photography, drawing on my high school experiences photographing rotting apple cores for an art class. I’d also make up details like work experience and high school GPA, usually a low one. Most of my characters had made some past mistakes but yearned for a better life of the sort promised by a college degree.

The recruiters loved me. They’d tell me about their own lives and hopes and dreams. Many of them seemed to have messed around in high school, too, until some revelation—a billboard, a rap session with a family member—pointed them toward higher education in creative fields like graphic design or culinary arts. And now they were working as for-profit college recruiters.

I rated how well they made the sale and, more importantly, checked to see if they were overselling: making false promises about the financial aid I could receive or about the likelihood of me getting a job after I graduated.

At a minimum, we had to ask, “Will I get a job when I graduate?” and “Will the school help me pay for attending?” The wording could vary, but the substance of the question had to be unambiguous. This was to make sure that False Claims Act violations were not occurring. At this point, the voices of the admissions recruiters would usually change from cheery to starchy and more deliberate. Sometimes, although rarely, they would misstep and overpromise financial aid or job help, in violation of the rules. I would make a note of this and wrap up the conversation, passing along the report to my boss, who would submit it to Big School. Presumably, the offenders were reprimanded or fired. I didn’t ask.


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