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By this point in his life, 55 year old David Guerra had hoped to be a manager at a nice residential building, with a staff of maintenance workers to oversee. Instead of running the show, though, he inspects boilers and mends broken heaters as the building’s handyman, a job he’s held in one form or another for more than 30 years.

After years of working hard in hopes of a promotion, Guerra decided to try a new track: In 2009, he signed up for a Facilities Management Technology program at the Technical Career Institute College of Technology, a for profit college in the city, with the understanding that his degree would get him a job as a building manager.

“Education makes you think not only how, but why,” says TCI’s president John McGrath in a recruitment video on TCI’s website. “The person that knows how will most likely have a job, but the person that

knows why will most likely be their boss.”

Things didn’t go as Guerra had planned “to be honest, in the end, I didn’t learn anything at TCI. It took me two years just to get a title,” said Guerra. But he lost much more than money in his view, he was robbed of an opportunity at a better life. After graduating with an associate’s degree from TCI, all he has to show for it is $36,000 in debt. He still works as a handyman and earns the same $729 per week he made before he started school in 2009.

“The biggest frustration for me is that TCI was supposed to open the door,” said Guerra. “But when I show people my degree, it doesn’t impress them.”

Guerra’s broken dream isn’t unique. His and many other similar stories add up to what critics and student advocates call the nightmare world of unscrupulous for profit colleges. These schools a $30 billion a year industry pumped up by federal student loan funds, spend big bucks on recruitment campaign touting dubious claims of work placement attracting growing numbers of disproportionately poor students of color looking to earn a better living. Many students, like Guerra, wind up with crushing debt and no closer to the job they wanted.

Government oversight has been scattershot, though the issue is starting to spur action nationally and locally, where for profit schools enroll more than 100,000 students across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Long Island. In 2013, Guerra went to the New York Legal Assistance Group for help with his student loan repayment. That same year, NYLAG began collecting allegations from students who have attended the city’s many for profit colleges, including TCI, Berkeley College and Apex Technical School. In July, the organization filed its first complaint against ASA College, a for profit school with sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In industry parlance, a for profit college is a school that operates like a business, passing revenue earned from tuition on to the owners or shareholders of the school, or company. Many of the biggest for profit schools around the country are publicly traded corporations, with huge companies like Wells Fargo owning shares. A subset of for profits is made up of privately held companies like ASA and TCI that are usually owned by one person or a handful of people. As private companies, information about their operations can be hard to come by.

According to NYLAG and the eight plaintiffs named in the complaint, ASA’s programs do not provide relevant training and produce graduates who can’t find work all while collecting hefty tuition payments borrowed by low income students.

NYLAG isn’t the first group to call foul on for profit schools. As enrollment at for profit schools has exploded over the decade more than doubling between 2003 and 2012 the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have been soliciting complaints from current and former students of for profit colleges. Thirty seven state Attorneys General led by Kentucky Attorney General John Conway have formed a working group to investigate for profit colleges.

“The unfair and unethical business tactics of those schools are leaving too many students drowning in debt with worthless degrees, while taxpayers are left footing the bill for debts that are never repaid,” Conway said in a press release urging the federal government to hold these schools more accountable.

Some investigations have resulted in school shut downs. More than a dozen states from California to Wisconsin investigated the for profit giant Corinthian Colleges which had more than 70,000 students at its peak for abuses ranging from misrepresentation of job placement rates to false advertising and aggressive recruiting. Department of Education took the unusual step of waiting a few weeks to release student loans while it finalized its investigation.

Guerra spotted TCI’s signs one day and decided to stop in. The school had a program called “building facilities management” and Guerra thought he had finally found what he’d been looking for: A way to gain the pride and security of proving for his family beyond living paycheck to paycheck. He asked what paperwork he needed to sign up.

Guerra said he was asked only for his income tax return. “They told me it was for a scholarship,” he said.

He was not eligible for a scholarship. Instead, Guerra said he was told to fill out paperwork for loans. “It was just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. In 10 minutes, he had enrolled.

For profit schools argue that their poor graduation and loan repayment rates are low because of the population they serve and market to: often single parents with part time jobs, and lower income and years older than traditional college students.

In New York, the Attorney General’s office has opened investigations into several of the state’s for profit colleges. Of the institutions under review, which include a beauty school and Donald Trump’s real estate seminars offered under Trump University, only one case had reached a conclusion as of January 2015 last year the state settled with Career Education Corporation for over $10 million for misrepresenting job placement rates, with more than $9 million paid in restitution to students. Just a year earlier, the city rolled out the Know Before You Enroll Campaign to inform would be college students about for profit schools and to collect complaints. Since the campaign’s inception, ASA has received 26 complaints and TCI 15 the most of the city’s more than 400 for profit colleges. (TCI did not respond to requests for comment).

“When I meet with these people, it’s very clear to me that there’s exactly one purpose why they went to a school, which is to get a job,” said Eileen Connor, a senior staff attorney at NYLAG. “It’s difficult with education to really quantify what a good outcome is, but in this case it’s not difficult. The outcome is the job that the student was expecting to get and needs to get.”

Many modern for profit schools started as trade schools (some still are), and continue to offer the same type of education: career focused, with courses like criminal justice and medical assistance. According to ASA’s website, students can expect to learn how to file patient records or draw blood, taught as part of the associate’s degree in Medical Assisting. Ostensibly, this gives graduates the knowledge they need to transition into jobs.

Yet students who attended a for profit college were more likely to be without a job six years after starting the program than to comparable students who attended community colleges or other public or private non profit institutions. Students from for profit colleges earn annual wages, on average, that are $1,800 to $2,000 lower than the wages of students who had gone to other colleges.

Last year, Harvard researchers used fake resumes to apply to nearly 2,500 jobs, listing either a for profit school or a non selective public university under the education section. Work histories were kept the same. Researchers found that fictitious candidates with a degree from a for profit school were 22 percent less likely to get called for an interview. Compared to candidates with only a high school degree, for profit graduates were barely more qualified in the eyes of employers they were about one percentage point more likely to get a call back.

“What it tells you is that employers really do think less of graduates of for profit schools not because they have worse work experience or look worse in other ways,” said lead researcher David Deming.

Completion of ASA’s associate’s degree in health information course, according to the school website, prepares a student to pass industry certification exams. But in order to be a Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT), a student must have studied at a college accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education an accreditation ASA does not have.

Joe Cooper enrolled in ASA’s criminal justice program in 2011 after he read the course could help him become a police officer. The cut off age for the Police Academy exam is 35, information that no one at ASA passed on to 48 year old Cooper. Although Cooper says he was happy with the classes, but he has only been offered the same type of security jobs he had before school. Any jobs ASA’s career services department found for him have been almost half of what he made $25 per hour before attending.

“You can’t call me and say, I’ve got something for you, and then I look at, it’s like $14 an hour. I’m like, are you joking?” said Cooper.
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