Rip-off U (Guest Post: Camille Landry)

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camille_landryCamille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City.  This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by.  These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).

“I’m mad. Really mad. I’m stuck with thousands of dollars in debt for training that I didn’t get. The State of Oklahoma pushed me into a training program that was worthless and expensive. I spent 10 months and $15,900 on a stinking pile of nothing. They ripped me off.”

Marsha Bradley’s life started to unravel in 2007. “My mom’s breast cancer returned. She didn’t make it. My brother and sister were still in high school so I moved them in with me. I couldn’t keep all those balls in the air. I lost my job.”

She applied to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) for assistance. As a requirement for receiving a cash assistance payment, along with food assistance and Medicaid, DHS required that she undergo job training. Marsha wanted to attend nursing school but the schools that DHS contracts with were full with a years-long waiting list. Her choices were to take whatever low-paying job she could find, enroll in training, or lose the benefits she needed to survive.

RipoffUDHS told her that she could enroll at any accredited Oklahoma training program or college that would accept her. Marsha started calling schools and found ATI Career Training Center, a private vocational school that offered a nursing assistant training program that was only 10 months long.

“They said they would help me find a job after graduation. My plan was to finish training and get a job at a hospital or clinic that offers employee tuition assistance and become an RN. It seemed like the fastest and best way to get off welfare forever.” A Pell Grant and three student loans covered the $15,900 cost of the program.

“The first couple of months were okay,” Marsha said. Then the teacher left. ATI doubled up her class with another one that had started two months before. Marsha’s class skipped two months of the curriculum. ATI promised to help the students fill the gap. The 26 students in her group got bounced around among several other teachers. ATI never hired another teacher for her class.

“We missed a lot. It was really a problem with the hands-on skills like giving shots and drawing blood. It got so bad some of us thought about leaving – but we had already paid a lot of money and we couldn’t get financial aid for another school unless we completed the course at ATI. We were stuck. When we complained, ATI told us to go home and read the textbook.”

During her internship – which she had to arrange herself – she found out just how much she had not learned. “My supervisor would just shake her head and say ‘Honey, you got ripped off.’”

ATI told students their placement coach had quit so students were on their own. Marsha found her job through the state employment office. It paid $9/hour and offered no benefits. She still had to rely on DHS for help with food, rent and medical coverage.

ATI’s contract stated that the school would cover the costs for taking the state certification exam. ATI never paid it for Marsha or any of the students who graduated with her. Students complained to the Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools and an investigation was opened. In December 2012 ATI closed the doors of its two Oklahoma schools; shortly afterwards the other 22 campuses nationwide closed down and the parent company filed for bankruptcy. Students had to stand in line with other debtors. She got nothing.

 “I didn’t get the worst deal. There were students in my class who were functionally illiterate. ATI couldn’t teach them anything but it sure took their money. At least I finished the program and got a certificate. Of the 22 people who started with me, only 12 of us finished. The rest are still stuck with that huge bill and got absolutely nothing in return.”

Over two million students attend for-profit colleges in the United States. Low-income students make up half of the enrollment at for-profit colleges and minorities comprise 37 percent, according to Education Trust. Taxpayers end up footing a lot of the bills. For-profit colleges in the 2008-2009 academic year received $4.3 billion in federal Pell grants, which help low-income students pay for college. Over 600,000 student loan borrowers who attended for-profit colleges defaulted on their loans last year, Bloomberg News reports. Although the school Marsha Bradley attended was one of the worst, there are hundreds more like it.

“I work at a bakery now. It’s a union job with benefits. I had to find a job where I could feed my family and pay back $10,000 in student loans, plus interest. I wasted those 10 months and a lot of money. I’ll be paying back these loans for the next 10 years. The owners closed their doors and walked away with the money and left us with the bills. When people ask me where I went to school I tell them ‘I’m a proud graduate of Ripoff U.’”

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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