Had Michael Brown not have been shot to death by a police officer, he might have had his financial future ruined by the college he was about to attend. It has been widely reported that Brown had enrolled at for-profit Vatterott College, although the school has declined to confirm that information. Vatterott, whose investors include Mitt Romney, has a history of deceiving and abusing students.
Brown reportedly told friends he was excited to attend Vatterott, where he wanted to train to be an air conditioning technician. But while some for-profit schools do well at preparing students for careers, many others excel mostly at advertising and recruiting -- getting students excited to enroll -- but are much less good at training them or placing them in jobs. Students at such schools, whose tuitions are generally much more expensive than state colleges, often end up with overwhelming debt -- tens of thousands in student loans they cannot hope to repay.
There is evidence to suggest that Vatterott is that kind of school.
Today, a Missouri appeals court upheld a jury verdict against Vatterott for deceiving a student, Jennifer Kerr. Last year, a jury in Jackson County, MO, awarded Kerr $27,676 in actual damages and $13 million in punitive damages; the trial judge cut the punitive award to about $2 million because state law caps punitive damages.
Kerr, a single mother from Lee's Summit, Missouri, saw Vatterott's TV ads and visited the campus in 2009 to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. A Vatterott recruiter told Kerr that the school didn't have a nursing program, but it did offer a medical assistant's degree. With that credential, the recruiter said, Kerr could make $15 to $17 an hour, and her Vatterott credits would transfer to a nursing program and put her on the "fast track" to being a nurse.
But after signing for more than $27,000 in loans and being in the program for over a year, Kerr discovered that her program wasn't a medical assistant program at all -- it was a medical office assistant program. You might not need college for that. Vatterott staff then told her that a medical assistant's degree would require more classes and another $10,000.
Jennifer Kerr was not the first student to be deceived by Vatterott College.
Senator Tom Harkin's (D-IA) staff obtained internal training documents from Vatterott that seemed to instruct recruiters to use exploitative tactics: "We deal with people that live in the moment and for the moment. Their decision to start, stay in school or quit school is based more on emotion than logic. Pain is the greater motivator in the short term." Another Vatterott document described the target market for recruiters: "We serve the UN-DER world, Unemployed, Underpaid, Unsatisfied, Unskilled, Unprepared, Unsupported, Unmotivated, Unhappy, Underserved!"
In other words, Vatterott specialized in recruiting single moms like Jennifer Kerr -- and working-class young people of color from places like Ferguson, Missouri.
Vatterott's recruiting abuses have led to bad outcomes for many enrolled students. The percentage of Vatterott students who default on their student loans within three years of dropping out or graduating is a very-high 26.6 percent. In 2012, eight of Vatterott's 39 programs failed all three tests of the Obama Administration's initial "gainful employment" rule, which established bare minimum standards to penalize schools that consistently leave their students with insurmountable debt. Student bulletin boards are full of complaints about the quality of a Vatterott education.
In 2009 and 2010, three top Vatterott executives pleaded guilty to a criminal conspiracy to fraudulently obtain federal student grants and loans for ineligible students in 2005-06 by providing false general equivalency diplomas (GEDs) and doctoring financial aid forms.
In Kerr's case, the jury determined that Vatterott had violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act and ordered the school to pay the $13 million in punitive damages -- even though Kerr's lawyer had only asked for $2 to $4 million.
The jury award will now be borne by TA Associates, a private equity firm that acquired Vatterott in 2009. TA is financially tied to Mitt Romney's private equity firm, Solamere Capital, and its executives were major donors to Romney's campaign.
Kerr told the Kansas City Star that, after leaving Vatterott, "for a long time, I was just devastated and depressed. The diploma I got was worthless." But she was pleased that her case exposed Vatterott's misconduct: "The truth finally came out. Not just for me, but for everyone like me who was fooled.... I feel like in doing this, maybe others will have the courage to do the same. Maybe they'll see that they have a recourse."
But media coverage of Vatterott's abuses may not have reached Michael Brown.
This article also appears on Huffington Post.