Enrollment Abuse Allegations Plague University of Phoenix
Phoenix "became more focused on numbers. You had to enroll this amount of people all the time, and it started to become a little bit more about money," said Burke. "Not about finding the right students and helping the right students get into the program."
Asked about such allegations, Pepicello, Phoenix's president, denied that counselors were trained to trick students into thinking that classes were filling up or that credit transfer was assured. But he defended telling students that credits could transfer to schools such as Stanford. He said recruiters are trained to explain that other institutions decide which credits to accept.
"We are regionally accredited, as is Stanford, and for that reason, normally credits will transfer between mutually regionally accredited institutions," he said.
Two former students told ProPublica that Phoenix recruiters had lied to them about the transferability of credits.
Angelia Baldwin of Aberdeen, S.D., signed up for a health care course at Phoenix in fall of 2006. Baldwin, 49, is part Native American and explained to her enrollment counselor that she wanted to study alternative therapies to further her new business making natural soaps and lotions. The business was inspired by her grandmother, Josephine, who was a medicine woman on the reservation in Minnesota where Baldwin grew up.
Baldwin said the counselor assured her she could take the general classes in health care and then transfer the credits to a school that offered alternative medicine.
After 18 months and $11,000 in tuition, Baldwin tried to enroll in Everglades University, another for-profit school, but was told her Phoenix credits would not count.
"I hit the roof," said Baldwin. "My enrollment was put on hold for six weeks before we worked some of this out. And I had to take clinical ethics and chemistry classes over again."
Michele Rambo signed up at the Dallas campus. Rambo said enrollment counselors assured her that credits would transfer. After discovering problems with her financial aid, Rambo tried moving to Central Texas College and Tarrant County College, but neither would accept her Phoenix credits, she said.
"I don't really know if I’m going to be able to continue school after this," said Rambo, 23. "It's kind of, I had a plan and now I kind of don't."
University officials said they were unaware of such incidents.
Best Gloss on Financial Aid
Rambo also claims that the counselors misled her about financial aid.
"I told them specifically what I was looking for, and that was just grants and scholarships," she said. As counselors guided her through the paperwork, they assured her that, because she was six months pregnant, she was entitled to enough grants to cover her costs, Rambo said.
"They told me, it's like I was getting paid to go to school," she said. Then in May, Rambo got a call from a Phoenix counselor who wanted to move her into a bachelor's degree program. "One of the questions that she asked me completely stopped the whole conversation. She had asked me, 'So what kind of loan do you have?' And I told her that I didn't have a loan."
Rambo discovered she had loans that would total $18,000 by graduation. She is unemployed and her husband, who works in a factory, earns roughly $20,000 a year.
"They lied to me, and I signed things based on what they were telling me," she said.
Burke said managers were very clear that recruiters could not lie about the prospect of getting financial aid. But they were encouraged to make it seem likely.
"We would be told to say the phrase, 'And you don't know how much you might get in grants,'" he said. "So we were going by the letter of the law, in that we weren't promising a certain amount of grant money, but we were also told to phrase it in such a way that left it open and positive."
Pepicello said that he had not heard of such incidents at Phoenix and that they would not be condoned. "We train our financial counselors very carefully to provide an array of options to students and to try and be as specific as they can" about the implications, he said.
Burke and another counselor, Sarah Hunt, who worked at the Portland campus from 2004 to 2007, said there was pressure to push prospects into classes that clearly didn't match their desires.
Callers inquiring about a bachelor of education were steered into a communications degree, they said. People asking for psychology -- not offered at the school -- were steered into human services.