Credit Goes to No One

Illustration by Bob AulYou've seen this commercial before: a youngish woman cleans the teeth of a senior citizen whilst singing the gospel of Bryman College, a Southern California-based network of for-profit trade schools. As the dental assistant scrapes plaque, the prostrate patient happily remarks, “You seem like you've been doing this for years!” Not so, replies the cute DA, who begins raving about a brand new school named Bryman College where she earned an associates degree in dental assistance in just nine months without the inconvenience of having to complete humanities courses or thesis statements or read books or wait two years only to have Long Beach State officials tell you they lost your grad check—and you can, too, by just calling the number on-screen!

But not all is well for this august institute of higher learning, which, much like Long Beach State, operates locally from a dilapidated Anaheim office complex across the street from a Unocal gas station. Last month, Florida resident Adrienne L. Travis sued Bryman's parent company, Santa Ana-based Corinthian Colleges, Inc., for fraud. Travis, a mother of one, attended night classes at one of Corinthian's Florida campuses for three years only to discover that the 96 credits for which she took out $37,000 in student loans were the scholastic equivalent of Enron stock.

According to papers filed in Tampa courts by her attorney Dan Clark, Travis, then 31, enrolled at Corinthian-owned Florida Metropolitan University in 2000, seeking an associates degree in criminal justice. She obtained the degree in 2003, and continued toward a bachelor's in the same discipline. Travis tried to transfer out of FMU, though, after learning in 2003 that the Southern Association of Colleges and School (SACS), a regional governing body that accredits degrees conferred by colleges and universities, didn't recognize FMU. Counselors at the schools Travis contacted for enrollment—Saint Leo University, Hillsborough Community College and St. Petersburg College—told her FMU credits wouldn't count for anything in their colleges or any in Florida—not even Florida State.

Locally, none of Corinthian Colleges' campuses—Bryman, the Long Beach-based National Institute of Technology (not to be confused with its letter-removed near-namesake, MIT), and Costa Mesa's acronym-only LTU—are accredited with the California version of SACS, the appropriately titled Western Association of Schools and Colleges. And Corinthian—the nation's second-largest owner of for-profit schools, with 131 colleges across the United States and Canada and revenue of $517.3 million in 2003 alone—doesn't seem to care. In a press release addressing the Travis lawsuit, Corinthian officials insisted that all students must sign a document upon enrolling at their schools acknowledging that any credits achieved are not guaranteed to transfer to four-year universities.

“FMU, therefore, cannot make any predictions or guarantees about whether credits will be transferable to another institution,” reads the statement.

“That's a material representation in and of itself,” counters Clark, who predicts more former students will join Travis' filing. “Put differently, [Corinthian is saying] that we're not fully accredited, so if you try to go to another school, you won't be able to transfer credits—ever.”

A former admissions worker for FMU would agree. She told the Tampa Tribuneon March 14 that school officials instructed her and others to insinuate to prospective students that most credits achieved at the school would transfer to any university even if it wasn't the case.

Corinthian officials wouldn't return phone calls for this story. But president Tony Digiovanni told investors during a March 3 Merrill Lynch-sponsored conference that the lawsuit was without merit, while a company investor scoffed, telling the Dow Jones News Service that the court action would do little to affect Corinthian's stock value (NASDAQ: COCO) since it was a “nuisance suit led by enterprising lawyers and a disgruntled former student who failed to read the representations provided by the company in her enrollment agreement.”

Such “representations” are available elsewhere in the school's literature—and we don't mean the English department, which doesn't exist. Most of Corinthian's press releases don't announce new research projects or the scholastic accomplishments of students. They boast about Corinthian's purchase of competing for-profit colleges or record earnings. Their mission statement is no Harvard (Veritas) or Stanford (Die Luft der Freiheit weht), no grand reminder of the value of civilization of the project called learning, but rather an unapologetic description of the business model: “Corinthian Colleges, Inc. is committed to building an organization that will create, acquire and operate educational units that deliver quality instruction at a fair price, while maintaining full regulatory compliance and ensuring an appropriate financial return to investors.”

Which, in a final irony, are also the words to the Long Beach State fight song. I mean, something has to pay for those cheesy commercials, right?

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