Mom deceived by for-profit college is not alone

06/19/2013 6:08 PM

06/19/2013 6:08 PM

Good for Jennifer Kerr.

The Jackson County mom has won

a huge verdict

from a jury that was properly outraged by Kerr’s story of being deceived by the promises and practices of a for-profit college.

Even Kerr’s lawyer acknowledges she won’t receive the amount in punitive damages the jury came back with — $13 million. It greatly exceeds the amount allowed by Missouri law. Kerr had asked for $2 million to $4 million in punitive damages. Jurors also ordered Vatterott Educational Centers Inc. to pay Kerr $27,676 in actual damages.

That’s about the amount of the loans Kerr incurred in 2009 after an admissions representative at one of Vatterott’s campuses told her a shiny story about the school’s medical assistant’s program. Sign up for the 90-week program, Kerr was told, and she’d stand a good shot of getting a degree and a job paying $15 to $17 an hour. Not only that, she’d be on the “fast track” to achieving her dream of becoming a nurse.

Kerr, a single mother living in Lee’s Summit at the time, did what a lot of people do. She took out way too much money in loans and enrolled in a program that never was designed to meet the promises of the admissions counselor, which at too many for-profit colleges is another name for salesperson.

After being in the program for 60 weeks, Kerr learned she was actually enrolled in the preliminary medical office assistant’s program. She’d need about $10,000 more to actually get the medical assistant’s degree.

At that point Kerr dropped out, which was her first good move. A number of for-profit colleges in the area offer medical assistant’s programs. And even with a certificate, a graduate would be extremely fortunate to land a $15-an-hour job. Ten dollars an hour or less is more like it, I’ve been told by people at social service agencies who try to talk people out of enrolling in these programs.

The Metropolitan Community Colleges system doesn’t offer a medical assistants’ program because the demand and pay levels for that career path aren’t high enough to meet thresholds set by Missouri for schools receiving state funds. What state and community college officials understand is that a certificate or so-called degree serves no individual or social benefit if it doesn’t lead to a job that pays well enough for the graduate to pay off the debt incurred to receive it.

Kerr’s second good move was to find a lawyer. Thanks to a massive lobbying blitz, Congress has basically whiffed on cracking down on the predatory practices of for-profit colleges, even though these schools, which make up 13 percent of post-high school enrollment, account for nearly half of all federal student loan defaults. Perhaps lawyers and juries can accomplish what legislators have failed to do and bring a measure of integrity to this industry.

In the meantime, people looking to improve their prospects, as Kerr was doing, should get in contact with their local community college. For most programs, they’ll pay less and receive a lot more than the for-profit schools have to offer.

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