More than 3,000 Illinois college students face an uncertain future, as a troubled for-profit college with six campuses in the Chicago area is in the midst of shutting down.
An instructor employed by Everest College, who asked us to conceal his identity, told NBC 5 Investigates that some of the alleged deception at the school continues, even after its parent company signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to sell 12 and shut down 85 of its campuses. All six Chicago-area campuses -- in Bedford Park, Skokie, Merrionette Park, Burr Ridge, Melrose Park and North Aurora -- are slated for shut-down.
"I feel so sorry for all these kids that come here," the instructor said, "They just try so hard but they're lied to."
He and another instructor say the list of accusations leveled by federal regulators at Everest parent company Corinthian Colleges is spot on -- a directive to pass failing students and inflated job placement rates.
"They want us, and this is coming from the director of education, at every campus to push them through, pass them. Give them something easy so they can pass," one instructor said.
Some Everest students pay big money for a vocational degree -- up to $40,000. Many are lower income with below-average reading skills, the instructors say, and take on a load of debt they will be hard-pressed to repay with dismal job prospects.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a long-time critic of the for-profit college industry, accuses Corinthian of defrauding taxpayers by leaving students saddled with unmanageable loads of student loan debt.
"The sooner we turn out the lights at Corinthian, the better," he told NBC 5 Investigates. "We estimate that the federal taxpayers will end up holding the bag for this for-profit school to the tune of $1 billion that they have taken out of the federal treasury through student loans."
Durbin's concerns led in part to the investigation by the federal Department of Education "over the company's practices, including falsifying job placement data ... and allegations of altered grades and attendance." The Feds withheld funds to the school after Corinthian failed to company with "repeated requests" for information. The company ultimately agreed in a settlement with DoE to shut down and phase out 97 schools.
In a statement to NBC 5 Investigates, Corinthian acknowledges that the Department of Education did ask for individual records of 175,000 graduates that relate to job placement, grades and graduation. The college says the DoE made no allegation of wrongdoing, but asked to review the documents because of media reports and other pending inquiries. To date, Corinthian says it has provided the DoE with more than 1 million pages of documents and continues to work with the department on these and other issues.
Corinthian spokesperson Kent Jenkins says it's important to note that no regulator, investigator or accreditation agency has found that Corinthian has behaved in an illegal or improper manner, or has initiated or tolerated efforts to misstate job placement rates, student attendance or student grades.
"We have company-wide systems that are designed to ensure that students are given the grades they have earned and that student grades are not arbitrarily changed or altered. Our systems allow only the instructor who teaches a class to enter the final grade earned by his or her students. If that grade is subsequently changed, the system notes both the change and the identity of the person who records it. This process is regularly checked by our outside auditors, who must verify the effectiveness of our regulatory compliance systems," Jenkins says. "In rare cases where Corinthian has found that individual employees have improperly altered student records related to grades or attendance, employees have been dismissed."
In the following statement, Jenkins says Corinthian also evaluates individual instructors and take action if there is evidence of consistency poor teaching.
"Unlike traditional community colleges, Corinthian evaluates instructors on an ongoing basis to determine whether their teaching is effective. The clearest indicator of ineffective teaching is an unacceptably high rate of student attrition over time. We have found that two factors are consistently associated with an excessive dropout rate: high absenteeism and unusually poor grades.
When we identified an instructor who has high attrition, a senior official at the campus observes the classroom and determines areas in which an instructor might improve. If this coaching does not lead to better results, instructors are placed on a formal 'performance improvement plan.' If the plan does not produce improvement, instructors can be dismissed for consistently high student attrition. This happens very rarely.
We believe that this ongoing evaluation of instructors is in the best interest of our students and is one of the factors that enable Corinthian to achieve a graduation rate that is far higher than that of traditional community colleges. Corinthian has a companywide graduation rate of 61 percent, and some of our Chicago-area campuses have graduation rates of around 70 percent; by contrast, community colleges nationwide have a graduation rate of less than 20 percent.
Our evaluation process may not always be comfortable for individual instructors. But it would be either wrong or deceptive to describe this process as anything other than an effort to produce more effective teaching and to help our students learn more."
As for the allegation it inflated job placement rates, Corinthian maintains that is absolutely false. Jenkins says many graduates of Everest College are hired by distinguished employers.
"Every Everest campus, in the Chicago area and around the country, has a Career Services office staffed by people who make employers aware of Everest graduates and prepare graduates for job interviews. Nationwide, Corinthian Colleges has more than 600 Career Services staffers - a multi-million-dollar commitment of resources that is focused solely on helping our graduates find employment. As a result, more than two out of every three of our graduates - 69 percent - find jobs in their fields of study," Jenkins says.
In the Chicago area, Corinthian reports its Everest campus in Skokie has a job placement rate of 77 percent; Merrionette Park, 61 percent; Melrose Park, 61 percent; Burr Ridge, 72 percent; and Bedford Park, 48 percent. "By contrast," Jenkins says, "traditional community colleges do not track their job placement rates."
Corinthian says two of the nation's largest drug store chains, CVS and Walgreens, each hired about 50 graduates of the Everest Pharmacy Technician program in the Chicago area in the past year alone. "It is patently absurd for any instructor in this program to assert he or she somehow overlooked the hiring of 100 graduates by two major employers," Jenkins says.
NBC 5 Investigates asked Corinthian for the names of any Chicago-area grad who recently got jobs, but did not hear back from Corinthian on that request.
A spokesperson for CVS confirmed that it has hired about 300 pharmacy technician graduates from the Everest in recent years, but was not able to confirm if the grads were from Chicago-area programs. At the time of this publication, a spokesperson for Walgreens was not able to confirm or deny the school's statistics.
Former U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald is the appointed monitor who will oversee Corinthian's phase-out.