This is the America I fought (for) and defended. That belief in our system, it cost me and my family our home.
Coming out of Fontana High School in California, Harrison entertained offers to play football in college, but his mind was set on serving. His father and stepfather were Army vets. His grandfather served in the Coast Guard, his uncle in the Navy. The promise of a free ride to college with the GI Bill after he completed his service sealed the deal.
Harrison served in the Signal Corps, a branch of the Army focused on battlefield communication. While in Iraq in 2005, a mortar struck his unit. Metal cut through his torso and arm, tearing his rotator cuff. His doctors had warned that his injuries, which included damage to his shoulder and knees, might make a full recovery impossible. Though he has worked off and on since leaving the service, Harrison is eligible for disability from the federal government, and that income has sustained the family in recent months. Harrison still carries small but prominent scarring on his arm.
The Army gave him a choice: Do a different job or leave the service. Harrison chose the latter, saying, “It’s hard to be reliable when you can’t rely on your body.”
Back stateside, Harrison found work with a manufacturing company in upstate New York. He was married by then, and he and Michelle had three children. A growing family and dawning realization of limited prospects without a degree brought to mind his late grandfather.
Harrison was in Iraq in 2005 when he learned his grandfather was in hospice care. It was OK, his grandfather said, if Harrison couldn’t make it home. But he stressed again he wanted his grandson to get his education so he wouldn’t have to be a “grunt.” Harrison listened. He knew it would be a challenge, especially later in his life with a wife and children at home.
“It was something I felt would improve our lives in the end,” Harrison said. “And keep those promises I made to myself long ago.”
No one in Harrison’s immediate family had ever been to college. If they had, they could have helped him in his search. Instead, Harrison turned to Google and quickly stumbled across a college recruitment site. He filled out a form online, and within a day someone from Argosy reached out to him.
Soon, he would be taking multiple calls a day from representatives from the for-profit college. The hard sell was no accident.
For-profit colleges serve a special niche in America’s higher education landscape. Many are focused on trades such as cosmetology or welding, but they also produce many of the nation’s nurses. And they can provide an accessible education to students who might not have the time or academic background to study at a traditional university.
On average, students who graduate from these institutions earn less, carry more debt and are less likely to graduate, according to data from the federal government analyzed by USA TODAY. (Many studies have documented the worse-than-average outcomes of these colleges.)
Under President Barack Obama, the federal government issued a suite of new rules meant to protect these students from lackluster programs, but the Education Department under Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos blunted or undid many of those protections.
The phone calls Harrison received from Argosy were not unusual. Part of the for-profits’ success is tied to their online offerings — and to their recruitment efforts.
The pandemic offered an opportunity to see how quickly these institutions could fine-tune their marketing to appeal to people who lost their jobs.
The sudden shift to online instruction with an interminable end hampered many colleges’ ability to recruit and retain students. Community colleges suffered the most and saw a decline in their student populations of nearly 10% in the fall semester, but for-profit colleges saw an increase of about 5%. That uptick is especially notable because enrollment had been falling for years at these institutions in the aftermath of high-profile failures of places like ITT Tech or Corinthian Colleges in the mid-2010s.
An analysis of online advertising by The Century Foundation found one for-profit college — Strayer University — poured nearly $10 million into ads in the first three months of the pandemic. Their weekly spend quadrupled in July, the thinktank found.
Strayer wasn’t alone. The 10 largest for-profit colleges tweaked their advertising message to emphasize how easy getting a degree from their institution would be, according to a USA TODAY analysis of marketing data from Spyfu, a paid analytics service that tracks advertising on Google’s search engine results pages.
These colleges pitched free applications and promised to accept transferred credits. After lockdown — and the record unemployment that followed — they highlighted how easy enrollment could be.
For example, the term “start next month” appeared the most among more than 200,000 marketing terms analyzed by USA TODAY. It easily surpassed “earn your degree,” which had been the top term before March 2020.
The surge in enrollment at for-profit colleges was more than just clever marketing.
With millions left jobless by the pandemic, prospective students needed a quick program to get back into the workforce, and most for-profit colleges already had vibrant online options. That’s according to Jason Altmire, the CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a trade group of mostly for-profit institutions.
Harrison knew little about the differences between for-profit and other colleges when he was considering schools in the mid-2010s. Recruiters from Argosy helped him sort out his Free Application for Federal Student Aid and his paperwork to direct the GI Bill funding. He didn’t think at the time about how little they talked about the courses he would take.
Any doubts he had about the program were allayed by two factors: the college was accredited, and the Veterans Affairs Department was willing to sign the paperwork that would allow the institution to receive his GI Bill money.
Harrison knew something was amiss almost from the beginning. When he enrolled in Argosy’s online program, the university’s staff had convinced him to take out student loans on top of his GI Bill. But Harrison wouldn’t see that money directly.
Generally with financial aid, the federal government distributes students’ aid to universities. Those institutions then subtract the cost of the education and distribute what remains to students who can then use that money to cover rent, books or other costs.
It’s a complicated system but one used by most universities. But Harrison’s first check was late. Harrison had to repeatedly email and call his financial aid counselor to get the money.
The delayed payments and bureaucratic back-and-forth would become a recurring feature for the next three years. In February 2019, he sent another email pleading with the university to release his money.
“I believe it to be a disservice for students to have to worry more about their finances than earning their degree,” he wrote. “As a student this has caused me a great deal of anxiety and undue stress. This situation has severely impacted my course work and ability to produce quality and meaningful assignments.”
It didn’t work.
The financial headache might have been worth the trouble if the education was stellar, but the classroom experience disappointed too. Harrison had never been to college before, but even so he felt his courses were too easy.
His coursework often involved no more than running simple Google searches or watching YouTube videos. He also recalled taking a required math aptitude test. He fared poorly on it, but he didn’t know why. When he questioned the low mark, the university simply bumped the grade up. He felt that his daughter’s high school classwork was more rigorous than his.
And Harrison wasn’t aware of the trouble Argosy was having behind the scenes. The college’s owner, Education Management Corp., would eventually shutter some 50 campuses, including Brightwood College. Before that happened, the ownership group sold the Argosy schools in 2017 to Dream Center, a Christian charity group with no experience managing colleges.
By the end of 2018, students were reporting they hadn’t gotten the student aid payments they were promised. In 2019, the Education Department cut off federal student loans and grants. That effectively killed Argosy, which, like many for-profits, rely on federal financing to stay afloat even more than their nonprofit or public peers.
Harrison also didn’t know the safeguards he’d depended on were not as solid as they appeared. For example, the Veterans Affairs Department doesn’t track how well a university prepares its students for the workforce, said Carrie Wofford, the president of Veterans Education Success. Her advocacy group successfully urged Congress this year to heighten the standards the Veterans Affairs Department uses for improving programs.
Veterans Affairs does suggest students review the College Scorecard, run by the Education Department. The online tool provides universities’ graduation rates, cost, demographics and other metrics.
Meanwhile, the accreditation process, while overseen by the federal government, is managed by independent agencies with differing levels of scrutiny. One federally approved accreditor oversaw the high-profile closures of three for-profit colleges in the mid-2010s. That accreditor is facing the loss of its federal approval, though it is still operating.
Argosy’s accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, didn’t have a history of approving troubled institutions. In June 2018, it had approved the university’s operations. It wasn’t until January 2019 that the accreditor put the university on probation, but by that point, a judge had installed a receiver to manage its operations.
It can be difficult for anyone to predict if any college will close. And the pandemic likely hastened the demise of colleges already on the brink of financial collapse. But the federal government does maintain a list of colleges whose financial health warrants monitoring. It’s called heightened cash monitoring, and though it’s not a guaranteed predictor of a university’s future, it can help provide students with more information about the college they may invest thousands of dollars in.
Accreditors are also supposed to track what corrective actions they have taken toward universities. That information may not be on a university’s website, but students can usually visit an accreditor’s website directly.
Accreditors will usually put universities on probation or take similar corrective actions, but in extreme cases they withdraw their stamp of approval. If that happens, an institution loses access to federal money — which, in the case of a for-profit college, often means an imminent closure. Universities can appeal these findings and may not always put that information front and center on their website.
When Argosy shut down in March 2019, Harrison was just three months shy of getting his degree. The school’s closure also meant an end to the loan money that paid for the family’s expenses. Harrison couldn’t pay rent, and he and his family would be homeless.
“My youngest daughter, that was the only home she had ever lived in,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you get something ripped from you. And it’s not because you’re doing anything wrong.”