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A for-profit college is facing a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of students who say the school ripped them off. It's the latest in a series of hits the for-profit higher education industry has taken recently. Earlier this month, investigators showed members of Congress that some schools use high-pressure sales tactics and deceptive marketing to enlist students. The class-action lawsuit claims Colorado-based Westwood College lied about the value of its degrees. The school says the suit is without merit.
NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Denver.
JEFF BRADY: Krystle Bernal is 25 and one of the lead plaintiffs in the class-action suit. Five years back, she vowed to become the first in her family to get a bachelor's degree. She met with a representative of Westwood College, who, she says, acted more like a salesperson than an adviser.
Ms. KRYSTLE BERNAL: I was really hesitant, she could tell, and she just told me, like, I don't think you want to better your life, I don't think you want to better your future. If you can't commit to this, you can't commit to school.
BRADY: Bernal says she was told that with a fashion merchandising degree from Westwood, she'd pull down a $65,000 salary after graduation in three years. The cost of the degree was a bit of a shock - $75,000 - but Westwood helped Bernal get federal student loans. Two years after graduating, the only work she can find is a $12-an-hour, part-time job as a bank teller.
(Soundbite of crying)
Ms. BERNAL: I'm sorry.
(Soundbite of crying)
Ms. BERNAL: This is a really sensitive subject for me.
BRADY: Bernal says she checked out a community college to see if she could pursue a second degree, but the school said none of her Westwood credits were transferable. Now, she's left with loans hanging over her head, and few prospects in a poor economy.
Ms. BERNAL: I mean, that's what I wake up with every single morning. I think about my debt and where I'm at, and how I thought my life would be different.
BRADY: The class-action lawsuit Bernal is a part of was filed in federal court last week. It claims Westwood committed basic fraud - that it lied to get students' money. Westwood's management would not agree to a recorded interview with NPR. The school has posted a lengthy defense on its website. There, the company argues it's the victim of a predatory law firm that has filed a series of suits in an attempt to extract a fee-rich settlement. Westwood says the overwhelming majority of its students are satisfied with the education they received, so the company thinks there's no basis for a class-action lawsuit.
Chris Hoyer is a senior partner at the Tampa-based firm that filed the suit. He says almost 800 former students have contacted his firm, saying they were cheated by Westwood. Hoyer hopes his firm's suit will change the entire for-profit college industry, which has grown quickly in recent years with the help of federal student loans.
Mr. CHRIS HOYER (Attorney): There is $20, $30 billion worth of federal money going into these schools every year. The schools get their money as soon as they get you to sign, and then it really falls on the shoulders of these kids and the taxpayers.
BRADY: Meanwhile, for-profit colleges are acting quickly to repair their image. Harris Miller is president and CEO of the Career Colleges Association, which is developing a new code of conduct. He acknowledges that some schools have problems.
Mr. HARRIS MILLER (Career Colleges Association): Whether it's a few or whether it's a lot, the reality is that it's too many. CCA has announced that we are going to adopt and promote to our members a zero-tolerance policy.
BRADY: Miller says his industry is developing a self-policing program, and calling on regulators and accrediting bodies to more closely monitor private, for-profit colleges.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.
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