Trade school fraud: Kaplan schools in the news

The New York Times reports here on the Kaplan schools woes.  The Times goes to great lengths to note that its competitor, The Washington Post, owns Kaplan.  I suppose some might see it as a dig and turn of the knife, but it strikes me as appropriate because it helps explain how the owners of the  Post lobby against trade school regulation.

The article focused on the Kaplan criminal justice degree program. I was struck by this quote from a former Kaplan insider:

“In reality *** , graduates would often get the same $8 to $9-an-hour security guard jobs they could have had without Kaplan training.”

It sounds awfully familiar, as it is the same thing we’ve seen repeatedly in our consumer class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Portland.  There is so much more about it that is insidious, including absorbing federal dollars that would otherwise go to student aid.

The for-profits spend a boatload of money on marketing and advertising. That money comes from tuition, and tuition dollars come straight out of the treasury.

It’s a lousy deal.

We’re still pushing forward on the culinary school case. Nice to see that responsible journalists are reporting on abusive trade schools. As for the Washington Post, you have to wonder.

Church sex abuse–Oregon deposition of Cardinal Levada

Sex abuse is one of those challenging areas where lawyers have to tread. I have handled several civil cases for sex abuse victims over the years. They’re tough.  The victims lives are often trashed. The amount of denial and levels to which some will go to protect predators is horrifying.

These topics cause fires, so I’ll lay out my background and biases here. First, I write this as someone with experience representing sex abuse victims, though I have not handled any cases against the Church. I am not Catholic, though I have friends who are engaged in the Church and friends who have left it over the years.  My daughter attends St. Mary’s Academy, a fabulous Catholic school here in Portland. The school is particularly welcoming to those of us who are not Christian.

Today’s story focuses on Cardinal Levada, a high ranking Vatican official who has been extremely critical of press editorials regarding the Church’s failures in dealing with child sex abuse problems. Cardinal Levada previously served as Archbishop in Portland.  Oregon attorney Erin Olson deposed then-Archbishop Levada in connection with Church sex abuse cases here.  (Technical law term: A “deposition” is pre-trial testimony taken under oath.)

Ms. Olson–who has handled many of the Oregon church sex abuse cases–had the deposition transcript in her files, and she released it yesterday to The Oregonian. According to the news report, Ms. Olson explains that Cardinal Levada reinstated an Oregon priest who was a child sex abuser.  The story quotes from the transcript. While there are always differences in how people interpret evidence or testimony, my own take is that the quoted testimony suggests that Cardinal Levada was at least inattentive to the horrible risks of priest sex abuse.  At a minimum, it’s easy to see that Cardinal Levada’s own experience in the civil justice system might undercut his criticism of those who question the Church’s actions.

I suppose some legitimately may feel that the Church has been unfairly criticized and that it has done enough to confront and repair this awful black chapter in its history. On the other extreme, there are those who see what the Church did and what it failed to do as unforgivable, no matter what. I tend to fall toward the middle.

The Church has confronted some of the misdeeds from these dark times. But that only happened because the victims mustered the immense courage to come forward to challenge the Church. As well, the civil justice system and dedicated and tough attorneys like Erin Olson refused to back down. And facing those things and the awful and immutable truth beneath, the Church had some of its reckoning.  I use “some” deliberately here, as it looks to me like there is far to go.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t accept that any group of people, any nation, any religion or any institution is beyond redemption. So I hope that those in the Church committed to healing and reconciliation continue their efforts.  I also hope that leadership of the Church stops the circling of wagons and defensiveness, as these are legitimate criticisms and questions.  Denouncing the critics like The New York Times or the victims or their attorneys seems to me to be the opposite of reconciliation.

Western Culinary Institute class action featured in New York Times story

Peter Goodman of The New York Times does a nice job here of looking at the problem of for-profit trade schools. The story mentions our class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland.  And while it’s all exciting to see the case written up in the Times, that’s hardly the point.

The Goodman article points out the disparity between the costs of trade school education and expected earnings.  I was taken by a Sr. Vice President, Brian Williams, comment, “You go in the industry and work your way up.”

I don’t have any idea how much Mr. Williams knows about labor statistics. But the cold reality is that there are very few high-paying jobs in the culinary field–at least as compared to the scads of low-wage kitchen jobs that require no training. In short, there isn’t much “up” to reach.

Some suggest that this is not different from an expensive law or medical degree or a BA in liberal arts from a four-year school. I suppose it’s tempting to take that view, but in reality the differences are profound.

Let’s look at them.

Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu say in their catalogs that they provide entry level training. In the lawsuit, we take issue with what they don’t tell students.  A culinary degree doesn’t provide a student much in the way of qualifications for an entry level kitchen job. By comparison, you simply can’t practice law or medicine without degrees and licenses.

In marketing the program, the school tells its prospective students about high placement rates–above 90 percent. But they don’t talk about the pay.  The school collects initial placement and earnings for its graduates. As the New York Times article explains, the vast majority of students earn very low wages upon graduation. Those low earnings won’t allow most students to repay their loans.

Defenders of for-profit trade schools also cite the profoundly expensive four-year bachelors degree problem. They are right about the high cost of four year schools, but wrong to compare the two. Ivy league schools cost far in excess of most middle income families’ abilities to pay, leading many students to incur heavy debt loads.

But several things are different.  The liberal arts program doesn’t sell itself as “vocational training.” Nor does it tout its placement statistics or skill-based career training as the reason to attend. And the universities aren’t run by billion dollar corporations who are concerned about their Wall Street performance.

Our case has taken two years so far. If we succeed, students who suffered losses will recover money that will help pay down their debts.

We need better oversight of these schools, these loans and these lending practices, as students who enroll at for-profit trade schools often are underwater from the day they graduate.  Effective oversight of trade school programs and educational loans would prevent these types of abuses.