NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
DALLAS — U.S. taxpayers give $4 billion a year to for-profit schools in the form of grants to their students. Last year, a government report found that for-profit schools can make $1 of profit for every $4 they receive.
But, if for-profit schools are making money from American taxpayers, they've also made it through the prison system.
A News 8 investigation found that one chain of schools headquartered in North Texas has sought to profit for years while working with the criminal justice system, putting sales pitches to ex-convicts literally just off the bus from Huntsville.
With felonies like burglary and assault in their background, it may be hard to think of them as vulnerable. But, after years behind bars, many are eager to change themselves. At one parole office in Dallas, hundreds have been prospects for salesmen from the trade school ATI.
"They would be sitting there waiting for us," said Henry Ford, who was a salesman for ATI. "From 10 to 25, groups of 25 at a time."
The salesman job is something the school calls an "admissions representative." Ford and his colleagues would approach men and women as they were released from prison to sell the parolees on an education at ATI that can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $23,000.
According to records obtained by News 8 from the Texas Department of Corrections, Ford and his fellow salesmen were "volunteers" who spent two to four hours a week talking to parolees about their future. The volunteer application Ford filed with the state said he was there to "help people achieve a better lifestyle."
Ford said he had a highly-tuned spiel: "Who of you all out there want to make at least $30,000 a year? Who wants to make more? Well, those who don't want to make more that means you don't want to apply yourself."
Ford said he would describe a bag of money on the sidewalk to his newly freed audience, asking them whether they would pick it up if they saw it. The bag of money, he told them, was an ATI education, and if they didn't pick it up they were crazy.
After years, sometimes decades in prison, Ford said the parolees' eyes got big with anticipation.
The Department of Corrections said ATI was allowed to recruit at its offices for five years, and the school ceased the practice in September of 2010. During his one year as an ATI salesman, Ford said he recruited 18 to 50 ex-convicts. Other salesmen, he said, recruited even more.
Leniency for Sales Leads
Randy Mathis was introduced to ATI through another criminal justice channel. He was on probation for burglary through the Dallas County Community Supervision and Corrections Department (CSCD). As part of his probation, Mathis had to do community service hours, which often took the form of cutting lawns or picking up trash.
But, Mathis said his probation officer told him he could earn community service time by going to a sales pitch for training on welding, auto repair or air conditioning at ATI's Maple Avenue campus.
"She handed me a flyer with all the information on it, the address printed off a document that came apparently from ATI," he said.
Parolees were instructed where the school was and when to be there for a sales meeting, Mathis said.
CSCD confirmed that this happened. In a statement to News 8, the probation department said parolees were pitched to on June 14, 2008 and offered four hours of community service in return.
By that time, however, Mathis had already been enrolled at the school for three months, indicating parolee recruiting may have occurred more often. Mathis said he went to two sales pitches before he enrolled, and that "some of the probation officers actually showed up at ATI" for the meetings.
Mathis and other students with criminal records have told News 8 that ATI recruiters told them their past felonies would not prevent them from getting jobs after graduation. In fact, many have never gotten jobs and are having difficulty paying back loans they got for tuition.
Michael Noyes, who heads CSCD, declined to be interviewed for this story.
"Those probation officers ought to be fired over that," said Sen. John Whitmire, (D-Houston). "That's not the intent of community service."
Whitmire knows what the intent of community service is; he's the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which oversees the prison parole system.
"It's such a no-brainer," he said. "Where are the parole officers and the supervision?"
"ATI Schools & Colleges does not have a strategy to target ex-convicts," read a written response to News 8 from ATI's PR firm. "All prospective students have the right to enroll at an ATI campus, and it is our policy not to discriminate for any reason."
ATI declined to be interviewed for this story.
Whitmire, meanwhile, said even though the practices have ceased in Dallas County, he'll be checking if for-profit schools elsewhere in Texas have access to parolees and probationers.