Texas takes action against for-profit schools

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on December 31, 2010 at 7:47 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 31 at 8:15 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

DALLAS — This month, the Texas Workforce Commission fined Westwood College $41,000 and put its Texas campuses on probation for high-pressure recruiting practices.

The TWC regulates for-profit schools in the state.

Westwood was the first for-profit school News 8 began investigating in 2005. In 2010, ATI and Everest College have also been the subject of News 8 investigative reports.

All three schools were subjects of an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), revealed in hearings before the U.S. Senate earlier this year.

The Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), watched undercover video shot by government investigators and heard testimony from Gregory Kutz of the GAO, who oversaw the investigation.

Investigators posing as students shot video of sales pitches delivered by school sales representatives across the country. Included were Westwood College, Everest College and ATI in Texas.

"Fraud was much more widespread than a few bad actors," Kutz told the lawmakers.

Another witness was a former sales representative at Westwood College's online division. Joshua Pruyn, who worked at Westwood in 2007, told senators that recruiters were taught a seven-step sales pitch. "We were given a script," Pruyn said.

This echoed interviews News 8 conducted with Westwood sales reps in 2005.

"I would go trhough a script and ask them about their family," Gerald Brazelle said. "We were taught to make them (prospective students) feel their pain. That's the statement they (Westwood managers) used. 'Make them feel their pain.'"

Shortly after the Senate hearings this year, the Texas Workforce Commission put Westwood's online operation out of business in this state, for operating without a certificate of approval.

Earlier this month, the Colorado Department of Higher Education put Westwood's Colorado schools on probation.

The same week, Texas put Westwood on probation for coaching a prospective student — who happened to be a GAO investigator — to make false statements to qualify for financial aid.

Texas is requiring Westwood hire a third party company to use "secret shoppers" to determine if students are being recruited correctly.

The state also cited Westwood for failing to notify the Texas Workforce Commission of pending lawsuits. News 8 reported lawsuits against Westwood more than two years ago.

Speaking of the for-profit college business during the HELP hearings, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said, "Abuses are not limited to a few rogue recruiters, or even a few schools."

At the end of August, the Texas Workforce Commission notified both Everest College and ATI of its "intent to place conditions on their certificates of approval." The state cited the GAO's investigation as the reason.

Westwood College remains open in Texas and continues to take new students. In a statement to News 8, Westwood says it's pleased it can stay in operation on a conditional status.

It will appeal its probation at a hearing in Austin in January.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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