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What Former Employees Say ITT Tech Did To Scam Its Students

Chelsea Beck

When he first moved to Miami, Waltter Teruel says, working as a recruiter for ITT Technical Institute was a welcome change from his life in New York where he had been selling antiques and life insurance.

As a recruiter, Teruel says, ITT Tech took care of the pitch to potential students for you. Recruiters used scripts set out in detailed PowerPoint presentations and got long lists of prospective students to call. But soon the welcome change faded. "Most of these students, they were looking for a job," not more school, says Teruel.

When ITT Technical Institute closed, employees began to share tightly designed sales tools, like those PowerPoints, that offered a glimpse into the strategy that helped the company grow to more than 130 campuses across the country.

But those same tactics ultimately contributed to the company's downfall, when the Department of Education ruled, in part because of its aggressive recruiting, ITT could no longer enroll new students using federal loans.

Teruel says that if you searched online for construction, or HVAC work, for instance, you might see a popup add from ITT asking if you wanted to study and work at the same time. "Do you want a job, or do you want a career?"

He says if you filled in your information, you'd get a call from one, or maybe 10, recruiters. The rule set out in the ITT training materials instructs recruiters to call "a minimum of three times a day for the first three days." This was known as the 3x3 rule.

The goal was to reach people as soon as possible after a lead was generated, and then get them to come in for a meeting. Teruel says recruiters were supposed to frame the meeting in person as a "coming attraction" and avoid answering too many questions on the phone. "Maybe if you give them too much information, they won't want to come in."

He says recruiters would try to appear as if they were swamped with meetings, "How about today at 2 o'clock, or tomorrow at 11 o'clock in the morning?"

And it got personal. On-campus visits began with a questionnaire, the WITY, or "what's important to you." Teruel says that served as a backbone for the interview. If an applicant said "I'm tired of making minimum wage," or "I want to better support my family," recruiters would remind them what brought them there in the first place.

The company's aggressive online recruiting is part of a trend that has reshaped some operators within the for-profit education industry. Many schools now rely on third-party data brokers to deliver names and phone numbers for their recruiters to call. So-called "lead generation" companies draw on public records, credit card information, and social media profiles, then use sophisticated modeling to identify desirable prospects based on everything from age and gender to neighborhood housing density, political affiliation and interest in gospel music.

"They're looking for not just any customer ... but a customer who's likely to be kind of desperate to enroll, and likely to be eligible for the highest amount of financial aid," says Bob Shireman, talking about operators within the for-profit college industry who have been shown to have unscrupulous business practices.

Shireman managed the federal response to for-profit career training for the Department of Education during President Obama's first term. He's now a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who points out that federal loan limits are higher for adults, who may not be able to rely on their parents' financial support.

"They don't have a high school guidance counselor; they're not in a job where they could talk to their employer and check out what's being offered," says Shireman.

A 2012 Senate Committee report on some for-profit colleges found that many operators spent more on sales and marketing than they did on actual instruction.

Alyssa Calixto, who completed a nursing program at ITT shortly before the colleges closed, remembers her recruiter in St. Petersburg, Fla., saying again and again how flexible the school was, that the class schedule wouldn't interfere with her job or taking care of her young daughter.

"The way she presented everything just made everything seem so exciting," she says. "She pretty much sold me that first day, and I signed up right away." She remembers the time it took between walking in the door and signing paperwork for tens of thousands of dollars in student loans was "probably about 30 minutes."

Several attempts were made to reach out to ITT Tech for comment on this story. None of them were returned.

ITT Tech's total enrollment more than doubled from 2000 to 2010. During the same period, it also expanded its course offerings into new areas like game design and law enforcement.

Many of these new programs did not lead to jobs with a "return on investment," says Georgeta Railic, former director of career services at ITT's Hialeah campus outside of Miami, who spent nearly 20 years with the company.

During the recession, Railic says, she watched with dismay as the school eliminated entrance exams and admissions screening for some programs. "The quality went down," she says, speaking of new students, "and accordingly made everybody's job tougher."

As tuition costs continued to rise, by the time ITT closed, the cost of associate-degree programs reached nearly $50,000. Many students finished without job prospects that would allow them to pay off their loans.

Students who enrolled in the criminal justice program, for example, may not have been aware that no associate degree is required to become a police officer. And even with associate degrees, Railic says, poor credit and failed background checks kept many students from getting hired at local police departments.

Instead, many wound up in low-paying private security jobs. "The highest security officer position that I helped students get paid $12.50 an hour," Railic says.

According to the Florida Board of Nursing, in 2014, just half of ITT nursing students passed their professional exam. Both the nursing and criminal justice programs were ultimately suspended at many ITT campuses.

Still, Railic says she kept hoping the school would stick to the IT and engineering programs where students had the best prospects for employment. But something in the corporate culture changed, she says. "Profits became more important than the lives of people."

Copyright 2016 WLRN 91.3 FM

Rowan Moore-Gerety