a peek into the dark side of (for-profit) PCC college recruitment in North America – (updated April 2021)
In sales (as in life itself), there’s persuasion and there’s manipulation and there’s really no way of measuring where one ends and the other begins.
This installment of The Learning Curve is inspired by Trump University in New York and events unfolding there. Even though Donald Trump has arrogantly stated that “I never settle” (in reference to his law-suits); he has this time, for $25M US after numerous class action suits were launched by thousands of students claiming they were ripped off; “allegedly” being the operative word. The allegations in the case were highly unpleasant for Mr. Trump. Students paid up to $35,000 in tuition for programs that, according to the testimony of former Trump University employees, used high-pressure sales tactics and employed unqualified instructors, that were supposedly “hand picked” by the Donald himself – not even close. Welcome to the PCC/Private Career College post-secondary education sector in the United States and Canada.
Trump University wasn’t even a real “University” – just taking it upon himself to call it that because it is more prestigious (an easy sell – implying a real degree, leading to a REAL future), and getting away with it because it is Donald Trump’s name on it (the gold plated brand that screams success) – so the boat just sets sail with no questions asked. People just assuming that because it is Donald Trump’s school, that it is legit and that they will benefit from going there no matter how much it costs.
I lived a sheltered life in southwestern Ontario – having no idea in my earlier years, that education could ever exist in the murky waters of ethical impropriety – let alone an agenda that blatantly takes more than gives. Known by Ministries of Education who just look the other way, like a car slowing down to gawk at the carnage then driving away (head shaking) – no I didn’t think it was possible. I was so naive in my youth. After having grown up in the public education system – grade school, middle school, high school and even community college, I came to understand that there was a relaxed modus operandi, wherein students came/studied – then finished/graduated and those leaving were replaced by new students coming in, so the transitions all seemed natural and normal. Evolution – migration. I didn’t see education as a business because I was clearly under the impression that it wasn’t supposed to be one; that it was free from commerce and able to operate independently from profit. Pure.
When I started teaching in 1983, I had just been signed to a record deal with a major record label, so I was coming in as a bit of a celebrity which was a bonus for the school. It was at a music/media arts PCC college called Trebas Institute in Toronto (exists to this day), and it was my first experience with this type of learning system, having no idea how different it was. What I noticed (early on), was that there was an admissions person who made $300 commission per registration (at the time) and that threw me off thinking … this person is being rewarded for signing up new students – what’s up with that? Odd – odd indeed. That was one person in one school. I left Trebas in 2005 and started working at IAOD/TFS – International Academy of Design/Toronto Film School for 2 years, until 2007 – another PCC publicly owned by CEC/Career Education Corporation based out of Chicago – owning/operating 70+ campuses all over North America and answering to shareholders. IAOD/TFS closed in 2008 and reopened in 2010 after being bought by Yorkville University/RCC Institute of Canada and launching a new campus in the Dundas Square, Toronto.
For me leaving Trebas, it was like out of the frying pan and into the fire. IAOD/TFS had the entire 8th floor of the CBC building in Toronto and it was a BIG deal! There were at least a dozen people in admissions and there were regular “tours” given to prospective registrants twice a week, timed to arrive when we took our break in the studio class/workshop I was teaching at the time, and it was very popular. Our program at TFS was called RAT (Recording Arts Technology), where we taught young people (paying $25K for a 6 semester education over 1.5 years), how to become successful recording engineers and music industry producer/entrepreneurs.
I was fascinated by the enrollment process, staying and pretending to be working at something quietly in the studio, listening to these young, charismatic admissions athletes (paid on commission), firing off the same convincing scripts to the same curious wide-eyed sheep in the herd following them into the studio (clueless) – WOW/OMG, look at all those lights, all those knobs! Someone always came by 5 minutes before the tour to dim the overheads and put music on low – kind of like having the fireplace working when a real estate agent has a showing/open house – same deal. The Tuesday group were the rock guys – mostly white – long hair – musicians (mostly guitar players and drummers) who wanted to be larger than life and willing to pay for it (esp. with an easy OSAP loan). Listening to the admissions rep tell them that a recent IAOD/RAT grad is now working with Rick Rubin in LA on the new Metallica (watching their jaws drop). Not true – total lie. On Fridays it was the hip-hop/rap crew – mostly black – Snoop Dog or Eminem on the speakers and being told that a recent grad is working at Diddy’s studio in NYC on Notorious B.I.G. remixes (watching their jaws drop). Not true – total lie. It worked though. Modus Operandi … hook them into an OSAP loan program where it’s claimed that 96% of graduates find jobs within 3 months of graduating – part of the deception/delusion – the seduction – all legal and above board. The term “deer in the headlights” comes to mind. No-one at IAOD/RAT got jobs in the music/entertainment industry (none that I know of). Jobs? Maybe – but not in some studio working with rock or rap stars, but at music stores or Starbucks, Future Shop or Blockbuster Video a month or year later – owing $25K to the government for an education that they’ll never use. Virtually all of them.
and The Release
In 2009, I became an Admissions Advisor or “Education Counsellor” (the title given on my business card), for Evergreen College in Mississauga and I kind of knew what I was in for but needed a job after returning from 3 months in India. Evergreen was/is a small independent Canadian company that borrowed Everest College’s business model (Corinthian in the U.S.) and we all know what happened there. It’s what eventually happens when any business blatantly takes more than it gives and is detached. Business/Technology/Healthcare in a fast-track curricula that boldly told prospectives they could have a new career in less than a year. Pitching to the misinformed (adult immigrants mostly) that we were a ‘registered’ MTCU college and a proud member of the NACC (National Association of Career Colleges) was in the top paragraph of the script because proving our credibility was essential to closing the registration (even though the education quality was poor). Of course Evergreen was/is a registered MTCU college and a proud member of the NACC which is sad only in that there was so little scrutiny in it’s start-up. It was essentially a “sales” job and the counsellor thing was just a front – implying that I/we actually cared about the people we registered when in fact, we didn’t because the school didn’t. There were 5 “counsellors” (Mississauga) who were given monthly target/quotas and that unspoken threat that if we didn’t reach our target, there would be consequences (quite possibly let go). We were paid 5% commission on sales/registrations and we were in competition with each other – creating a high degree of office politics, animosity and ill will. In sales (as in life itself), there’s persuasion and there’s manipulation and there’s really no way of measuring where one ends and the other begins.
The office where we worked, all jammed into one open room and monitored (by camera) by management was toxic; always on the phone coercing people to come in for their FREE consultation, so we could hard-sell them into registering, using every known trick to do that. At the beginning of each month, our numbers were published (via email) to all admissions staff (at both campuses, Mississauga and Toronto) and the “star” (top sales) counsellor was given a bonus while the rest of us watched in jealously and fear (all meticulously planned by our middle-eastern micro-management). It was an environment where we were rewarded for producing and punished for having a bad month and it was a revolving door; recruiters coming and going all the time. Always “free” laptops or tablets if incoming registered, but to them it’s only if they register before the end of the month (promotion ending next week – but never ending; a lie). So few were happy, especially the students and their discontent was covered up.
What I can tell you is that these colleges (for the most part) are constantly breaking the rules and fudging the facts to increase profits/magnify their position and growth, yet are allowed to get away with it because regulations are all talk and little action. The MTCU/Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities reminds me a lot of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario – where shady business is quietly swept under the carpet – members are protected and where complaints are ignored. PCC franchising is a huge problem because anyone with money can “buy in” to the education business, hire unqualified teachers (on the cheap) and profit from people’s ignorance as “registered” schools. Many of the staff at most private colleges are former students, (administration, TA’s or even teachers) having little or no experience. I thought that maybe, the Everest College closures (14 campuses) in February 2015 would wake up the system. Not even close. Thousands abandoned – minimal accountability.
What’s consistent about private music/media arts schools, is the catchy marketing. Everything from “Advanced” programs, to “Gold Standard”, “Elite” or “Premier” in their self description, but nothing is more telling than looking at their posted “success stories”, which for the most part are deceptive. Pictures of alumni (sitting at a big mixing board) who have just started their own “production company” and are releasing a new album or playing live somewhere – some having done an internship at some recording studio (famous names dropped) and now working at a new company that’s unheard of, or as so-called “producers” who are really working in a survival job (after digging a little deeper). It’s all about appearances. All looking very favourable however – to those who don’t see between the cracks or know what’s really going on.
Sounds awesome! Where do I sign?
The last thing I want to do is to paint all PCC/private colleges as being evil – not my intention. What I’ve learned is that there are PCC colleges out there who actually care about their students and don’t lie to get them in and actually provide their students with a quality education – the better ones. They are however, an extreme minority (less than 5% in my opinion – maybe 1 in 20 schools). Public post secondary is slower and longer but less expensive and most importantly is relatively honest in comparison but again, there are always exceptions and public post-secondary has their own unique modus operandi where the truth is often fudged to favour the system. What you can always be assured of, is that no matter where you end up (public or private post-secondary) … what you see (up front), and what’s really there are always going to be different and there’s almost no way of knowing what’s really going on until you’re in it and then out.
In closing, leaps of faith rarely result in restitution. My theory is to look before you leap. Extensively Google your prospective vision, your dream – your destiny to find out what’s real. Even better, talk to people who know more than you do and have gone there/been there; those who have no vested interest in selling you something that’s “good for you” or financially benefiting from your signature. Listen to what they have to say – find out what lurks beneath the surface out of sight … the clever marketing and the dazzling tour that teases, even tickles. Then and only then if it feels right – go for it. Most importantly, trust your instincts – your intuition (after researching it) and never just take their word for it because they say that this program will change your life – or that you “owe it to yourself” to be the best you can be. Be wary of false profits and snake oil salesmen (posing as new friends) – especially those who pretend to know what’s best for you … even IF they just happen to be the President.