Oliver Strewe—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image
By Denver Nicks
March 18, 2016

The second-largest chain of for-profit colleges in the U.S. has already gone bankrupt, closing more than 100 campuses last year amid federal and state investigations, but newly released emails are alleged to show the depths to which Corinthian Colleges was willing to go to prey on vulnerable people.

The documents provide an unusually raw view into the world of for-profit colleges, which is coming under increasing scrutiny in recent years for aggressively targeting vulnerable students with unrealistic marketing claims. Last October, the Defense Department forbade the University of Phoenix, another for-profit school—from recruiting on military bases. In January, yet another for-profit institution was hit with an FTC lawsuit for misleading students about employment prospects.

Propublica sifted through thousands of pages of documents, including emails, filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Attorney General of California against Corinthian Colleges, to uncover emails and testimony allegedly detailing the company’s questionable recruiting practices. Internal documents and testimony lay out Corinthian’s strategy for recruiting people living on the margins of society.

One witness testified that she was homeless and unemployed when a Corinthian recruiter enrolled her in classes, with the promise of future job prospects. She was allowed to live in a tent on campus while enrolled at the school. Eventually she realized the instruction she was receiving was never going to lead to a job and dropped out with $15,000 in debt.

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Another testimonial describes recruiters targeting a young single mother, just out of foster care herself, who was promised special help with her learning disabilities. After just a few days in the program she dropped out with $6,000 in debt, ruining her credit, making her ineligible for housing assistance and possibly forcing her into homelessness.

According to the documents Propublica uncovered, recruiters were told to target students with “low self-esteem, few base hits”; “stuck, unable to see and plan well for future”; “few people in their lives who care about them”; and “isolated.” The alleged emails also contain evidence that Corinthian employees knowingly advertised programs that didn’t exist, lied about job placement statistics, hid the connection between the school and a lender it push students to use, and employed aggressive debt collection tactics.

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