Going for Broke

For-profit colleges have been accused of preying on poor students, loading them with debt and pocketing their government loans. But lawmakers are finally fighting back

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Photograph by Jeff Wilson for TIME

When Melissa Rothrock, 33, decided in the spring of 2009 that she wanted to become the first in her family to go to college, she knew a traditional program was out of the question. The mother of four children--one of them just an infant--couldn't afford a babysitter, and her husband was on the road for days at a time as a truck driver. An online ad targeting stay-at-home moms got her thinking about distance learning. She filled out her information, and soon the phone began to ring with calls from recruiters for various for-profit colleges who were eager to sign her up. One recruiter from Westwood College, a school headquartered nearly 800 miles (1,300 km) away in Denver, was particularly persistent, calling Rothrock at her San Marcos, Texas, home nearly every day for two weeks, she says.

Sure, she had questions--and the recruiter had all the answers. What about the school's credentials? Nationally accredited. She was interested in perhaps becoming a criminal-case researcher or a paralegal--how much money could she make with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice? As much as $80,000. It all sounded great. "The recruiter convinced me that I couldn't afford not to do this," she says.

The high-speed Internet access she needed for the classes was too expensive, so Rothrock soon found herself planted at a table at the local IHOP, with her Rent-A-Center laptop and her kids, drinking bottomless cups of coffee and using the free wi-fi. Sitting among students from nearby Texas State University at San Marcos, Rothrock thought, "I'm progressing. I'm getting somewhere. Even though I've got kids, I'm just like you, and I can do this."

So too did the federal government, which awarded her $12,000 in student loans and more than $5,000 in Pell Grant money. To start, Rothrock didn't have to pay any out-of-pocket tuition. But a year later, life began to get in the way of her studies. The family was planning a move nearly 300 miles (500 km) northeast to Mount Pleasant, Texas, and the stress was taking a toll on Rothrock's grades. After consulting her adviser, she decided that to avoid tarnishing her transcript, she would withdraw and re-enroll the following August, when the move was complete and her two oldest kids were back in school. But when she tried to return, Westwood officials told her that the Texas workforce commission had ordered the school to stop enrolling new students in its online programs because it hadn't been certified to operate in the state.

"You don't expect any institution, especially an educational institution, to just blatantly lie to you," Rothrock says. (Westwood claims that it alerted students to the problem via e-mail.)

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