I was more than a little interested to see a recent article in the Maine Sunday Telegram about former Gov. John McKernan as leader of a college network — Education Management Corporation (known as EDMC) — under fire for multi-billion dollar financial aid fraud. This article hit very close to home, as one of my children went to one of EDMC’s for-profit colleges, New England Institute of Art.

I was profoundly disappointed that a well-thought-of, moderate Maine Republican governor and former congressman would be implicated in leading a nationwide educational organization with disturbing and even predatory practices. When Sen. Olympia Snowe, McKernan’s wife, suddenly withdrew from her re-election race back in 2012, I wondered if it was more than her dismay with extreme partisanship that drove her out of the public eye.

Coming out of high school in 2006, my youngest was a musician, a techie and a computer whiz, and he hoped to weave all those skills into a profession. He wasn’t looking for the traditional academic university — he wanted something different. He settled on the Art Institute program in Boston. It offered the usual general college courses plus some very industry-oriented, hands-on courses in audio technology, video, design, acoustics, computer gaming and programming. The college was pricey at $9,000 per trimester of instruction.

We helped him move down for his first trimester. As we lugged his stuff into the dorm along with other parents and students, we began to appreciate the “alternative” nature of the college — a fair amount of dark clothing, tattoos, piercings, musical instruments, computer gaming systems, art supplies, etc. As the name implied, it was an art institute, attracting kids who leaned heavily toward creative disciplines.

Soon after he arrived, the school recognized his academic abilities and recruited him to tutor fellow classmates. What he found was disturbing — there were many kids without the requisite skills to keep afloat in even basic math and English courses. He also tutored students who just wouldn’t put in the effort. They were just treading water on their parents’ money or the student loans they were given by the college.

EDMC has been accused by federal prosecutors of doing just what my son observed — recruiting students with only a remote likelihood of completing their coursework while drawing down all sorts of federally-backed loans. A 2010 GAO report found that more than 63 percent of the students recruited into EDMC schools nationwide left before obtaining a degree or certificate. And when those students default on their loans, it is not EDMC who pays, but all of us as taxpayers.


It’s possible the Art Institute provided extra guidance to the at-risk students they recruited, but EDMC clearly had more of a business-growth model than an educational one. Federal investigations revealed that the company employed about 5,600 recruiters in their schools across the country, but only 320 career counselors.

Despite this distorted view of higher education, the Institute turned out to be the right place for my son. He took nearly every internship available to him to get experiences under his belt— in-studio recording, commercial advertising, audio-visual set-up and installation, performance venue sound design. His successful course completion and internship experiences led him to a job right out of college.

But friends at the Art Institute have struggled. One, in the audio engineering program, a stellar first-generation college student, accumulated $90,000 of student debt, with a loan interest rate of 13 percent. After a few years of tireless job hunting and picking up odd jobs, she finally obtained a part-time position as a broadcast engineer. Several years later she decided it was not enough to pay her hugely burdensome loans and she reluctantly quit her job for other full-time work.

Meanwhile, the New England Institute of Art has stopped taking new students and will close once current students cycle through. My son’s college is one of 16 for-profit Art Institutes across the country to be closed down. According to an EDMC official, they were closed because post-graduation employment rates were so poor.

And what of the many students at the Art Institute who were lured into an expensive college with the promise of substantial financial aid packages? With few prospects of decent jobs upon graduation, loan defaults loom large. In 2008, investigators found that students in EDMC schools had twice the default rate of private nonprofit and public universities. In today’s job market, that’s likely higher.

This surely is a cautionary tale for students and families about “buyer beware.” But it also reveals the influence that aggressive for-profit college recruiters can have over vulnerable students with few assets.

Much of this troublesome predatory behavior occurred under McKernan’s watch as either CEO or chairman of EDMC’s board. I frankly expected better of a prominent Maine leader.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees.

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