The Power of the Personal

A reference to a veteran's student debt goes from a group's press release to a Democratic Senate report, showing both the power and peril of using anecdotes about students.

September 29, 2014
Former for-profit students and Senate Democrats at a May event

Daphanie Johnson is one of two former students a U.S. Senate committee cited in a July staff report that made a case against for-profit colleges for taking advantage of military veterans. Yet Johnson first heard about the Senate investigation when journalists began calling her, after the report was released.

“I didn’t know that there was some kind of probe going on,” said Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq. “I never talked to the Senate.”

Democratic staff members for the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wrote the report. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and prominent critic of the for-profit sector, chairs the committee.

Senate aides confirmed that they relied on a news release from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) as the sole source about Johnson’s experience at American InterContinental University. The committee did not contact her.

The 13-page report included detailed graphics and several pages of supporting data. It received a decent amount of media attention, mostly for its central finding that publicly traded for-profit chains are receiving a large and growing share of revenue from the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

For-profits overall received $1.7 billion of the $4.17 billion in federal spending for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits last year, according to the report. And 8 of the top 10 overall institutional recipients were publicly traded for-profits.

Aides with the committee said they were focused primarily on those big-ticket findings as they worked on the investigation. The numbers and charts, backed by a voluminous amount of information gleaned from hearings and witness testimony, formed the backbone of the report. The two student stories were merely supporting details, they said.

The Senate’s 132-word write-up on Johnson isn’t factually wrong. Neither is the 153-word segment about her in IAVA’s release, which the Senate blurb closely mirrored. But the descriptions fail to capture the nuance of her situation, a frequent problem with the use of anecdotes to illustrate the issue of student debt loads.

For example, the money line in both references is Johnson’s $73,000 in debt and her inability to land a job or even an interview in her field (at least at the time the documents were written). She earned both an associate and a bachelor’s degree, as well as an M.B.A., from American InterContinental, which is owned by Career Education Corp., a major for-profit chain. The degree programs were online.

Not all of Johnson’s debt was due to tuition, fees or other education-related payments. Living expenses were a major factor, too, even on top of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and federal loans she received.

It’s hard to say what a student spends on college without obtaining a waiver from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that prevents institutions from releasing a wide range of facts about educational records. Without that information it is impossible to determine whether students failed courses and had to retake them, changed majors, or brought debt with them from previous colleges.

Only students can grant the waiver. Getting one can be a tough ask. Even some students who are trotted out as victims of predatory for-profits may be unwilling to publicly air so much detail about their finances and education.

As a result, student debt can appear inflated. Take the example of Dymond Blackmon, a former student at the International Academy of Design and Technology, who participated in a May event on Capitol Hill with Harkin and three other Senate Democrats. Inside Higher Ed featured Blackmon’s description of how he ran up $90,000 in debt while trying to earn an associate degree from the academy, which Career Education also owns.

Blackmon declined to grant a FERPA waiver after the event, which was hosted by the Young Invincibles, an advocacy group. But the academy later was able to share that he transferred between campuses while working on his degree, and spent 4.5 years earning it. And because the annual tuition and fees were roughly $12,000 during that period, it’s likely he used a substantial portion of the loan amounts for living and other expenses.

As for Johnson, she said she regretted taking on so much debt. “It’s unfortunate that I do have a lot of student loans.”

But she stopped short of blaming American InterContinental. In an interview she said she was satisfied with what she got out of her studies at the university. “I never said that I wasn’t fully educated,” said Johnson, who lives in Pensacola, Fla.

In fact, in 2010 she applied to American InterContinental for one of its distinguished alumni awards. She agreed to allow the university to release part of her application, in which she said her degrees gave her the tools and education to be successful as a civilian.

“I am happy I decided to attend AIU,” she wrote. “Obtaining my education online was a rewarding experience.”

Reading the Fine Print

Johnson’s story first emerged thanks to a $5,000 grant she received from the Veterans’ Student Loan Relief Fund.

The fund is designed to help veterans who are former students at for-profits pay off their student loan debt. It was created with money donated by Jerome Kohlberg, a billionaire financier and WWII veteran who is a vociferous critic of for-profits.

Scholarship America, a major distributor of grant aid, manages the program. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is a partner, with a focus on getting the word out to veterans. So far roughly 30 former student veterans have received one of the $5,000 grants.

The application forms clearly state that the grant is for veterans who have had bad experiences with for-profits. A listed requirement of receiving the award is that former students have “excessive” debt because their former institution “misled” or “defrauded” them.

Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the program, said in an email that the application process involves multiple steps and layers of documentation and verification.

“It’s frustrating for us because we know there are more veterans out there who need relief, but can’t provide all the required documents so Scholarship America can verify their stories,” he said. “One round, we had more than 400 initial applications, but only a handful actually received grants.”

Johnson successfully went through the process. She was also informed that her information might be shared with the grant’s sponsors in “order to participate in interviews and research studies.”

Despite the notice, she underestimated the attention she would later receive by being thrust into the politicized debate over for-profits. Getting calls from reporters about her debt has been stressful and embarrassing.

“I was seven months pregnant when they started calling,” Johnson said.

At least one newspaper, The Tampa Tribune, featured her story, although the article did not include her name. Another, the Orlando Sentinel, published an op-ed by Matthew Boulay, the fund's executive director. That article mentioned Johnson and her debt.

Representatives from IAVA at times have been aggressive critics of the for-profit sector. Senate aides said the group brought information about Johnson and other former students to them.

When asked whether a reference in a Senate report should include more vetting than just snipping text from a news release, an aide said committee reports often include information from outside groups, calling it standard practice. But the aide stressed that the anecdote about Johnson was a minor part of a detailed document and investigation. It was also footnoted, with a reference to IAVA.

Many student veterans have publicly complained about their experiences at for-profits, including the relief fund recipients and students who appeared at Capitol Hill events. Yet the committee chose Johnson and a student from a PBS Newshour report to feature in their document.

Slowey backed the committee's approach, defending the amount of work that went into writing the report.

"We believe the Harkin Committee cited the only document available," Slowey said, "but understood that Scholarship America is a nationally recognized and respected organization and trusts its process."

Furthermore, sources said it can be difficult to find students who are willing to go public about their debt problems, particularly veterans.

In Context

One problem with anecdotal student debt stories is figuring out how representative they are. The news media often features juicy stories about outliers, from both nonprofit and for-profit colleges.

It's hard to say how typical Johnson's experience is for a graduate of American InterContinental, given that she earned three degrees there, and that more specifics about her $73,000 in debt aren't available without a waiver.

But a new tool from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Student Veterans of America gives some answers. The comparison site, which went live in February, is aimed at helping veterans decide where to enroll and how their GI Bill benefits will apply.

More than 2,500 GI Bill recipients attend American InterContinental's online division, according to the site. The total cost of attendance, including housing, food, transportation, computing and day care, is $20,235. Tuition and fees, as well as books, are $13,345. The six-year graduation rate for all undergraduates is about 32 percent, which is actually on the medium-high side, the site said, given the type of program.

Loan default rates for the university are above the national average of 15 percent, however, with 23 percent of borrowers defaulting within three years. And the median undergraduate borrowing rate is relatively high, again, for those type of programs, at $15,000.

The university enrolls a large number of students who are at risk of not graduating. Those risk factors include students who enroll part time, are single parents, or hold full-time jobs, among others.

For her part, Johnson said she would have preferred to have been left out of the Senate report and the IAVA press release, even though she did benefit from the grant. And she said those references left out some important context.

"I had no idea that my name was in the papers until after the fact," said Johnson. "It affects my life."


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