Marlena Aldrich and Kristen Nolan worked as military liaisons at a U of P learning center in Louisville, Kentucky, where they were tasked with recruiting members of the military to enroll at the Arizona-based online institution.
In their lawsuit, filed this summer, Aldrich and Nolan claim they were asked to make “substantial misrepresentations” to veterans to persuade them to attend the school. They say U of P recruiters were trained to lie to students about their future employment prospects and the sort of jobs they would be eligible for upon graduation with a U of P degree.
Students also were misled about the transferability of credits, while recruiters declined to disclose the university’s purportedly inferior accreditation, the suit alleges.
“In truth there is no guarantee, indeed no evidence, that the UP degree will result in a better job, better wages, or otherwise operate as a 'fix' for the prospective student's income concerns,” the complaint states. "In fact, the opposite is true . . . 'gainful employment' statistics reflect that a UP degree likely will have little or no impact, indeed perhaps a negative impact, on the student's employability.”
Recruitment of veterans occurred regularly on military bases and at U of P-sponsored job fairs, the suit alleges. Aldrich and Nolan say they were required to “gain access to military bases surreptitiously” under the guise of seeking veterans to fill job positions within the college, in violation of Kentucky labor law, according to the suit.
Instead, they courted veterans to enroll in the school, and they encouraged them to use their taxpayer-funded military tuition reimbursement to pay for college.
“In spite of its express agreement that UP would not utilize its participation in [job fairs] to recruit students, it required its liaisons, such as [the] plaintiffs [in this lawsuit], to do just that. Plaintiffs were required to conduct these recruitment activities stealthily because if caught they risked removal from the base," the lawsuit states. "Effectively liaisons . .. were required to participate in these unlawful schemes, inclusive of schemes that rise to the level of criminal trespass, to meet recruitment goals or face termination."
Student veterans also were encouraged by school advisers to apply for GI tuition-reimbursement programs for purposes other than paying for school, according to the suit.
Aldrich and Nolan say they refused to engage in the deceptive practices and subsequently were fired when they didn’t meet their recruitment goals. They are suing for wrongful termination and for alleged Kentucky labor-law violations. Kirk Hoskins, attorney for Aldrich and Nolan, did not respond to an interview request from New Times.
“Plaintiffs inability to meet recruitment goals directly related to their unwillingness to engage in the unfair, deceptive, misleading, unconscionable, fraudulent and unlawful acts set forth in this complaint,” the suit states. “The failure to meet the recruitment goals in turn resulted in their respective terminations.”
In a statement, Mark Brenner, senior vice president of external affairs at the university’s parent company, Apollo Education Group, called the allegations baseless.
"University of Phoenix intends to vigorously defend itself against the fictitious allegations of these former employees," Brenner said in a statement. "Their false accusations and baseless legal claims will not distract us from delivering a high quality, career relevant education for working adults, including all those who have so admirably served our country in the military."
The U of P did not respond to New Times' request for additional comments.
The lawsuit is helping expose illegal and unethical recruitment methods at the U of P, said Matthew Boulay, executive director of the Veterans’ Student Loan Relief Fund, which offers grants to student vets who have been misled by for-profit colleges. Aldrich and Nolan’s lawsuit also correlates with the newly announced investigation of the U of P’s practices by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for alleged violations, including predatory recruitment tactics.
Boulay believes for-profit schools like U of P target vets for their GI benefits. In 2014, U of P’s parent company received about $272 million in post-9/11 GI funds, more than 92 percent of its total revenue.
“The profit motive for these online schools leads them to treat students in very different ways,” says Boulay, an Iraq war veteran. “Their purpose is to make money for investors. And that’s not the same purpose of a state school or community college.”
While serving as a marine, Jonathan Ngowaki, 29, attended job fairs and saw how recruiters at many for-profit universities preyed on soldiers.
“When you go to job fairs, look at who is present recruiting — it’s [representatives from] for-profit universities. There aren’t [recruiters from] regular colleges or junior colleges,” he says. “The recruiters know it’s a guaranteed check to sign u
p a veteran because of GI benefits. That’s why they are there. Veterans are like walking dollar signs.”
“I honestly believed the veteran representative at the school was there to take care of me. I didn’t think about someone doing me wrong in an educational matter.”
Ngowaki eventually enrolled in another for-profit school, where he claims recruiters duped him into taking out a $15,000 loan without his knowledge.
“I honestly believed the veteran representative at the school was there to take care of me,” he says. “I didn’t think about someone doing me wrong in an educational matter.”