Monday, July 25, 2011

National "scandal"

I’m excited to report that my best friend, Josh Pruyn (who’s been mentioned a dozen or so times on this blog), is at the center of a national “scandal."

Let me back up and give you Josh’s story (which is, in many ways, my story).

I’ve known Josh for about 22 years. We go back to when we played in the same youth ice hockey league at the age of six. A couple years later, he moved into my suburban neighborhood where we played street hockey on an almost daily basis after school for the next ten years. (I challenge any duo in the world to beat me and Josh in a street hockey match.) I’d say we became best friends late in high school when we used the newly discovered “email” as an outlet to complain about our unremitting sexual frustrations.

We dormed together for a year at Alfred University. He stayed and I transferred, but we kept in touch via email, still mostly complaining about our unremitting sexual frustrations. But we also began to discuss other, more substantive things: nature, religion, morality, politics, goals, dreams, failures, insecurities. Everything. I don’t know how many emails we've sent to each other since our late teen years, but from 2005 until today we’ve sent a total of 1,750 emails to each other, which averages out to sending and receiving an email every 2.5 days. (I know, it’s a little weird.)

I left college with $32,000 in debt and a history and English degree. He left with $66,000 with a history and political science degree. Needless to say, we no longer complained about women anymore. Our debts were the only things on our minds.

(Me drunkenly embracing Josh on my 21st b-day.)

(Josh came up to work up in the arctic for a bit. Together we burnt and then hauled the Yukon River Camp's summer garbage down to a dump in Fairbanks.)

I got a job with Coldfoot and, later, the Park Service. Josh, too, tried to enjoy the itinerant lifestyle, jumping from job to job for a while at places like Coldfoot. But because there were huge gaps in between his seasonal employment, Josh had trouble keeping up on his loan payments, which were far more demanding than mine.

He needed something more permanent, so he moved to Denver and took a job as a “admissions representative” with an online for-profit school called Westwood. At first, Josh was excited to be working for a college. He figured he’d be inspiring young people to go to school and improve themselves. (His job, essentially, was to get prospective students to sign up for classes.) But the more he learned about Westwood, the more he found himself in a moral quandary.

Here’s the thing about most online for-profit schools… They’re mostly a scam. They often cost around $70,000 for a three-year degree. Because they’re nationally-accredited (which is very different from a regionally-accredited school), students cannot transfer their credits to normal universities. And most employers don’t take their degrees seriously, so they can’t get jobs, either. Places like University of Pheonix and Kaplan and Westwood are putting many many young people in terrible, terrible debt that they can’t get out of.

Josh, as an admissions rep (which made him little more than a glorified telemarketer), began to see what was going on around him. Many of his fellow coworkers were lying to or misleading prospective students. Those who got the most students to sign up were rewarded with vacations to Cancun, parties, bonuses… At an employee celebration, one coworker laughingly received a “Best Liar” award. Those who didn't sign up students were fired. It was cruel irony that, to pay off his debt, Josh was now in the business of putting other young people into debt.

After five months, Josh ended up quitting. This is where I come in (and where I play a very minor role in this narrative).

I moved to Denver to stay with him and his girlfriend for a couple months (right before I bought a van and enrolled at Duke). After hearing Josh’s horror stories about Westwood, I wanted to publish an exposé on the school’s unethical practices. I wanted to bring Westwood down. (It was an unrealistic goal, as I'd published just a few very minor professional articles at that point.) I spent a couple months emailing ex-professors, ex-students, and ex-administrators from Westwood. I wrote a great article, but no one wanted to publish it (which frustrates me to this day).

While researching, I discovered a law firm that was representing former Westwood students, who were suing the college. I got some info from the lawyers and told them about Josh. They began talking with Josh. Josh told the lawyers the many gory details about what happens on the Westwood sales floor.

So when Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat/Iowa), who was conducting a hearing about the crimes of for-profit trade schools, found out about Josh and his experiences at Westwood, Harkin asked Josh to testify in front of the Senate.

Josh flew to D.C and, last fall, delivered his testimony about Westwood. It was his shining hour, his redemptive moment. (To watch Josh, fast forward to minute fourteen.)

Let me fast forward to the present day. The Daily Caller a conservative online newspaper founded by journalist and dweeb Tucker Carlson, has printed an exposé on Josh and Senator Harkin, claiming that Harkin and his staff “supplied an answer” to Josh. For some delusional reason, people representing Westwood claimed that Josh was working for the law firm that was suing the school—a bullshit tactic employed to hopefully discredit whatever Josh had to say at the Senate testimony. Needless to say, Josh has no connection with the law firm. Josh merely wanted to expose Westwood’s bullshit. He wanted to do the right thing. When Harkin's aide advised Josh via email, the aide was merely reiterating what Josh had told him. (PS: I'm the "freelance journalist friend" mentioned a couple times in the exposé.)

You’d think that being at the center of a national controversy would be stressful and chaotic for someone like Josh, who now has a big, ugly, warty evil corporation breathing down his neck. But for the most part, he and I couldn't be more amused with the whole thing. Josh is still in student debt, so he really has no money or valuable assets that Westwood can take. Plus, he’s right, and Westwood (and The Daily Caller) is wrong. Plus, it's fun to think back on when we were a couple of losers in high school who've each had our fifteen minutes of fame.


David said...

Joshua has had a priceless inside look at corporate predation and corruption:

-- How predatory corporations suck up taxpayer money (the tuition money came from the government, the same way many fraudulent mortgages were backed by the government, the same way banks that went bust after making a killing on fraudulent mortgages were bailed out with taxpayer money).

-- How predatory corporations fear government and government regulation more than anything, because government is the only thing that can stop them. Thus they demonize government and dispense propaganda about "job killing" regulations.

-- How predatory corporations try to destroy whistle blowers and those few members of Congress that they don't own.

-- How right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson are handmaidens for corporate propaganda. Dispensing right-wing and corporate propaganda is a nice way to get rich and has made millionaires of the hateful, sociopathic people who are drawn to that line of work, like Limbaugh, Coulter, Carlson, Beck.

-- And while Limbaugh and Beck are getting rich by dispensing corporate lies, truth-tellers like Joshua are threatened with financial destruction. Lucky for Joshua that he has no assets!

-- How corporations use their control of government to make the rich richer (often off taxpayer money and loans guaranteed by taxpayers) while using debt and the tax code to bilk the masses and enslave them. 75% of U.S. corporations, remember, including Rupert Murdoch's propaganda machine, pay no income taxes.

Let's not forget that it's not just fake schools like Westwood that prey on young people and suck up federal money. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University has sucked up over half a billion in government tuition money to to train little right-wing Falwell clones.

And here's what blows my mind. Given all this, you'd think that the American people, especially young people, would be in a state of revolt. Instead, corporate money and the right-wing propaganda machine rebrand the corporate, right-wing agenda as the "Tea Party," and dumb-ass Americans without a pot to piss in hit the streets to agitate for the corporate agenda and the rights of rich people.

And then Norway happened. What a fucked up world.

Anonymous said...

Yes, what David said.

Josh said...

Ha... one factual correction for you Ken: U of Phoenix and Kaplan are both regionally accredited - though I'd never recommend anyone attend either of those schools.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a lot of hate spewing and such ! Trying to connect the Tea Party to Norway, that is pure ignorance.

Sunni-Day said...

I got signed up with Penn Foster school, but wrote them back a couple weeks later to cancel as I found out that the program was not accredited by everyone like they claimed. That school is still sending me a bill.

Unknown said...

OMG what a great story! I always thought those places were scams, but it's good that they're getting outed for what they are. I'm from Colorado and I've been seeing commercials for Westwood College since I was a little kid, and even then, as a five year old, those guys seemed full of shit.
Again, great story!

Ken said...


Josh—truthfully, I didn’t know that. I’ll make the correction in the post.

Anon—I don’t know what ignorance you speak of. An no one was making a connection between the Tea Party and Norway... I think David was merely expressing exasperation that even one of the most civilized countries on earth is a little fucked up, too.

Sunni-Day—You poor thing. Sounds all too common. Those schools are vicious.

Constant—Watch this Westwood commercial for a good laugh:

Trish said...

wow, this is scary. the advertising these types of schools do lead one to believe that you can further your career by attending. Especially Univ of Phoenix and their new ad campaign.

Romana S said...

Wow, I used to see those University of Pheonix adds up even on Australian web sites. I am so glad that I am here in Oz and the university system works pretty okay here. We have something called HECS. You basically inccur a debt to the government, not the university. Once you earn over a certain income you must start paying off that debt. To be fair, it does accrue interest, but at the national CPI rate, the rate of inflation. Not some crazy commercial credit card rate. Oh, and you can choose to pay those costs off earlier or even up front.
The system works well. Not only does it mean that even poor people can afford to go to uni, but also we get a living allowance of $600 a fortnight to live on which you don't have to pay back. It is not much, because most cities charge between $180 to $290 a week just for rent on a room or small apartment. In Sydney it is even more. So for me I am lucky and pay $150 a week for rent. That's half my income. I car pool into uni so that helps off set the cost of fuel. My two passengers pay some of the fuel costs. So I barely have enough to live on. But it can be done, and thousands of students here in Australia are doing it.
Of course, we also get taxed to the hilt, but with free medical care and a much better unemployment system, there is a better safety net here and a better education system. Though I am sure both countries have their advantages.

Kevin M said...

Kudos to you and Josh for standing up for your values. That takes balls! I'm leery of an university, especially ones that reside in office buildings like Phoenix, Kaplan, etc.

Also, +1 to David. Sadly, I think most Americans are content as long as we can buy shiny iPods, iPads and other cheap crap to worry much about anything else - like our government about to drive us off a cliff.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ken said...

Trish—Oh, I know. If anyone wants to read comments from many dissatisfied U. of Phoenix students, check out Ripoff Report:

Also, U. of Phoenix has caused students to go nearly $500 BILLION!!! into debt, which is easily the largest production of debt of all colleges. (For profit schools commonly out-debt traditional schools.) Check out some stats here:

Romana—I heard about your country’s system. Sounds far more humane than ours. Thanks for sharing!

Kevin M—Thanks. And right on about material distractions. I think another factor is the fact that there really isn’t “real poverty” anymore. We can always just take out another loan and money—as if from some magical fairyland—is sprinkled into our bank accounts. No ones poor, but everyone’s in debt. No one’s starving and no one’s free. Without real deprivation, we will be complacent.

Anon—Sorry I deleted your message. I don’t mind criticism, but it must be civil and sensible. Anyway, thanks for reading.

Cellar Door said...

I've been following your blog for quite some time, Sir Ken. I wanted to share with you the fact of how ironic it is that people are such slaves to merely an idea, a concept really. Debt is merely an idea, it isn't anything tangible, just numbers in a computer that rule the world.