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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.


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