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Swanson filed suit against the schools Tuesday, saying students were told programs at the Minnesota School of Business and Globe University prepared enrollees to be police or probation officers -- at a cost of up to $70,000.
The schools insist they did not misrepresent the programs. But Swanson said the programs lacked certifications required in Minnesota, and that has left some students with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and no prospect of landing the jobs they hoped for.
"If you go through that two- or four-year degree, you cannot apply to be a police officer," she said. "You'd have to start college all over again at a properly certified and properly recognized institution."
The attorney general wants civil penalties against the schools and restitution for students.
The median amount of student debt for a graduate of Globe's associate degree program was $35,132, compared to $15,850 at a Minnesota community college; the median amount of debt for a graduate of the Minnesota School of Business' bachelor's degree program was $52,791, compared to $25,080 at the University of Minnesota for 2013, according to the Office of Higher Education website.
Swanson said students and employees have sued the schools in the past for similar conduct, adding that she has 40 affidavits from students who say they were misled about law enforcement and other programs offered by Globe University and Minnesota School of Business.
One of their unhappy customers was Dillon Zerwas. Within a few weeks of enrolling, he said he quickly pulled out of the Minnesota School of Business, after a discussion with a substitute teacher.
"I told him, 'I want to be a police officer.' He told me, 'You can't be one in Minnesota. We're not accredited.' And I was dumb-struck. I didn't understand," Zerwas said.
The schools issued a statement blasting the attorney general's lawsuit as unwarranted. They said they have cooperated with Swanson's inquiry into their business, marketing and admissions practices and made several attempts to address any concerns. The institutions said admissions representatives and a course catalog state that the criminal justice program does not meet the standards and training requirements for aspiring police officers.
So, far this year, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education has received 30 complaints about for-profit schools. Most have to do with billing and other money matters. But none have concerned the law enforcement programs that have drawn the attorney general's attention.
Office of Higher Education Director Larry Pogemiller said his office will take a closer look at the two schools being sued.
"We will now do our part to go and look and see what we can find out," he said. "To protect students, we'll double-check [the schools'] websites, their materials."
Still, Pogemiller said he wonders if his office is missing problems at for-profit schools and might employ "secret shoppers" and other techniques to get a better read on their performance.
"Obviously, there's not enough resources to check in on every recruiter or campus in the state," he said. "And so we feel we need to be more aggressive. But we don't always know where to look until you get something like this, a direct student complaint."
Nationwide, for-profit schools have been the subject of about 60 government lawsuits and investigations in the past decade, according to the National Consumer Law Center.
"Certainly, attorney generals in some states are being a lot more active about filing lawsuits against schools that are engaging in the kinds of misrepresentations that the Minnesota attorney general has targeted," said Robyn Smith, an attorney with the organization.
But many students don't know they can complain about schools that deceive and exploit them and state agencies need to do a better job overseeing for-profit schools, she said.