DeVry University promised Navy veteran Eric Luongo an education that would land him a good job in graphic design — and cost him nothing out-of-pocket, he told lawmakers. Instead, he ended up with a degree that employers didn’t respect and more than $100,000 in student loan debt.

“I never thought that I would be subject to the predatory acts that I experienced at DeVry,” he told a panel of House lawmakers. “I trusted that the people working within the educational system had my best interest in mind. No one ever thinks this will happen to them, but my story shows that it can happen to anyone.”

Luongo discussed his experiences with a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, where he was joined by education advocates and a for-profit college president.

In an emailed statement, DeVry declined to comment on Luongo’s account.

“While DeVry cannot comment on an individual student situation due to privacy concerns, we assure you the experience described by Mr. Luongo does not reflect DeVry’s practices, nor our commitment to our students,” the statement read.

Luongo believes the school made him promises it couldn’t keep and left him drowning in debt.

He spent four years in the Navy as a LAN administrator and communications officer, and after being honorably discharged in 2003, he decided to pursue a degree in web graphic design. In 2007, he enrolled in DeVry, after the school assured him that its graduates were making $80,000 or more a year in that field and that he could attend for free through his GI Bill and Pell Grants.

Upon graduation, Luongo found himself unable to land a job in web graphic design with his DeVry degree. And in June 2011, he said, he began getting letters saying he owed student loan money that he thought had been covered by grants and the GI Bill.

He eventually racked up $101,000 in student loan debt, which he now has very little hope of paying back.

Also testifying before the panel were Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Kevin Carey, New America’s vice president of education policy and knowledge management; Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation; and Marc Jerome, president of for-profit Monroe College.

Jerome objected to the use of the word “predatory” to describe how all for-profit colleges operate.

He said he shares the concerns that others expressed about the way certain for-profit colleges market themselves, but he also expressed his belief that the problems brought up by the rest of the panel also extend to private nonprofit and public universities.

“Accountability and consumer protection should be extended to all institutions and all students,” he said.

During his testimony, Durbin emphasized two statistics: Though only 9 percent of U.S. high school graduates go to for-profit colleges, 34 percent of the country’s student-loan defaults are from students who attend for-profit institutions.

“Discouraged students leave schools with debt and not even a diploma,” he said. “Those that do end up with a diploma find that the inflated promises of eventual earnings don’t materialize. Then they default on their loans.”

Noting the failure of prominent for-profit institutions, including ITT Tech in 2016 and the Education Corporation of America system in 2018, Durbin said that reforming how for-profit colleges operate has become a passion project for him.

“If you have ever sat down with one of these students and got a feeling for where they are in life after being defrauded by one of these college and universities, I think you’d rise to the same level I am on this issue,” he said. “It’s just not fair.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., blasted the entire for-profit college industry for “targeting those who they deem particularly vulnerable,” adding that “the Trump administration and [Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos have rushed to let these predatory programs off the hook.”

She commended Jerome on his school but added that she believes Monroe College is an industry outlier.

“You’re a drop of success and we applaud you for that,” she said. “But it’s in a bucket of failures of for-profit colleges that really hurt students.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., had a very different perspective, saying that for-profit schools can “serve populations that have barriers to higher education,” particularly minorities.

“A four-year degree right after high school doesn’t fit every family or individual for a variety of reasons,” he said.

As for Luongo, he said he is now attending Medaille College — a private liberal arts school in Buffalo, N.Y. — and working full-time for the Department of Homeland Security as an immigration services assistant. He said his experience with Medaille is “night and day” compared to what he went through at DeVry.

Luongo said he hopes his story will provide a warning for his fellow veterans thinking about attending DeVry, especially concerning the professional clout of a degree from that particular school.

“Unless the marketplace puts value on that degree from that university, the whole thing is a waste of time anyway,” he said.

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