Earlier this summer, facing lawsuits and investigations from multiple state and federal agencies, Corinthian Colleges Inc. struck a deal with the U.S. Dept. of Education to either sell off or wind-down most its schools, including Everest University, WyoTech, and Heald College. Yet Corinthian continues to plague the airways with ads, enticing potential students into enrolling in schools that may not exist in a few months. And guess who is making money off the ads? The folks at Comcast.
Ads for CCI schools have been airing on syndicated daytime TV for quite some time, but we’d expected them to cool off, (if not vanish completely) following the deal with the DOE. The deal stipulates that the $35 million in federal aid released to the schools only be used for “approved education activities.”
Advertising for schools that will no longer exist doesn’t seem like it would fall under that heading, so we recorded some daytime TV programming to see if the ads were still running.
Lo and behold, when reviewing the 6-hour block of daytime talk shows airing from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday on WPHL 17 here in Philadelphia, we found that, for most shows, Everest ads continued to show up 2-4 times per hour.
A few things stood out to us:
• The Everest ads were often positioned in that prime spot at the beginning of the commercial break.
• Some Everest ads featured a voice-over lead-in from the talk show host stating, “Brought to you in part by…”
• While lie-detector chat show The Test, which is sandwiched between episodes of Maury during this block, ran many of the same ads for sketchy car-title loans, personal injury attorneys, and other for-profit colleges, it didn’t air any Everest spots.
This seemed to indicate to us that the Everest ads weren’t being sold by the local station, but by the shows’ distributors; a fact confirmed to Consumerist by a rep for WPHL.
“These spots are not sold by WPHL locally,” explained the rep. “This advertiser is buying the show from the syndication barter sales staff. We are simply fulfilling our obligation to run the show that includes the national advertisers sold by the syndication company.”
So who is that syndication company?
Well, for Maury, Jerry Springer, and The Steve Wilkos Show, the distributor is Comcast-owned NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution.
Meanwhile, The Test, which didn’t have the Everest ads — though we can’t say for sure it hasn’t run Everest ads during episodes we didn’t watch — is distributed by CBS.
Reps for NBC’s distribution division declined to comment on this story or on why the company continues to run ads from a company that is under scrutiny from regulators and prosecutors around the country.
NBC’s Double Standard
And while these may only represent about 1-in-20 ads on each of the shows that air them, it’s still revenue — money that likely came from taxpayer-funded federal aid – going into the pockets of Comcast so that a school facing allegations of grade-manipulation and bogus job-placement stats can continue to lure in new students.
These shows air on hundreds of over-the-air stations in every major market in the U.S. No cable connection or satellite service is needed to find out who the father is on Maury or to watch Steve Wilkos kick some alleged abuser off his stage. Just from the handful of ads on these few NBC-syndicated shows, Everest spots could be seen by several million people every day.
According to the NBC Universal page about Maury, the show has 3.1 million daily viewers, ranks as the #1 rated syndicated talk show among women from 18 to 49, as well as all adults in several age groups. Maury also has, per NBC, the youngest audience among all the syndicated talk shows.
And yet, in spite of this diverse group of viewers, the ads on these shows target the low-income viewers, pushing predatory financial products, ambulance-chasing lawyers, local car dealers, bottom-of-the-barrel insurance companies, and expensive career-training programs at for-profit schools like Everest, ITT, Kaplan and ICDC.
Meanwhile, during the same hours over on Comcast-owned Bravo, you’ll find reruns of second-tier reality shows like Ladies of London but the ads are for high-profile retailers, cosmetics, upcoming theatrical releases.
So Comcast is apparently selective on how it agrees to sell ads to questionable companies — if the show features predominantly lower-income, minorities shouting at each other over paternity, then it’s okay to profit off these ads. But it the show is about wealthy white women shouting at each other for a reality show, that production merits only top-tier advertisers.
All’s Quiet On Capitol Hill
Interestingly, no one from the Dept. of Education, nor any of the federal lawmakers who have called for Everest to cease enrolling students altogether, have been willing to go on the record about whether or not these ads violate the operating agreement between CCI and the feds.
However, a government source tells Consumerist that while the DOE does not have the legal authority to cease advertising, the operating agreement does require that CCI immediately halt enrollment at schools that are entering teach-out programs.
While the feds may not be openly trying to stop CCI from enrolling campuses at the schools that are up for sale, the Illinois Board of Higher Education recently ordered CCI to immediately stop all sales, advertising, marketing and enrollment activities in the state.
Sen. Dick Durbin, who has been an outspoken critic of for-profit schools, but whose office would not comment on this story, did say that he hopes other states will follow Illinois’ lead.
“All Everest College students should immediately be made aware of the company’s intent to sell their campuses in Illinois and their financial options whether they choose to continue their education or not,” the Senator said in a recent statement.
Others Aren’t Being So Quiet
“Everybody tracking this issue is incredibly concerned and upset that Corinthian is still advertising and enrolling students,” Maura Dundon, senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending tells Consumerist.
Since schools like Everest are really just student loan mills that accept as many students as possible in order to get as much student loan money as they can, it’s not shocking that CCI continues to advertise from its deathbed.
“Even if the federal loan spigot is turned off, students could still sign up for private loans that put money in the schools’ pockets while the students are left on the hook,” explains our colleague Suzanne Martindale from Consumers Union. “The ongoing advertising is deceptive to students, who are being promised something that the schools can’t deliver.”
Martindale also points to CCI’s ongoing ad campaign as a sign of how broken the for-profit college system is.
“If an institution is only thinking about short-term profit goals — enrolling as many new students as possible — the situation will deteriorate in the end and leave behind a trail of victims,” she tells Consumerist. “It’s a shame that so many students have been treated like dollar signs, and that American taxpayers have been unwittingly footing the bill. Lax oversight of the for-profit college industry has taken a major toll on Americans seeking job training, personal improvement, or simply a better life for their families.”
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which recently sued for-profit ITT Tech (also a big advertiser on the NBC-distributed shows) could not comment on the Everest ads, but did point to previous remarks by CFPB director Richard Cordray at the time of the ITT enforcement action.
“[W]e believe many for-profit colleges may be saying one thing to students as they load them up with debt but saying another thing to investors as they sell their business model,” said Cordray at the time. “In the end, the outcomes for many of these students do not live up to the promises the schools made to them.”