CHICAGO (CN) – Westwood College faces a class action from students, and another lawsuit from the Illinois attorney general, accusing the profit-seeking school of defrauding students with false claims about its accreditation.
Latoya Sims filed the class action in Federal Court, and the Illinois attorney general sued the college and its corporate parent, Alta Colleges and affiliates, in Cook County Court.
Sims says she graduated from Westwood College, but when she sought work in her field of juvenile justice, employers “promptly rejected her because the transcripts reflected coursework taken at a school lacking regional accreditation.”
Westwood’s home page claims to have campuses in five states and online, and says, “Over 24,000 graduates have transformed their lives by obtaining the skills, tools, experience and connections necessary to achieve meaningful careers.”
But according to the complaint: “Westwood markets itself as a degree-granting ‘institution of higher learning’ that offers practical training and programs allegedly ‘designed to empower students to pursue their individual career goals.’ Although Westwood is a for-profit organization and its coursework is expensive, it boasts of offering a hands-on curriculum that will supposedly prepare students for careers in criminal justice, industrial services, and healthcare, among other industries. Westwood confers what it characterizes as a ‘bachelor’s degree’ in these and similar fields after students earn three years of coursework. What Westwood has failed to offer its students and graduates, unfortunately, is a truthful assessment of the value of their coursework and degree.
“The members of the plaintiff class are graduates of Westwood who were deceived by their school into believing that their courses were accredited, and that the academic credits that they earned would enable them to attain employment in their desired profession. Instead, these graduates learned that no employers in their field would accept their academic credits or recognize their costly degree, leaving them with massive student loan debt, worthless credits, and no closer to a position in their desired career than they were before they began their program.
“Students, including plaintiff and members of the putative class, were drawn to Westwood’s accelerated and supposedly ‘career-focused’ learning programs due to patently inaccurate and misleading representations that appeared on the school’s website and were perpetuated by the school’s academic and career advisors. Plaintiff and the class were given every reason to believe they would receive all of the tools and training necessary to continue their professional development – whether by transferring to a graduate program or transitioning into a job. As they discovered upon graduating, however, Westwood’s programs were anything but ‘career focused,’ and these alumni had nothing to show for all of the time and money they spent on courses there – except substantial debt.
“Accordingly, this nationwide class action seeks punitive damages and financial recovery for the injuries, expenses, financial losses, and intangible losses suffered by the plaintiffs and members of the class.”
Sims adds that when the college recruits students, “Westwood fails to explicitly mention that it does not have regional academic accreditation – which is almost always necessary if students wish to continue their education elsewhere and receive credit for the courses that they have already completed.”
One day before Sims filed her federal class action, the Illinois attorney general sued the college in state court. Defendants in the state’s complaint are Alta Colleges, Westwood College, Wesgray Corp. dba Westwood College-River Oaks and Westwood College-Chicago Loop, Elbert Inc. dba Westwood College-Du Page, and El Nell Inc. dba Westwood College-O’Hare Airport. All the corporate defendants were incorporated in Colorado.
Illinois claims that Westwood “regularly promoted their Criminal Justice Program with television and radio advertisements depicting or presenting police officers – despite the fact that many police departments do not recognize defendants’ national accreditation, and as a result, very few graduates have ever become police officers in Illinois. Defendants even purchased search terms such as, ‘Become Police Officer in Chicago,’ ‘Chicago Police Requirements,’ ‘Join the Illinois State Police,’ and ‘Regionally Accredited Schools Chicago’ in order to present to prospective students their Internet ads and/or its website link as the top result in a Google or other search engine result. Defendants’ admissions representatives were trained to engage in zealous selling techniques to convince prospective students that Westwood was just the right fit for the student to pursue his/her career goals, and in many instances made misrepresentations or false promises regarding the value and accreditation of Westwood’s criminal justice degrees. When enrolling prospective students expressed concern about financing, defendants promised to assist the prospective students in obtaining part-time jobs to assist with paying for their degrees, but failed to follow through with that promise in any meaningful way. Defendants compounded these misrepresentations or false promises by misleading students about the magnitude of the financial burden associated with obtaining their degrees, engaging in a pattern and practice of downplaying the burdens of student loans they advised students to take out.”
In its 66-page complaint Illinois says one student in Westwood’s Criminal Justice Program, Paul Lindsay, “was pulled out of class on more than one occasion and told to go to the financial aid office.”
The complaint continues: “Once in the financial aid office, Mr. Lindsay was told that he would need to apply for additional loans to register for the next term.
“He was additionally told he could not return to any classes, including the class he had just been pulled out of, until he filled out the appropriate paperwork to apply for the necessary loans.
“According to Mr. Lindsay, defendants’ actions felt like a ‘shakedown’ to him.”
The state adds: “In effect, defendants charge a premium for a criminal justice degree that many times is worthless because the degree does not assist students with finding employment in law enforcement, is not regionally accredited, and fails to adequately prepare students to secure employment that would enable them to repay their much larger federal and private student loans.”
Sims seeks damages for breach of contract, unjust enrichment and fraud.
Illinois seeks damages for consumer fraud and deceptive trade, and wants the court to revoke, forfeit or suspend Westwood’s Criminal Justice Program.
Sims is represented by Joseph Siprut.