What Toolulah Taught Me About Online For-profit Schools

I'd like to introduce you to Toolulah Rogersmith.

Toolulah is 57 years old with a GED.  She's never gone to college and is interested in getting a degree in Information Technology.  She has access to a computer and the Internet but has never worked in the field and has no certifications.

Oh and one more thing.

Toolulah isn't real.

Thank you Daily Mail and Alamy for the photo.  

I made her up in hopes of attracting some con artists so that I could have some funny material for my blog.  What started as a way to have some fun like James Veitch turned into a heartbreaking adventure learning about online for-profit schools.

In an attempt to get Toolulah's email address out there, I signed up to learn more about an online school. The next day I got a call from them.  Within two seconds I knew I didn't want to "play" with them, but that I could actually learn something.  And boy did I.

First, my apologies to the nice people who have taken the time to talk to me today and have tried to help Toolulah start a new career with an online degree.  I'll just tell you now, she's not interested.  

I'd like to try to sum up what I learned talking to the different schools.

Bryant & Stratton


All of my email communication with Bryant & Stratton immediately went to the spam folder.  Gmail was concerned that I was getting emails from them and tried to warn me that others consider them spam.  So when they called, I was definitely on my guard.  

But to my surprise, I wasn't talking to "Alan from Chicago" who is actually from India, and actually had a delightful conversation.

She told me that they had counselors that will help me get Financial Aid and told me that every single student she works with has Financial Aid.  What I suspect is that many of them actually have student loans through FAFSA, but sadly I didn't ask her that.  She spent quite a bit of time telling me about Financial Aid and didn't really talk too much about the school.  I had to probe to find out more.

They offer lifetime career services even if I earn other degrees in the future.  Services include help with cover letter, resume, and mock interviews.

I asked her what the graduation rate was for students, and she started beating around the bush.  She talked about how the number is determined by the government and doesn't include transfer students.  But she assured me it was higher than other schools.  (She was wrong, see the stats below.)
The cost to get an IT Bachelor's degree is $584/credit.  You need 75 credits to graduate for a cost of

$43,800 not including fees and books.  

American Public University


This was an interesting phone call.  Almost immediately my questions started to stump the person on the other line.  Repeatedly he kept saying "No one has ever asked me that before."  I asked questions like:

"What is the average starting salary of someone who completes a degree at your school?"

"Do you track what percent get a job within 90 days of graduation?"

Basically, what will my return on investment be?  No one had ever asked him that.  

He finally got so stumped that he turned me over to someone who was getting a degree in IT.  This is when it really got interesting.

She essentially told me that in order to get a good job in IT, I need certification before education.  She also said that this university doesn't do anything to help me get certified.  If I want a certification, then I need to figure out what I want, what books I need to buy to study, and find time outside of school to get certified.  In fact she confided in me that her certification is taking months because she's so busy with school.

She said that an education is what is required to get a job in IT in the government sector.  Who is providing the financial aid for these students to get a bachelor's?  That's right the government.  

This school charges $270 per credit and it takes 122 credits to graduate.  You might also have to take an additional 9 credits to get ready for college for a cost of

$35,370 + an avg. of $1,091 in course materials. 

Ashford University


All of my emails from Ashford also went directly to my spam folder.  Gmail warned me not to communicate with them.

Talking to Ashford took quite a bit of self-control on my part.  The woman I spoke to was pleasant but extremely defensive, especially after I told her I was looking at other schools.  She talked condescendingly and it took some time before she believed I wasn't an idiot.

Ashford didn't seem too interested in helping me find scholarships or grants to pay for my education.  I was told that I'd have to do all that on my own.  But she definitely pushed student loans.  She told me that the government WANTS me to take out loans to pay for my education even if I have enough money to pay the tuition.  She said the government doesn't want me stressed about paying for tuition but wants me to focus on my studies.

As we wrapped up my phone call she told that it was refreshing to talk to me.  "Why?"  I asked.

"Because my students don't normally ask such good questions.  I can tell you actually care about your education."  

And just what does it cost to attend Ashford?  

$452/credit, but that's not all.  It's also $50 for each class, plus some other fees.  Two semesters comes to $11,928.  It takes 120 credits to get a bachelor's degree for a total of


Western Governor's University

I decided as a comparison to see what a nonprofit online school was like.  No sooner had I filled out the form when the phone rang.  

It's hard to describe how different it was talking to WGU than the other three schools today.  But I'll try.  The two people I talked to treated me very respectfully.  They didn't seem shocked at any of my questions.  They definitely were not trying to push me into attending the school.  And financial aid was never mentioned until I brought it up.  It really did feel like I was talking to a actual university.  They even knew what an alumni network was.  

The enrollment counselor really took the time to listen, and didn't seem anxious to talk me into anything.  I was also intrigued to find out that I actually had to qualify to attend the university.  Apparently warm, breathing, and able to fill out a FAFSA wasn't enough.  

The pricing model at WGU is very different than the other schools.  You pay for a period of time, not for credits.  Six months costs $3035 and you can take as many classes as you think you can handle.  If you don't finish a class, it carries over to the next time period.  He told me that they will work with me to find scholarships, grants, and even loans if I want one.  The school itself offers scholarships. 

He said that it takes on average 3 years to complete a bachelor's in information technology for a cost of 


but that's not all.  

That also covers CERTIFICATIONS which cost around $200 to $300 to sit for an exam.  And WGU will pay for you to take each one twice.  

The only catch is that you need to have some IT experience in order to get into the program.  For those like Toolulah who don't have any, the fastest least expensive way is to get a certification.  It takes about a month and lets the person know whether they like the field or not.  

After a day of talking to lots of schools and taking lots of notes, I had a difficult time processing everything I had learned.  Fortunately I found a website that has already done the work for me.  

College Scorecard 


This website uses data collected by the Department of Education.  Let's see how these four stack up to the national average, shall we? 

Graduation Rate

Note: Since Bryant & Stratton has several campuses (or is it campusi?) I couldn't find any aggregate data for their online school.  So I chose their Cleveland campus.  

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 

Average Annual Cost

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 

Percentage Receiving Student Loans

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
70% (according to Market Watch)

Typical Debt After Graduation

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
$37,132 (for some depressing statistics, click here)

Salary After Attending School

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:
No data

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
$48,127 (according to time.com)

Percentage Earning More than a High School Graduate

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
This is a complicated answer.  To see an interesting analysis, click here.  

Percentage of Students Paying Down Their Debt

Bryant & Stratton:
16% (and remember 92% have a student loan to pay)

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
Again a complicated answer, but the deliquency rate is 11%.  

Parting Thoughts

I fully recognize that spending one day as Toolulah Rogersmith in no way scratches the surface of the complicated issue of post high school graduation and the pros of cons of online schooling.  But I would like to share my impressions of my conversations today: 

  • Typically, those considering an online degree are not asking probing questions to get the full picture.  Any questions that require critical thinking were shocking to those whom I talked to, except for WGU. 
  • The for-profit schools were eager to push financial aid, but not clear that I most likely will have to pay the money back some day.  
  • The for-profit schools talked about the government like it was a separate entity who was paying for my schooling out of the goodness of their heart.  Whenever I mentioned that they were talking about tax payers, they went silent.  
  • None of the for-profit schools wanted to know anything about my financial situation or ability to handle paying for school.  
  • When asked why I wanted to go into Information Technology, I said, "I just scrolled through the list and picked that one."  The response was usually something like, "Great." or "Perfect" and they moved on to the next question.  No concern was expressed that I might not have the aptitude for it.  WGU was the only one concerned with my response. 

I am a huge advocate for post high school education.  I also think that education can be found in many different ways.  For some, a traditional four-year degree is the best option.  For others a vocational or trade school is a better choice.  While I'm not necessarily endorsing Western Governor's, I did sense a huge difference between those schools that are for-profit vs. WGU's responses.

For-profit schools remind me of the human smugglers "helping" the Syrian refugees make the two-and-a-half mile boat ride to Turkey for $6000 per person.  They pack the boat with three times the capacity, give them fake life jackets, and get the money whether the passengers survive the trip or not.

And we as a nation are paying the price.

To read an interview from someone who was a recruiter for for-profit schools, click here.