As graduation approached and they started looking for jobs in 2010, Jacqueline Franklin, Jami Reichardt, Bridgette Collins, and about 14 other women at the Sanford Brown Institute in Trevose came to a harsh realization: Their for-profit school wasn’t accredited for its ultrasound program even though they had each borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from the federal government to go there.

Administrators at the now-closed Bucks County school told the students not to worry. There was a work-around.

The graduates could work as uncredentialed techs for a year and then take their board tests. But the women -- and they were all women in the day and night classes -- asked how could they get ultrasound jobs in the first place without passing their boards to prove they had skills?

Reichardt, who borrowed $35,000, couldn’t find a position back then. She took “man jobs, because let’s be honest, they pay better for physical labor than, you know, working retail," she said. "I did security for private events, clubs, celebrity details. You name it, I did it.”

She even subcontracted for Peco, switching out electric and gas meters. “I did both of them together,” Reichardt said. “I’d be trying to not get electrocuted during the day and not getting punched in the face at night.”

Another student, Jacqueline Franklin, 38, of Burlington City, still owes $57,000 for her Sanford Brown ultrasound education.

It wasn’t until late in her education, she recalled, that she learned an awful truth about the school. The broader Trevose campus was accredited so students could get federal loans. But the Trevose ultrasound program was not. Franklin said she didn’t learn this “until I went out to get a job.”

"They said I would make $55 an hour.” Almost a decade later, Franklin said she is earning $35 an hour with a mobile ultrasound service driving to prisons and nursing homes. She earned $25 an hour for years after graduation, she said.

‘Terribly over-debted’

The two Philadelphia-area women are among hundreds of thousands of Americans who attended for-profit schools that closed or agreed to settle government investigations for high-pressure sales tactics, unaccredited programs, poor instruction, and forcing students to take courses they didn’t need to run up tuition loans.

The problem in Washington gets bigger every month as many of these students tread water on their loans or default. Studies indicate poor earning-potential outcomes for students of for-profit schools. For years, they struggle with debt, delay life plans, and even take medication for anxiety.

Students in for-profit schools owe the Department of Education about $245 billion in loans -- part of the nation’s $1.5 trillion student debt crisis. Many believe they were scammed. Academic experts say the problem has been particularly bad in health-care fields and for women who sought skills or certificates to be medical assistants, massage therapists, dental assistants, pharmacy technicians, medical insurance coders, and ultrasound techs.

Dina Rotella, 32, who also graduated from Sanford Brown Trevose’s ultrasound program in 2010, still owes $40,000
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Dina Rotella, 32, who also graduated from Sanford Brown Trevose’s ultrasound program in 2010, still owes $40,000

The Obama administration sought to make it easier for the government to forgive loans for students in for-profit schools who believed they were deceived. But the Trump administration has rolled back those programs, experts say.

When asked last month at a Senate hearing how many students of for-profit schools had been granted loan forgiveness, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos could not say. Neither could her staff.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 26.
Andrew Harnik / AP
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 26.

On Friday, Education press secretary Liz Hill said the department had discharged $158 million in loans for 15,000 borrowers from December through February. There are still 150,000 students seeking loan relief. Many borrowers pay on multiple loans for their education.

Over the last several months, Hill said in a statement, the borrowers have filed about 2,000 new applications a week for relief. “Pending litigation has slowed down the Department’s ability to process applications and provide relief to additional borrowers,” she said.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University who has studied student debt, said the government expects students to repay their federal student loans in 10 years. Across the U.S., 28 percent of Sanford Brown Institute students had repaid some of their student loan principal three years after graduating. The percentage rose to only 40 percent after seven years, he said, citing federal data. He did not have specific dates on the Trevose campus.

Government data show that one-third of students who have defaulted on federal student loans attended for-profit schools, while they represented only about one-tenth of enrollment in 2017.

A Nation Drowning in Student Debt

After $9 trillion in mortgage loans, college and other postsecondary debt is now the largest source of consumer household borrowing, rising over 500 percent from 2003 through 2018.

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Bank of New York
JOHN DUCHNESKIE / Staff Artist

Students at for-profit schools are “terribly over-debted for what they got out of the programs,” said Robin Howarth, senior researcher with the Center for Responsible Lending in Durham, N.C. The debt “lives on and a lot of those borrowers are in default.”

Howarth’s research, based on government data disclosed after Sanford Brown Trevose closed, showed that students’ earnings after for-profit ultrasound programs failed to measure up -- with 22 of 33 of them scoring poorly based on earnings to student debt.

'Rough justice’

With the federal government doing very little to help students at for-profit schools, state attorneys general have waded in to help but have little to show for it.

This January, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller settled a years-long probe into Sanford Brown Institute’s parent, Career Education Corp.

Miller announced that Career Education agreed to forgive $493 million in loans for 179,000 former students at its schools, including Sanford Brown.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro participated in the Iowa settlement. It “means 12,600 Pennsylvania students who attended a school affiliated with CEC will have $38.6 million in student loan debts relieved.” Besides Trevose, Sanford Brown ran two schools in Western Pennsylvania, both now closed.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro participated in a settlement with Sanford Brown Institute's parent company. Former students were disappointed that the agreement did not provide significant debt relief.
Matt Rourke / AP
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro participated in a settlement with Sanford Brown Institute's parent company. Former students were disappointed that the agreement did not provide significant debt relief.

But the settlement covered only private loans. For-profit schools generally operate under the 90/10 rule: 90 percent federal loans and 10 percent private loans. That means that only 10 percent would be forgiven if students had private loans for Sanford Brown in the first place. Most borrowers won’t be helped.

“This was rough justice and it was what we could get,” explained Jessica Whitney, special assistant attorney general in Iowa.

‘Loophole’

The Sanford Brown Institute Trevose campus in 2010 had the seal of approval from a major accrediting agency -- which allowed the Trevose campus to tap federal loans for its students.

But the Trevose campus’ ultrasound program had no such standing.

Ultrasound there was accredited only between September 2012 and December 2013, records show -- not during the years that Reichardt, Collins, and Franklin attended.

The entire campus closed in March 2014, records show.

The normal route after graduating from an accredited ultrasound program was to take board tests immediately. But graduates from an unaccredited school had to work for a year as a paid ultrasound tech to become eligible for the tests.

Thomas Jefferson University runs one of the most established ultrasound programs in the Philadelphia region. When Collins and Reichardt were looking for schools, Jefferson had a long wait. So the women enrolled in Sanford Brown Trevose, near the Neshaminy Mall.

“We were basically set up for failure,” said Reichardt, who lives in Bensalem and graduated from Bensalem High School. “You already didn’t have a shot, especially against the Jefferson girls. They’re coming out. They’re accredited. You know they have the better reputation than Sanford Brown,” she said. “To get a job you had to literally claw your way. A lot of girls didn’t have the fight in them. It took five years for me to fight.”

Three years ago, Reichardt’s sister helped her find a job with a mobile ultrasound company. She did not need board certification for it. She contacted a former Sanford Brown instructor to refresh her skills. She now works at a doctor’s office in Vineland, N.J., and has passed one of her boards and is planning to take others. She owes $36,000 on her original $35,000 loan.

Classmate Dina Rotella, 32, still owes $40,000. “It was difficult to get through and then when you got out [of Sanford Brown], you got nothing,” she said. Rotella, who lives in Washington Township, couldn’t find an ultrasound job. So she returned to school to learn health-care coding for payments and now does that for a South Jersey emergency room.

Jami Reichardt graduated from the Sanford Brown Institute's ultrasound program in 2010. Because it wasn't accredited, she took "man jobs" for years. She continues to have student debt.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Jami Reichardt graduated from the Sanford Brown Institute's ultrasound program in 2010. Because it wasn't accredited, she took "man jobs" for years. She continues to have student debt.

‘Oh, hon’

Collins, 35, of Huntingdon Valley, says she can’t even talk about Sanford Brown "because I get sick to my stomach.”

Her story began in 2008 when she was a waitress at the 99 Restaurant in Trevose, and read an item in the Philadelphia Daily News classifieds, asking “Boy or Girl?” Underneath was an ad for the Sanford Brown Institute Trevose ultrasound program with “guaranteed job placement and the opportunity of a lifetime.”

She said the Sanford Brown recruiter told her that the path to the ultrasound program was through a "medical assistants” course. So Collins borrowed more than $13,000 for these classes, and later learned she didn’t need the training. So she added the cost of the ultrasound program, taking her total education bill to $40,000.

As graduation loomed in 2010, Collins learned like the other students that Sanford Brown Trevose was not accredited so she would have to work a year before taking her boards. “There was no help at all with resumès. My sister Lynn ended up helping me.”

After graduation, Collins waitressed again while taking a second job with the SugarHouse Casino and cleaning houses to pay her bills. She finally got a job with a mobile ultrasound company in Maryland and relocated there for a year. She returned to take her boards and passed them, and now works at Roxborough Memorial Hospital.

Her debt remains.

Her father told her about the Iowa settlement and Collins called the Attorney General’s Office in Harrisburg. A woman with the office called her back.

“She was like, ‘Oh, hon, it’s unfortunately only for students that have private loans and not if you have a federal loan. The only people that can forgive a federal loan is the U.S. Department of Education and here’s what you need to do. You need to go to their website.’ ”

In January, Collins filed with the U.S. Education Department for borrower defense loan forgiveness. In mid-February, the Education Department emailed her, saying that it was reviewing her application. “Why aren’t they doing anything?” she asked.

Collins checked her balance the other day. She still owes $33,953.