They tell stories of broken promises, overly aggressive sales tactics, harassing phone calls, bungled financial aid and insurmountable debt.
Florida's attorney general is currently investigating eight for-profit colleges, which have been the subjects of 183 consumer complaints. Two-thirds of the complaints were against two schools, Everest University and Kaplan University, which both operate large online programs out of Florida.
The other schools are: the University of Phoenix, 22 complaints; Keiser University, 21; Argosy University, 8; Sanford-Brown Institute, 5; MedVance Institute, 4; and Concorde Career Institute, 3.
The for-profits say they are cooperating but insist the number of complaints represent less than half a percent of students they enrolled.
"While we really don't want to have anyone unhappy, this is a small fraction of a percentage point of students we served," said Kent Jenkins, a spokesman for California-based Corinthian Colleges, which owns Everest. The school's Florida-based programs serve about 19,000 students and were the subject of 63 complaints.
Most of the complaints the attorney general received involved financial aid or allegations of unfair or deceptive sales practices, such as encouraging students to get high school degrees from questionable high schools.
Many former students said the costs of their education far exceeded what they agreed to. Several students said they believe their degrees are worthless because they can't find jobs and other schools aren't accepting their credits.
"I have been duped, fooled, roped in, lied to, deceived, swindled, misinformed and defrauded," Shawna Sallade, of Melbourne, wrote about Florida Metropolitan University, which now operates as Everest.
She complained her credits wouldn't transfer and her employer wouldn't agree to tuition reimbursement because Everest didn't have regional accreditation.
Rita Guzman, 22, of New Port Richey, had a similar problem. She wanted to get a second associate's degree in business. But she said a representative at Pasco Hernandez Community College "basically laughed and said it's a joke; no one will take the credits except them."
"Any time you call [Everest], they say other schools take their credits," Guzman said. "I honestly believe some of Everest's own employees don't realize this."
Jenkins said many of the school's classes are certified under a state course numbering system, which all public colleges and universities are required to accept. He said there have been misunderstandings by some admissions officials, which Everest has worked to address.
"There are a very significant number of courses that do transfer, and we take the steps we need to make sure these classes are strong and academically the same," he said.
Florida launched its civil investigation of the schools in October, as a result of the 183 consumer complaints and findings from the federal Government Accountability Office, which reported fraudulent or misleading practices at 15 schools, including two in Florida. The Attorney General's Office in Kentucky launched a similar probe against six unnamed schools in December.
The sector has also been the subject of Senate committee hearings and chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has suggested the committee will draft legislation in the future. The U.S. Department of Education also plans to issue a set of guidelines this year called "Gainful Employment," which could mean the loss of federal aid dollars if students aren't successful after they graduate.
The colleges say the original Government Accountability Report had a number of errors in it and they don't see it as valid.
"Keiser University remains perplexed by the attorney general's investigation as we were not part of the now discredited GAO reports, and the 21 complaints listed have been addressed or resolved," spokeswoman Kelli Lane said.
The attorney general isn't investigating individual complaints, but is using the complaints as the basis for the broad investigation.
Keiser announced last month it was converting to a nonprofit school, but officials from the Attorney General's Office say that won't impact the investigation.
Critics of the for-profit sector say the 183 complaints follow a documented pattern of abuse.
"It's clear that the way these schools compete with each other and with other education sectors is by misconduct, misrepresentation and general bad practices," said David Halperin, director of Campus Progress, a national student advocacy group.
The 57 complaints against Kaplan Inc., centered largely on billing disputes and financial aid problems. The company has about 50,000 students in its online program and 150 students on two campuses in the state.
Lisa King, 50, of Fort Lauderdale, said Kaplan withheld her diploma for a year, incorrectly telling her she owed more than $1,500.
"I contacted Kaplan's financial aid office hundreds of times and disputed the balance, and they offered me to come back for my master's degree," she said in her October 2010 complaint. "Heck, I haven't gotten the B.S. degree, which I worked hard for."
She said Kaplan issued her degree and cleared her balance shortly after she filed the complaint.
"We worked very hard with this student and confirmed that she owed us money, but she refused to accept that determination," Kaplan spokesman Ron Iori said. "In the end, for the sake of the student, we wrote off her balance last September. She has not indicated any dissatisfaction since that time."
Complaints about the University of Phoenix, which serves about 22,000 Florida students, ranged from billing discrepancies to education quality.
"We believe that we have a fantastic track record in offering a quality education and exceptional student services in the state of Florida," company spokesman Manny Rivera said.
No complaints against Concorde Career Institutes were filed directly to the Attorney General's Office, although officials said they received three forwarded complaints from the Better Business Bureau. Concorde was also not part of the Government Accountability Office report, so Vice President Harry Dotson doesn't understand why his school is being investigated.
"That's the $64,000 question," he said.
The Attorney General's Office declined to elaborate why individual schools were chosen. They also would not provide any updates on the investigation.
"It's our understanding that when the Florida attorney general decided to do this, he cast a wide net, and we were part of it," Dotson said.
Scott Travis can be reached at stravis@SunSentinel.com, 561-243-6637 or 954-425-1421.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times