FOR-PROFIT SCHOOLS HIT BY COMPLAINTS
EXCLUSIVE: FIRST OF TWO PARTS
A Province investigation of the Eminata Group, a Vancouver-based education empire, uncovers a paper trail through U.S. and B.C. courts and a history of students claiming the schools didn’t deliver what was sold to them
The complaints started two years ago, but the views have remained the same:
I didn’t get what I signed up for. I feel like I was misled. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
Written in online forums, the posts, more than 200 of them, are describing University of Canada West (UCW), Vancouver Career College and CDI College, for-profit schools under the Eminata Group name — a Vancouver-based education empire that brands itself as “Canada’s Education Company.”
All three schools are accredited by the province of B.C. and claim to deliver quality, “market-driven education” that betters lives. But many of the posts allege a different story — not one of schools opening doors to brighter futures, but of business practices that are leaving students, many of them international, frustrated and seeking answers.
Some posts describe tactics that are similar to some of what U.S. authorities found in a series of investigations there into for-profit schools beginning in the 1990s, such as hardball recruitment tactics and promises of high-paying jobs on graduation.
Two of Eminata’s senior staff, Randy Cox and Daren Hancott, previously held executive positions at U.S. schools that were investigated and fined millions of dollars by U.S. regulators. Each headed his school’s Canadian division, and these were not investigated.
(Cox was previously a vicepresident of Corinthians Colleges Inc. (NYSE:COCO). In 2007, Corinthian Schools Inc., a subsidiary of Corinthians Colleges Inc. and a related corporation, agreed to pay $6.6 million in compensation to students, mainly for “providing misleading statements to induce students to enrol.” Hancott was at Phoenix University, the largest for-profit university in the U.S., which in 2004 was fined $9.8 million by federal regulators for violating a law preventing recruiters from being offered pay incentives for signing up students. The fines were paid but neither school ever admitted to wrongdoing, according to media reports. Phoenix shut down its Canadian operations in 2010.)
The Eminata Group has dismissed the posts as a smear campaign launched by a few dissatisfied former students and staff, including a former director whom they claim is trying to extort money from them.
A complaint filed by the Eminata Group to the Vancouver Police Department about the extortion matter was closed with no charges laid, Const. Lindsey Houghton told The Province.
“That website is obviously concerning,” said Drew Lawrenson, spokesperson for Vancouver Career College and CDI College, talking about the online posts. “We are aware of who they are, and we are dealing with them as best we can.”
But an investigation by The Province suggests there might be more to the posts than just disgruntled students.
The Province has also learned that Dr. Verna Magee-shepherd, president and vice-chancellor of UCW, resigned from her position March 9.
In a letter to students, she advised that Vancouver lawyer Skipp Triplett, who recently conducted a months-long review of B.C.’S community gaming grants after being appointed by Premier Christy Clark, will serve as board steward to UCW during the search for a new president.
Attempts to reach Magee-shepherd for comment were unsuccessful.
A current instructor at CDI College’s Surrey campus, who agreed to speak with The Province on condition of anonymity, said she knew some of the online allegations to be valid, including the use of unqualified teachers, misleading enrolment information, commissioned sales reps and inconsistent exam standards.
“It is just about money,” the instructor felt. “The whole thing is just wrong.”
Not named in the allegations is the founder of the Eminata Group, Dr. Peter M. Chung, an enigmatic pastor’s son from L.A. who served as Paraguay’s honorary consul to Canada from 2007 until 2009, a position that required approval from the Canadian government.
An ardent Christian, Chung openly speaks of his love of God in interviews and of his international missionary work.
But there is another side to Chung that is glossed over in his interviews.
Close to 20 years ago, he left California in disgrace, his fortune depleted and his computer school ordered closed by state authorities. He has described this time of his life as a “business reversal” and to this day denies wrongdoing.
A newspaper story at the time quoted him as blaming the school’s problems on “disgruntled ex-employees who had been discharged” and “a handful of dissatisfied students.”
Documents filed in 1993 in the Superior Court of the State of California, however, describe it differently.
In a judgment handed down in his absence, he and his companies were ordered to pay $12 million to the students they were found to have defrauded using methods reminiscent of the online posts now showing up in B.C. This was in 1992/1993. About two years later, Chung founded the Eminata Group in Vancouver.
The admissions rep had called every day for several weeks. Tony Des Lauriers, then a 27-year-old Surrey resident with a dream, had a decision to make. That web design course he’d been eyeing was about to start. The seats were filling up fast. So was he ready to chase the dream or not?
“They were putting pressure on me, telling me that class was going to start soon,” Des Lauriers told
The Province. “That’s actually why I made the appointment.”
The appointment was at CDI College’s Surrey campus. The date 2008. Des Lauriers knew the college well — he had passed by it dozens of times on his way to and from the White Rock retirement home where he worked the night shift. An idea planted itself in his head and he filled out the online request for information. That’s when the calls started.
But Des Lauriers liked what he heard that day at the campus, especially the promise of small class sizes, meaning a lot of one-on-one time with his instructor who, he was told, would be excellent.
“One of the biggest things that sold me was he said I would be in a class of seven,” Des Lauriers said. “They didn’t make any express promise of getting a job, but what they kept reiterating was that a high percentage of their students were employed.”
Des Lauriers took out a student loan for $14,000, enrolled, and quickly regretted setting foot on the campus.
“I was in a room of 40 to 45 people and everybody was taking different courses,” he said. “Some people were doing accounting, business applications on computers. Actually, for web design, in that entire room there was only myself and my brother.”
Des Lauriers said the admissions rep denied telling him that he would be in a class size of seven. The college didn’t have the books needed for his program, meaning he had to start in a different “learning module” that taught computer basics, said Des Lauriers.
When Des Lauriers raised these issues with his instructor, he was told things would get better once he moved on from the introductory courses. But things never did get better.
Luis Bernardo, a Mexican national, had a similar dream this year when he enrolled in UCW’S $36,000 MBA program. He particularly liked the idea of gaining valuable work experience in Vancouver during his practicum.
He never made it that far, quitting within days of starting the program. The reasons? He felt the instruction was poor and the staff was unfriendly.
“I just didn’t like the fact that the teachers can’t speak proper English,” he told The Province. “I know my accent isn’t perfect, but at least I can make myself understandable.
“They were putting pressure on me, telling me that class was going to start soon.” — Tony Des Lauriers
It’s such a disappointment.”
Bernardo is now preparing to return to Mexico without the $4,200 tuition deposit he paid, a sour taste in his mouth.
“I was looking for a good education,” he said. “It didn’t work out for me.”
Asked about this specific complaint, Daren Hancott, the chief administrative officer at UCW and former vice-president of Canadian operations at Phoenix University, said the school’s teaching staff have solid credentials and are educated at the masters and doctorate level.
“I think we do a good job and I would stand by that,” he said. “I can’t really comment on that [Bernardo’s complaint] because maybe my English is not so good and I was born in Canada.” A five-page letter provided to The
Province, dated Sept. 14, 2011, and addressed to CDI College by a student in the dental assistance program, questions why she had to restart the entire second level of the program at a cost of $5,000, on top of her initial $20,000 tuition fee, for failing an exam.
The Province has also obtained a copy of a petition dated March 7, 2012, signed by six students in the same program, complaining about the punctuality of staff, a lack of basic instruments, and that they did not have “enough hands-on experience on real patients” before a recent exam.
There is also a significant number of civil court documents bearing the names Vancouver Career College, CDI College and University of Canada West. Collectively, when these names are entered into B.C.’S online court registry, more than 20 civil cases within the last five years come up.
Of the seven cases The Province looked at, two were settled (one was Des Lauriers’) and three were later withdrawn. Allegations included poor and non-existent instruction, misleading enrolment information, missing grades and sudden enrolment termination.
The two other claims remain before the Supreme Court of B.C. They allege serious misconduct, including deliberately trying to mislead students into enrolling by providing inaccurate information, all of which is denied by the Eminata companies.
Premier Christy Clark’s name is mentioned in one of these claims (more on this in Part 2 tomorrow).
The reviews, however, aren’t all negative. The Province spoke with students enrolled at Vancouver Career College and CDI College’s downtown campuses. While they thought there was room for improvement, the basic response from students was that they got out what they put into it.
Des Lauriers, the Surrey resident who took CDI College’s web design program, maintains a different opinion.
“They [Eminata schools] are offering you a space, to use, to rent, and to teach yourself at inflated prices,” he said.
After withdrawing from his course, he tried to get his money back, an endeavour that led to several meetings, including one with a senior counsel for the Eminata Group, Royden Trainor. The matter was eventually settled in small claims court in his favour. A court order prevents him from speaking about the details.
Tomorrow: Dr. Peter Chung was living the American dream until state authorities took an interest in the for-profit computer school he was running in California. His fortune gone, he found opportunity in Vancouver. But it wasn’t long before his schools were dragged back into the spotlight, this time under the gaze of the B.C. Supreme Court.