Online Staff Report
CHICAGO — Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit Jan. 18 against the national, for-profit college Westwood for engaging in deceptive practices that left Chicago-area students with up to $70,000 each in debt for degrees that failed to qualify them for careers in criminal justice.
Madigan’s lawsuit alleges that, through marketing its criminal justice program, Westwood falsely convinced students they could pursue a law enforcement career with agencies such as the Chicago Police Department, Illinois State Police and suburban police departments, even though those employers don’t recognize a Westwood degree because of its lack of regional accreditation.
Many students learned only after graduation — and after racking up thousands in student loan debt — that their degrees would not land them the law enforcement jobs they originally sought.
Additionally, because Westwood isn’t recognized by regionally accredited colleges, students found they couldn’t transfer their coursework to alternative programs to complete a degree.
Lacking a regionally accredited degree and unable to transfer their coursework, Westwood students were left saddled with anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 in student loan debt.
“Westwood officials lied to potential students about almost every aspect of its criminal justice program, from its exorbitant costs to a graduate’s slim career prospects,” Madigan said. “Now, many of these students are left with thousands in debt in exchange for a college degree that has very little value in the real world.”
The Attorney General filed the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging numerous violations of the state’s Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. Westwood College has campuses in Chicago’s Loop, Woodridge and Calumet City, in addition to campuses in five other states.
Madigan additionally alleges the college engaged in deceptive advertising. Westwood regularly promoted its criminal justice program in television and radio ads that depicted its graduates posing as police officers, in spite of its accreditation status that prevented students from obtaining such jobs.
Westwood also deceptively advertised online by purchasing search terms such as “Regionally Accredited Colleges” and “Become a Police Officer in Chicago” and “State Trooper College.”
When users searched for those terms, links to Westwood College would appear at the top of their search engine results, giving the false impression that a Westwood degree was regionally accredited and recognized by agencies including the Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police.
The lawsuit also alleges that Westwood downplayed the ultimate total cost of attending the college and failed to provide students with sufficient information about their loans. Westwood is typically more expensive than most community colleges or state universities, with 2012 tuition rates for a bachelor’s of applied science totaling more than $71,000. Madigan said that when government and private loans did not cover a student’s cost, Westwood financed the student’s balance at exceedingly high interest rates — as much as 18 percent — and financial aid officers misrepresented the terms of the financing.
More than 100 students from Cook, DuPage, Kane and Ogle counties have complained to the Attorney General’s office and the Chicago Better Business Bureau.
Madigan’s lawsuit seeks to rescind contracts between current and former students and Westwood that are found to be unlawful and provide restitution to those students. The lawsuit seeks to shut down the defendant’s Criminal Justice Program. The suit also seeks to impose on Westwood civil penalties based on violations of Illinois law.
The lawsuit is Attorney General Madigan’s latest effort to crack down on fraudulent and deceptive practices in the for-profit college industry. In 2011, Madigan filed a complaint in a whistleblower suit against Education Management Corporation and the Illinois Institutes of Art in Chicago and Schaumburg for allegedly incentivizing admissions recruiters based on enrollment numbers and thereby defrauding the state of education grant dollars. Earlier in 2007, Madigan reached a settlement with Illinois-based DeVry University and Career Education Corporation concerning student loan practices involving the schools and lenders. The settlements required the schools to adopt a College Code of Conduct and to return the money paid by lenders to schools.
Current and former students of Westwood College seeking more information should contact Madigan’s Consumer Fraud Hotline, (800) 386-5438.
Assistant Attorneys General Akeela White, Colleen Bisher, Michele Casey, Greg Grzeskiewicz and Kevin Hudspeth are handling this case for Madigan’s Consumer Fraud Bureau.