Former Students of College in Chicago Earn Less Than High-School Dropouts - WSJ East-West University says it opens doors to higher education for low-income students East-West University in Chicago. About 80% of its students receive federal grants for low-income college-goers THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Douglas Belkin and Andrea Fuller) April 21, 2016 9:29 p.m. ET CHICAGO—When Joseph Cintron enrolled in East-West University, a school that recruited poor South Side students like him, he hoped it would improve his prospects. It didn’t. He dropped out, like the vast majority of students who enroll there, and says he hasn’t made more than $15,000 in a year since leaving the school in 2005. East-West, a private nonprofit school near downtown, is an example of the rare school—one of only 10 four-year U.S. colleges—where the typical former student earns less than high-school dropouts. That is according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of student-earnings data released last fall by the U.S. Department of Education in its College Scorecard. The school, which also offers some associate degrees, says it does the best it can with its students. The Wall Street Journal interviewed two dozen former professors, counselors and past and present students; several people said they were pleased with the work the school does, but many more questioned whether it is taking advantage of economically disadvantaged students. After student debt soared in the wake of the financial crisis, economists debated if some students were actually worse off attending college and leaving with debt and no degree than if they had not gone to college at all. Still, at almost all colleges, students typically earn more than those who didn’t even finish high school. That is not the case with East-West. The median salary for former students—both graduates and non-graduates—who enrolled there in 2001 and 2002 and received financial aid was $22,300 a decade later. That is slightly less than the nationwide median earnings for high school dropouts ages 25 to 34 who worked full time, which was $22,860 in 2011. Meanwhile, about 8 in 10 East-West students take out federal loans to attend, and the average student now pays almost $29,000 a year after grants, according to federal data. Accounting for scholarships, East-West costs nearly twice as much as the nearby Northeastern Illinois University, and about 2½ times as much as the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mr. Cintron, 31, borrowed about $5,000 in student loans to study electrical engineering at East-West before quitting after two years. He said that he felt the school cared “more about their money” than his education. Wasiullah Khan, 81, East-West’s founder and chancellor, attributes the school’s low performance to the population it serves but still believes low-income students should have the opportunity to go to college. About 80% of its students receive federal grants for low-income college-goers. Mr. Khan said there is no “magic pill of some kind” that takes young people born on the South and West Sides—neighborhoods where “bullets keep flying”—and converts them into successful college students, he said. Mr. Khan says the school “does the best we can with the resources that are available.” He added: “We have great disparity in our society. What we are doing we see as a mission.” Wasiullah Khan, 81, East-West’s founder and chancellor, says the school ‘does the best we can with the resources that are available.’ But critics of the college’s practices say the school markets itself to students who its officials know are unlikely to succeed and doesn’t provide the support necessary to bring them out of poverty. The Higher Learning Commission, which accredits roughly 1,000 colleges, in June placed the school on probation, citing a lack of “appropriate support services” for at-risk students. Less than 2% of schools are currently on the group’s watch list. Mr. Khan said he believes the sanction is largely the result of pressure the Education Department is applying on accreditors to crack down on weak schools. He says the accreditor “knows that they have no justification to put us on probation.” The commission declined to comment. Mr. Khan founded the school in 1980 in a single building with a $100,000 that he said he received from a Saudi Arabian prince. The school expanded and now has more than $100 million in assets, according to its 2015 financial report. In 2014, it completed 17-story tower, housing dormitories, a gym, and classrooms. Despite that growth, enrollment declined to about 550 in fall 2014 from almost 1,200 in 2008, in part because it recruits from families hit hard by the weakened economy, Mr. Khan said. The school’s website cites its “family atmosphere” as a key to “helping students to meet the challenges of making it through college to graduation.” But just 9% of East-West students pursuing a four-year degree graduate in six years—among the lowest rates in the country, according to federal data. “It hurts us when our students don’t graduate but that is a pattern we cannot control,” Mr. Khan said. Several former school officials offered a harsher assessment: they say that the school takes in students it knows will fail in order to keep up enrollment. Marisol Vega, a former admissions officer, said she knew many students wouldn't be able to handle college work. “Some of these kids couldn’t write at all, you would just look at their essays and you knew they weren’t going to make it,” said Ms. Vega, who also sued the school for overtime wages. Some of its recruiting practices have come under scrutiny. Until last August, East-West offered students an iPad if they could convince their friends to enroll. School officials say they stopped the practice after learning that it was illegal for schools to provide incentive compensation for recruitment. Some students also claim that they enrolled with the promise of so-called scholarships only to find that they have to pay them back if they transfer or drop out. Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, prohibits member schools from calling an award a scholarship if it needs to be repaid. East-West isn't a member of the association. East-West says it is upfront about the practice. Mr. Khan says that if students transfer immediately after they enroll, the school loses money it spent recruiting them. He says the scholarship is contingent on the students earning at least an associate degree. Jesse Heath, a 34-year old Chicago resident, learned he owed the school $7,000 when he decided to transfer and spent years paying the debt off. He currently works as a garbage man at Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department. The fact that the scholarship money had to be paid back is in small print that is “about as crystal clear as a cellphone contract,” he said. Mr. Khan says the policy is written in several places in the school’s literature, and it is covered verbally during orientation.