BREMERTON — For Maila Bautista, all that remains from her experience attending Everest College on the Bremerton waterfront is the debt.
Following graduation in November 2009 from the now-shuttered trade school, the former medical billing student from Bremerton worked for a couple of years as a receptionist in a doctor’s office.
It was not the job for which she borrowed $15,000 to train, and one she says she landed herself without any of the job placement help she was promised by Everest.
Now she’s back working at Walmart, where she worked before attending Everest almost 10 years ago, and each month pays $120 a month toward her loan.
She said she knew almost immediately the education she was receiving would not result in a job, but she studied and hoped for the best.
“I was already in the program,” she said, and she had already signed the loan documents. “There’s no way to back out.”
Last week the state Attorney General's Office announced the U.S. Department of Education was contacting 5,700 former students in the state who took out federal loans during specific periods to attend the schools owned by Corinthian Colleges Inc., Everest’s previous owner. The former students might be eligible to have their remaining loans canceled or have the money they already paid refunded. Everest is now owned by a nonprofit that consolidated its campuses and closed its Bremerton branch last year.
The department found that between 2010 and 2014 Corinthian misrepresented its post-graduation employment rates for certain programs, and those it deceived are entitled to their money back.
“Student borrowers victimized by Corinthian’s deceptive and illegal practices deserve this important loan relief,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement.
Only former students who attended some programs, generally between 2011 and 2014, are eligible. People like Bautista are not eligible under for the current cancellation program. However, those who feel they have been deceived can apply for loan forgiveness, sometimes called “borrower defense.”
Former students who want information on debt cancellation or refunds can call the U.S. Department of Education hotline at 855-279-6207 or email questions about discharge of their federal student loans to FSAOperations@ed.gov.
The Kitsap Sun asked readers to share their stories of attending the Bremerton Everest campus — located in the Kitsap Credit Union building — and dozens upon dozens replied. Virtually all of those who replied were women.
Many of them simply asked for information about getting help with their loans, others shared their stories.
Some wrote that they felt ripped off, that they are paying off loans they felt pressured to take for a substandard education. In addition to federal loans, former students said they had taken out private loans, used GI Bill money and paid out of pocket.
Others said they had teachers who were versed in their subjects and devoted to students. One wrote that some of her fellow students did not appear to be academically prepared or able to motivate themselves to search for jobs in competitive markets, despite the promises Everest made to help.
The former students said they didn’t expect to get rich but believed they would receive quality training and help finding jobs.
“I didn’t expect a bunch of money, I mean, enough to get by and live off of,” Aimee Muter of Silverdale said.
When Muter attended Everest’s medical billing program in 2011 and 2012 she was recently divorced. Having worked retail and with two kids at home, she wanted a steady paycheck and reliable hours. She said Everest's marketing appealed to her: single mother, looking for a career that could help her get ahead.
“It was all single women with children, and I was exactly right there,” she said.
She never found a job in medical billing and has been deferring payments on her loan since graduation.
“I’m beyond it now, but it still makes me angry they cheated so many people,” she said.
She did eventually land a job doing ambulance billing. Muter said having Everest on her résumé might have helped — others said the name came with baggage and had a bad reputation — but said her company hires people with no experience and trains them.
“I know now what they should have been teaching us, and what they were teaching us, it was fluff,” she said. “It was totally a waste of money.”
Everest schools continue to operate in Tacoma and Everett but are down from six campuses and are now owned by Zenith Education Group, a nonprofit, which took over the Corinthian properties in February 2015.
State’ Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board records show the Bremerton campus closed in the beginning of 2016.
Leah Olson, spokeswoman for Kitsap Credit Union, said students were using the building through fall of last year and staff were still on site through January. The space is currently available for rent.
In summer 2014, when Everest schools went up for sale, Bremerton enrollment the prior year was 212 students. About two-thirds of those enrolled between 2009-12 finished. Two-thirds of those who finished worked in the fields they trained in, earning an average of $13.56 per hour, according to the Workforce Board.
Since taking over the schools, Zenith instituted widespread changes, according to a statement from its president, Peter J. Taylor, including reducing tuition by 20 percent and reforming curriculum and the admissions processes.
Fundamental to the changes is shifting to a nonprofit model, according to the statement.
“We are committed to helping students succeed, and we will continue to bring our resources to bear to transform Zenith into schools that are synonymous with student success,” Taylor said in the statement.
The schools still promote their career-placement services and use testimonials from former students, who say Everest helped them land jobs. “Clarissa L.” is shown as a 2015 graduate from one of the school’s medical assistant programs. “I’ve had help the whole time, every step of the way,” Clarissa says, according to Everest’s website. “My team had my back.”
Anastasia Smith, a South Kitsap High School graduate, wanted to be practical so she enrolled in Everest’s pharmacy tech program, graduating in 2011.
Afterward, and before payments on her $33,000 loan came due, she sent applications from here to Utah, “Anywhere they put medicine in a bottle,” to no avail.
With no other way to pay her bills, she joined the Navy and served for five years. She still is paying off the loan.
One instructor stood out as an “amazing” teacher, another “didn’t give a damn,” she said. In the end, she learned basic lab safety and how to study for the licensing exam but now says she should have paid the $175 test fee and studied on her own.
She tried being practical, but that didn’t work. Now she is living outside San Francisco and attending school for fashion design.
“Now I’m following my dream,” she said.
Reporter Tad Sooter contributed to this report.
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