When he first moved to Miami, Waltter Teruel says, working as a recruiter for ITT Technical Institute was a welcome change from his life in New York where he had been selling antiques and life insurance.
As a recruiter, Teruel says, ITT Tech took care of the pitch to potential students for you. Recruiters used scripts set out in detailed PowerPoint presentations and got long lists of prospective students to call. But soon the welcome change faded. "Most of these students, they were looking for a job," not more school, says Teruel.
When ITT Technical Institute closed, employees began to share tightly designed sales tools, like those PowerPoints, that offered a glimpse into the strategy that helped the company grow to more than 130 campuses across the country.
But those same tactics ultimately contributed to the company’s downfall, when the Department of Education ruled, in part because of its aggressive recruiting, ITT could no longer enroll new students using federal loans.
Teruel says that if you searched online for construction, or HVAC work, for instance, you might see a popup add from ITT asking if you wanted to study and work at the same time. "Do you want a job, or do you want a career?"
He says if you filled in your information, you’d get a call from one, or maybe 10, recruiters. The rule set out in the ITT training materials instructs recruiters to call "a minimum of three times a day for the first three days." This was known as the 3×3 rule.
The goal was to reach people as soon as possible after a lead was generated, and then get them to come in for a meeting. Teruel says recruiters were supposed to frame the meeting in person as a "coming attraction" and avoid answering too many questions on the phone. "Maybe if you give them too much information, they won’t want to come in."
He says recruiters would try to appear as if they were swamped with meetings, "How about today at 2 o’clock, or tomorrow at 11 o’clock in the morning?"
And it got personal. On-campus visits began with a questionnaire, the WITY, or "what’s important to you." Teruel says that served as a backbone for the interview. If an applicant said "I’m tired of making minimum wage," or "I want to better support my family," recruiters would remind them what brought them there in the first place.
The company’s aggressive online recruiting is part of a trend that has reshaped some operators within the for-profit education industry. Many schools now rely on third-party data brokers to deliver names and phone numbers for their recruiters to call. So-called "lead generation" companies draw on public records, credit card information, and social media profiles, then use sophisticated modeling to identify desirable prospects based on everything from age and gender to neighborhood housing density, political affiliation and interest in gospel music.
"They’re looking for not just any customer … but a customer who’s likely to be kind of desperate to enroll, and likely to be eligible for the highest amount of financial aid," says Bob Shireman, talking about operators within the for-profit college industry who have been shown to have unscrupulous business practices.
Shireman managed the federal response to for-profit career training for the Department of Education during President Obama’s first term. He’s now a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who points out that federal loan limits are higher for adults, who may not be able to rely on their parents’ financial support.