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Bogus 'Obama Mom' Grants Lure Students

With the availability of billions in new federal grants for financially needy students, some marketers are targeting 'Obama moms' with misleading ads.

After being laid off from her job as a high school teacher in Dayton, Ohio, Nicole Massey decided to go back to college. For months, she scoured the Web for ways to fund her tuition, while supporting her 10-year-old son, Tyler. So when ads turned up in Massey's inbox claiming that President Barack Obama had created special college grants and scholarships for single mothers, her hopes soared.

"You see his picture," Massey said, "so I clicked on it." The link took her to a new window, where she was asked to enter her name, age and other information about the degree she wanted. The site then produced a list of schools that lined up with Massey's choices.

Almost immediately, recruiters from for-profit colleges, including the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, Grand Canyon University and a couple of local schools, bombarded Massey with e-mails and calls.

"That's when I would bring up the thing, 'What about the Obama loans? What about the money for the single moms in the stimulus?'" she said. "And they would say, 'Well, we'll call you back with more information about that.'"

They never did -- and little wonder: "There is no such thing as an Obama grant for moms," said Robert Shireman, who until early this month was deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education. "Moms are eligible for federal financial aid generally -- Pell Grants, student loans and other aid -- but nothing specific to moms or single moms." Nevertheless, the Obama mom ads have become "ubiquitous," he said.

For-profit universities and career colleges are flourishing in the down economy, thanks in part to a gusher of taxpayer money flowing into the federal government's Pell Grant program for economically needy students. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have already enrolled in for-profit colleges, which are fiercely competing for new recruits.

The grant windfall has fueled another boom: for online marketers that gather contact information from prospective students and sell it to schools. Just a few years ago, these firms, known as lead generators, fed the subprime mortgage machine. Now they are earning more than $1 billion a year for finding prospective students, according to one industry estimate.

Consumer advocates say they are alarmed by parallels between the subprime mortgage industry and for-profit schools, which also have come under fire for targeting low-income groups and signing up students for loans that can leave them buried in debt. Some schools earn nearly 90 percent of their revenue from federal student aid programs.

Single moms, the critics say, are especially vulnerable.

"In comparison with an 18-year-old traditional college student, a single mom faces unique, often unsurpassable obstacles to getting an education," said Greg C. Frazier of Community Connections of Jacksonville, a group that works with disadvantaged women in Florida. "Frequently she will be lured by the promises of low-cost, easy online courses that in reality do not deliver."

Harris Miller, president of the Career College Association, said the 1,400 for-profit colleges, universities and trade schools his organization represents object to using misleading or false advertising to recruit students. But Miller said lead generators often are subcontractors a couple of steps removed from a school's recruiting operation, making them hard to police.

Shireman, while denouncing the ads, said the Education Department lacks authority to crack down on subcontractors. A spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission, which does have such power, called the ads misleading but declined to say whether the agency is investigating them.

Vital Market for Career Schools

Last year's economic stimulus bill added $17 billion for the government's need-based Pell Grant program, and an expansion signed earlier this year by Obama is expected to provide around 820,000 additional grant awards over a decade, according to an Education Department spokesman. The money began rolling in during the fiscal year that ended in June, and while public, private and for-profit schools all saw big gains in Pell Grant revenue, the overall increase to for-profits was highest -- 70 percent over the prior year.