A Belton woman who sued Vatterott College over its enrollment practices has won a $13 million judgment against the college.
Jennifer Kerr, 42, said the enrollment procedures caused her to spend thousands of dollars and extra time earning a certificate that proved to be useless in the job market.
The finding by a Jackson County jury for Kerr almost certainly will be appealed, and the punitive amount the jury awarded far exceeds the maximum allowed under Missouri law.
In her lawsuit, the single mother said she went to the school in 2009 with plans to become a nurse. Vatterott doesn't offer a nursing program, but a representative told her she could enroll in a medical assistant's degree, which would help her eventually become a nurse, according to the lawsuit.
After taking out more than $27,000 in loans and being in the program for nearly 60 weeks, Kerr learned she wasn't enrolled in the right program. She was actually enrolled in a preliminary medical office assistant's program. To get the medical assistant's degree, she would need to take a total of 90 weeks and spend at least $10,000 more, the lawsuit alleged.
"I was shocked and devastated," Kerr said. "I felt very deceived. I was totally deceived."
A Jackson County jury last Friday found that the Missouri-based Vatterott Educational Centers Inc. had violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act. It ordered the corporation to pay Kerr $27,676 in actual damages and $13 million in punitive damages.
However, under state law, the most Kerr could receive is the greater of either $500,000 or five times actual damages plus other expenses, including legal fees, her attorney, Martin Meyers told the Kansas City Star.
"I asked for $2 million to $4 million in punitive damages," Meyers said. "They came back with $13 million."
Vatterott officials issued a statement defending the school's policies. Vatterott has 19 locations in nine states, most in Missouri, along with a large online enrollment, according to the company's website.
"We are confident at Vatterott that our systems and admission processes are handled professionally. Our mission is to transform and better the lives of our students through quality, career education. We are proud of this mission and will continue to pursue it with professionalism and integrity," the statement said.
Kerr said while searching for a job for six months, she discovered the medical office assistant certificate she earned was not necessary to become a medical office secretary. Kerr now works full-time making baked goods for a large corporation.
"For a long time, I was just devastated and depressed," said Kerr, a single mother of two children. "The diploma I got was worthless."
She said it's important that Vatterott has been held accountable in court.
"I feel like, I mean, it's wonderful," Kerr said. "The truth finally came out. Not just for me, but for everyone like me who was fooled."
Officials at traditional universities urge people to use caution when signing up to for-profit schools and proprietary schools.
"There's a lot of documented cases over the years," said Jennifer Dehaemers, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. "The fact that the jury found for her wasn't very surprising."
She advised that prospective students undertake research and ask tough questions when applying for college. Dehaemers said talk to people in the field you're interested in and ask how they got their job. Finding out an institution's job placement rate is also key.
Dehaemers offered another warning if considering a school promising a "fast track" to a chosen career.
"We often find at UMKC students who've attended for-profit, proprietary institutions ... their credits will not transfer here because it's not a regionally accredited institution," she said.
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