At What Price Profit?

Career Education Corporation, an Illinois-based company that owns more than 80 for-profit colleges, including the California Culinary Academy, the Katharine Gibbs Schools, American InterContinental University (AIU), Colorado Technical University, and the Sanford-Brown Institutes, is in trouble, again.

The company announced Tuesday that,

[The] Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Gary E. McCullough as President, Chief Executive Officer and Board member. The Board has appointed Steven H. Lesnik, who is Chairman, as President and Chief Executive Officer and Board member Leslie T. Thornton to the newly created position of Lead Independent Director to ensure stability in transition to new leadership of the company.

“The Board and Career Education thank Gary McCullough for all of his efforts, particularly with respect to representing the Company during a time of substantial regulatory changes, advancing our company’s industry-leading IT capabilities, and streamlining our operations. Under his leadership, the management and operations of this company have been both professionalized and improved,” Mr. Lesnik emphasized.

Ah, about that “representing the Company during a time of substantial regulatory changes” thing: Something seems to have gone wrong at Career Education Corp.

The company doesn’t indicate why McCullough is leaving, but it’s not terribly difficult to figure out. It looks like some of the company’s programs have very low job placement rates. Under McCullough it doesn’t seem the company was very honest about these placement rates.

The company’s third quarter report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that:

The Company’s Board of Directors directed outside independent legal counsel, Dewey & LeBoeuf, to conduct an investigation into the determination of placement rates at its Health Education segment schools and also directed counsel to review placement rate determination practices at all of the Company’s domestic schools.

Counsel’s investigation confirmed the existence of improper placement determination practices at certain of the Company’s Health Education segment schools, and, for the Company’s Health Education and Art & Design segment schools, Dewey identified certain placements that lacked sufficient supporting documentation or otherwise did not meet applicable placement guidelines.

The ACICS placement rate standard is 65 percent. Placement rates below this minimum standard may subject an institution to increased accreditation oversight, which may include increased reporting requirements, a requirement that the institution submit a corrective action plan or undergo an on-site evaluation, or restrictions on the addition of new locations or programs.

Now a 65 percent placement rate, for a for-profit school, isn’t really very good. But even using that very minimum standard, Career Education Corp. isn’t doing so well. The report indicates that “13 of the Company’s 49 ACICS-accredited Health Education and Art & Design segment schools met ACICS’ 65 percent minimum placement rate standard for the 2010-2011 reporting period.”

That’s 26 percent of these types of schools that are meeting this minimum requirement.

On Thursday equities research analysts at Wunderlich Securities downgraded Career Education from a “buy” rating to a “hold” rating.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer