Mactech Distance Education under scrutiny for student loan defaults
Cape Breton distance education college has one of the worst student loan repayment rates in Canada
It bills itself as a "trusted authority for online education," offering prospective students career-improving programs with the chance to realize the life they "deserve."
Television and online commercials for North Sydney's Mactech Distance Education pitch a cheerful view of that future, with actors playing former students who tout the job-ready training they receive.
But for many who sign up at the private college, the prospects are less rosy.
Hundreds of students who enrolled in Mactech courses costing up to $10,000 apiece have instead been saddled with heavy debt and are unable to repay their loans, a CBC News investigation has found.
In a six-year period ending December 2013, nearly half of Nova Scotians granted student loans to attend Mactech defaulted following their studies, according to an analysis by CBC News of numbers obtained through freedom of information laws.
'I applied to well over 100 places'
Melissa Andrews calls her experience with the private college a "nightmare."
Three years ago she was working at the Convergys call centre in New Glasgow, but was eager to move on to more advanced IT work.
She first contacted Mactech after watching their television ads. What followed, she says, were repeated emails from the school inquiring about her plans. Finally, she says she was convinced to sign up.
But after the one-year A+ Technical Support Specialist program at Mactech and $14,000 in loans, she says her job prospects improved little.
"I applied to well over 100 places. The amount of places that I did apply, if any of them contacted me back, they'd ask me what Mactech was. They didn't know."
The province considers a loan in default if there's been no payment in 270 days. And it says a school with a high rate of defaults often means students have trouble finding work or don't make much income after graduation.
One of the worst repayment rates
Falling behind on payments has major implications: it tarnishes credit ratings, making it difficult to secure future loans. It also means that public money handed out in the form of loans is less likely to be repaid into government coffers.
At Mactech, students default so often that the school has one of the worst repayment rates of any post-secondary institution in the country. And during a six-year period, the Nova Scotia government was unable to collect nearly $2 million from 398 former students.
At least two provinces, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, refuse to fund students who want to attend Mactech. P.E.I. cites the low repayment rates as the reason.
Mactech acknowledges the poor student loan repayment record. It says many of its students are jobless or work minimum wage when they enroll at the private college. Almost all are women, three-quarters have children and the average age is 34 years.
Spokesman Jamie MacNeil says many of those students don't have the employment history or social supports that help when repaying a loan. However, he says, Mactech can help break the cycle of poverty by training people for a fresh start.
'We are concerned'
The school says it has a career services division that tries to help graduates land jobs and provides extensive guidance to help students repay loans.
"Mactech has dedicated a lot of resources and energy and money when we talk about the individuals who work specifically with graduates on a continuous basis," MacNeil says.
The college says it employs 37 people, including seven online instructors, at its signless headquarters in a North Sydney industrial park.
Under a national framework policy approved in 2001, the provinces and Canadian government agreed to closely monitor federal student loan data.
Any educational institution with repayment rates under a certain threshold would be marked in the "red zone," and could be refused student loans if there was no improvement.
Mactech has been in the red zone for a decade, but Nova Scotia has so far chosen to work with the college rather than scrap its designation.
Carol Lowthers, the province's executive director of student assistance, says Mactech's repayment rate has improved in recent years, even though it remains one on the worst in the country.
Last year 46 per cent of students were repaying their loans on time, Mactech's best showing since 2004, but a far cry from the national average of 87 per cent.
"Are we concerned about their rate, yes we are," Lowthers says. "Any institution with a lower repayment rate, we are concerned about."
In such cases, she says, schools are required to make performance improvement plans and provincial officials work to figure out what is lacking.
The educational institute must then make improvements in areas such as career and debt counselling.
With files from Mary-Catherine McIntosh, Susan Allen and Melissa Mancini