“I didn’t even know what accreditation was.”

Luis Tayahua

Luis Tayahua, Westwood College in Chicago, Illinois

Luis Tayahua was two years into his bachelor’s degree program at Westwood College, a for-profit college, when one of his classmates ran into class and told everyone that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) wasn’t accepting their school’s credits. Luis and his classmates couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be true. Westwood had promised them that their bachelor’s degrees would lead them to any law enforcement job in the country: CPD, the FBI, DEA—anywhere.

Luis was stunned, and did not know what to do. He had taken out over $50,000 in student loans to go to Westwood. If his education wasn’t going to lead him to a good-paying job, how could he ever pay back his student loans? He didn’t come from wealth and he didn’t have a safety net. His grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Mexico. His grandfather worked all his life for the railroad; his dad in construction. Luis was a prototypical first-generation college student who wasn’t expected to go to college growing up. He immediately went to work after graduating high school. 

Now Luis was at a loss for words. He and his classmates asked their professors if they knew what was going on. They didn’t. Rumors started circulating that they couldn’t transfer their credits to a community college. By the end of the term, the student body was in a frenzy. At one point, the administration came to their class and told everyone not to worry. “We’re accredited by certain associations, but we’re not accredited by other ones. By the time you graduate, we’ll be accredited,” Luis remembers the administration explaining. But Luis was unsure what all of that meant. “I didn’t even know what accreditation was. It’s a college—a college is a college.”

Before he was a Westwood student, Luis was in his mid-twenties and struggling to make ends meet. He had thought about going to college because he had seen friends land high-paying careers after finishing their degrees. One day, a friend told him about Westwood’s criminal justice program and how fast it was compared to a typical university: three years instead of four. Luis had seen Westwood’s commercials on TV and he decided to give the school a call.

A short while later, Luis found himself taking a train to downtown Chicago to visit the campus. Westwood was in a tall office building in the middle of the city. He had never visited a college before, and he was nervous sitting in the lobby while he waited to meet the school’s recruiter. When the recruiter came out, Luis remembers him having a “nice suit” and a “big watch.” To Luis, “[the recruiter] looked like the real deal.”

Sitting in the recruiter’s office, Luis told him how he had seen Westwood’s commercials and how he dreamed of becoming a police officer. The recruiter showed Luis a list of law enforcement agencies where he could work after earning a Westwood degree.

When Luis brought up the cost of the program, the recruiter told him not to worry, and that Luis could apply for grants and loans to pay for college. The recruiter assured Luis that he would be making a lot of money after graduating so he didn’t have to worry about paying back the loans. To Luis, it sounded perfect. It sounded like everything he could have hoped for—a college education he could afford and that would lead him to a career. He decided to enroll.

Luis recalls the recruiter telling him not to worry about taking out student loans:

Luis was quickly ushered to the financial aid office where he was given form after form to sign. Westwood explained to Luis that he needed to sign the forms so he didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket. “I didn’t think twice about [signing them]. I was just like, ‘everybody here’s really cool and they’re looking out for me. They’re helping me fund my college education.’”

When Luis started classes, he quickly noticed that all of his fellow classmates looked like him: minority and first-generation. At the time, he didn’t pay much attention to it. It was only after everything fell apart did Luis realize why that was the case: first-generation college students like Luis are easy to prey upon because they rarely have anyone to turn to for help or guidance.

It was the moment when his classmate ran into class that Luis knew something was wrong at Westwood. In the weeks after, Luis went to his local community college to see if they would take his credits. The college told him no, and that Westwood did not have the right accreditation. Luis then tried applying to his local police departments, including the Chicago Police Department. This time, Luis understood he had been deceived. CPD and others told him they wouldn’t recognize his Westwood education.

Luis had taken out over $50,000 in student loans for an education that would lead him nowhere. He immediately withdrew from Westwood College, but without a college degree and still working in the same job as before he enrolled in school, Luis eventually defaulted on his student loans. Today, Luis is not working in law enforcement and he remains in default. His credit has been ruined and debt collectors hound him on a daily basis. 

Luis discusses being hounded by student loan debt collectors:

Westwood College shut down in 2016 after state and federal investigations into deceptive advertising and enrollment practices.

Luis discusses what he tells people when they ask him where he went to school:

Luis’s story is featured in the documentary Fail State.