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State sues Brockton for-profit school over ads

The state is suing a Brockton for-profit school, saying it falsely promised to train graduates for well-paying positions in the medical industry, made misleading claims about job-placement success rates, and left many students mired in debt.

Sullivan & Cogliano Training Centers Inc. advertised that 70 percent to 100 percent of its graduates landed jobs in a medical office, when less than 25 percent of graduates actually found that type of work, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said in a complaint filed in Plymouth County Superior Court Wednesday.

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Instead, some graduates ended up working in fast food restaurants and at big-box retailers, according to the lawsuit.

“For-profit schools are extremely expensive and heavily funded through federal student loans, so all taxpayers have a stake in this,” Coakley said in a statement Wednesday. “If students do not receive these promised jobs and wind up in default, the students and taxpayers suffer the consequence while the schools continue to profit.”

Sullivan & Cogliano did not return phone calls Wednesday. Its website says the company is based in Waltham and provides contract staffing nationwide. The attorney general’s office said the company operates one training center in Brockton and two in Florida.

The agency is the first school to be charged as part of an ongoing investigation by Coakley’s office into the for-profit college industry in Massachusetts.

The Globe previously reported that several for-profit schools, including Kaplan Career Institute in Boston, the Everest Institute Campuses in Brighton and Chelsea, and the University of Phoenix — the industry’s biggest player — received demands from Coakley for information about their recruiting and financing practices.

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For-profit educational programs have come under intense scrutiny because students tend to graduate with higher debt and are more likely to default on their loans than those who attend nonprofit and public schools, federal statistics have shown.

Though for-profit schools account for 10 percent of college students in the United States, they are responsible for about half of all student loan defaults, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, an advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif.

For-profit schools have countered that the statistics are skewed because such institutions tend to serve higher numbers of low-income and older students who might have trouble paying back their loans.

The US Department of Education has imposed restrictions on recruiters and proposed rules to cut off federal student aid from schools with the worst loan-repayment rates.

Sullivan & Cogliano’s enrollments and revenues increased greatly between 2006 and 2010 — from $1.9 million to more than $10 million — but its educational outcomes suffered, Coakley’s office said. Of 183 students who took part in the school’s “Medical Office Assistant” training program, only 22 found jobs in medical offices. On average, students paid $14,000 in tuition, the state said, and relied heavily on federal loans.

Coakley’s office said it is seeking restitution for affected students, civil penalties of $5,000 per violation, and lawyer’s fees, as well as changes in Sullivan & Cogliano’s advertising and marketing methods.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.

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