July 15, 2015

No HS diploma? No problem! Some colleges accept you anyway.

@MrMikeVasquez

It’s a term that sounds like a form of street crime: “Snatch and grab.”

At Miami’s FastTrain College, that’s how some employees described the recruiting of students. Prosecutors say FastTrain’s recruiters, some of them former exotic dancers, would drive around poor neighborhoods trying to cajole the men on street corners or at bus stops into jumping into a car for a trip to the school.

“It’s called snatch and grab, man, snatch and grab, baby,” said Anthony Mincey, a former assistant admissions director, on a phone call that was secretly recorded by federal investigators.

Mincey and three other employees at the for-profit college, including former CEO Alejandro Amor, are facing criminal charges of conspiracy and theft of government money. Regardless of the outcome, the federal trial — scheduled to begin in two months — promises to be a primer on how to fraudulently obtain federal education grants and loans.

The alleged fraud at the heart of the FastTrain case — improperly enrolling students who lack a high school diploma or its equivalent — has been an issue at other Florida for-profit colleges. Billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded financial aid are at stake. 

At some for-profit colleges, students are allowed to enroll simply by stating they completed high school — without providing any sort of proof. The student just signs an “attestation” form that they have a diploma.

“Anyone can walk in there and say ‘I graduated from Orlando High School in 1987 or whatever,’ and that’s good enough,” said Pat Elston, a former recruiter for Southern Technical College.

More here.

 

June 30, 2015

How much did college tuition go up in Florida under Jeb Bush?

Former Gov. Jeb Bush likes to advertise education reforms during his two terms in office, but the Florida Democratic Party wants to remind voters those changes came at a price.

In a joint press release with the Texas Democratic Party ahead of a fundraising visit to the Lone Star state, Democrats compared Bush to fellow presidential hopeful Rick Perry, the former Texas governor. In a chart listing dubious gubernatorial achievements, Dems said Bush "oversaw (an) average in-state tuition increase of 48.2 percent during his tenure."

Did public university tuition go up by almost 50 percent in eight years during Bush’s two terms? That number is more or less correct, but there’s more to the Bush-era education overhaul than that.

See what Joshua Gillin of PolitiFact Florida found and see Bush's full Truth-O-Meter record.

June 28, 2015

Private student loans are the 'Wild West' of lending. Here's why.

@MrMikeVasquez

Kimberly Garrison has been struggling with her student loans for a full decade. Unable to land a job with her computer networking associate’s degree, the Homestead woman missed payments, which led to her wages being garnished — about $700 per month. When Garrison received an inheritance after the death of her grandmother, she put the full $10,000 toward her loan debt, she says, in hopes of getting it under control.

Still, the $35,168 she borrowed from 2003 to 2005 to attend the Miami campus of ITT Tech has grown to $62,030.

“It ruined my life,” said Garrison, 38, who works as a FedEx driver and has taken on roommates to keep her living expenses down.

Garrison’s for-profit college education didn’t lead to a career, and she got in over her head by taking out a mix of federal loans and higher-interest private loans. Garrison’s private loans had interest as high as 9.6 percent.

Private loans make up a significant yet often overlooked piece of the nation’s $1.2 trillion student loan debt.

Some $150 billion of U.S. student debt comes in the form of private loans, which can be issued by banks or the schools themselves. These loans — which have been called the “Wild West” of student borrowing — represent a potentially dangerous trap for consumers.

More here.

June 20, 2015

Florida for-profit college watchdog agency clears own employee

via @MrMikeVasquez

Florida’s for-profit college watchdog agency has closed its investigation into conflict-of-interest and fraud allegations involving one of its consumer services team employees.

“The investigation did not reveal any wrongdoing,” wrote the Commission for Independent Education in a recent close-out memo, provided to the Miami Herald.

The internal CIE probe focused on employee Marybell Serrano, who was accused of being part-owner of a for-profit college herself, and living as a roommate with the school’s majority owner, Karyn Vidal. Serrano was also accused of conspiring with Vidal to create fraudulent documents so that Vidal’s Institute of Healthcare Professions could get accredited.

The CIE found that Serrano had indeed lived with Vidal for about a year, but she paid $1,200 in rent, and no longer lived there. Based on company stock certificates from Vidal’s school, the CIE dismissed the allegation that Serrano owned a 2 percent stake, though it found that she had helped paint and decorate the school. The agency, which repeatedly misspelled its own employee’s name in its report, said there was nothing wrong because Serrano wasn’t getting paid.

More here.

June 17, 2015

Florida House kills tougher regulation of for-profit colleges

@MrMikeVasquez

Florida lawmakers have rejected a proposal that would have cracked down on the worst-performing for-profit colleges by suspending their licenses to operate and kicking them out of state financial aid programs.

The proposal, which had bipartisan support in the Senate, could never get anywhere in the Florida House. The Republican leadership in the House ignored the bill during the regular legislative session — failing to give it a single committee hearing.

During the current special session focused on budget issues, Senate leaders again brought up the proposal. House leadership shot it down.

More here.

June 09, 2015

Plan to forgive for-profit college loans could cost taxpayers billions

@MrMikeVasquez

Saying students “deserve a college education free from rip-off scams,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled the outline for a massive student loan forgiveness plan for students — an undertaking that could ultimately cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Duncan called the proposal “unprecedented.” It comes one month after the scandal-plagued Corinthian Colleges chain of for-profit schools filed for bankruptcy. Corinthian, which operated Everest University and other schools, is accused by the federal government of falsifying its job placement rates, misleading students and encouraging them to lie on loan applications .

In a Monday afternoon conference call with reporters, Duncan told reporters that a college education is the pathway to the middle class, but “that path has to be safe.”

“Some of these schools have brought the ethics of payday lending into higher education,” Duncan said.

Curtis Austin, the head of Florida’s for-profit college lobbying group, the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges, said that all types of schools can make mistakes. Austin said he does not believe there are systemic problems with the industry.

As to assertions that some for-profit colleges have used dishonest tactics, Austin responded “I don’t know of any that are currently operating that do that.”

More here.

May 20, 2015

Statewide test won't hold students back in Miami-Dade, Broward

via @cveiga

Empowered by a new state law, education leaders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties announced Tuesday they won’t use the results of the new Florida Standards Assessment to hold students back — one of the most polarizing issues when it comes to how Florida uses tests in high-stakes decisions.

“We will not allow the results of one single test to determine the future of our students,” Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said at a news conference.

It’s the latest impact of a new law calling for an independent fairness review of Florida’s new tests. That study won’t be done until September, well after this school year ends and the next one begins.

Without verified test results available, the state will provide districts with lists of the lowest-performing students. Districts can use that information to make decisions about retention but Miami-Dade and Broward say they won’t. Instead, the districts said they will rely on teacher’s grades, and scores on other tests, to decide which students can go on to fourth grade.

As in previous years, students who are identified for retention will have the chance to be promoted based on their performance on make up tests in summer school.

More here.

May 13, 2015

Pumariega named Florida College System chancellor

MadelineThe Florida College System has a new chancellor: former Miami Dade College administrator Madeline Pumariega.

The Miami native is the first woman and the first person of Hispanic descent to hold the job.

"It's an amazing opportunity to serve," she said Wednesday. "I always say, the colleges are gateways of opportunities. They make things happen across our state."

Pumariega had most recently served as president of the statewide non-profit Take Stock in Children. Prior to that, she spent nearly two decades at Miami Dade College. She was president of the Wolfson Campus from 2011 to 2013, and played a key role in growing the Miami Culinary Institute. She was also involved in the launch of the Idea Center, the college's new entrepreneurship hub.

As chancellor of the state college system, Pumariega will focus on access and affordability.

"We have to continue to maintain the highest quality of programs that we can with the workforce needs, and make sure college is accessible and affordable for everyone in on Florida," she said. "It's about making sure that everyone in Florida that has a desire to make something great with their life has the chance to use those tools, and be ready for that workforce opportunity."

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart praised Pumariega's experience and passion.

"With Madeline's extensive background in higher education and commitment to helping Florida's students thrive, she is the right choice to ensure we continue in our positive direction," Stewart said in a statement.

Pumariega was born and raised in Hialeah. She is a graduate of Hialeah High, attended Miami Dade College and the University of Central Florida and holds a bachelors from St. Thomas University and a masters degree Florida Atlantic University. She is a doctoral candidate at Barry University in Miami Shores.

The Florida College System is made up of 28 institutions. It serves more than 800,000 students.

May 10, 2015

Computers tied up for testing leaves some Miami-Dade students dawdling

via @cveiga

Business technology teacher Antonio White is supposed to teach middle and high school students how to type on a computer keyboard and use the full suite of Microsoft Office programs.

But on many days, he doesn’t have access to computers. They’ve been usurped for Florida’s standardized testing.

“There’s not a lot of teaching going on this semester. It’s like school is over,” said White, who teaches at José Martí MAST 6-12 Academy.

Ever since the Florida Department of Education mandated that many tests be taken on a computer, school districts have warned that the decree would come with a cost: lots of lost instructional time.

The prediction has come true, according to many teachers, students and parents.

At Coral Gables Senior High, students say they get sent to the auditorium or even multiple lunches while teachers are busy giving tests. At Palmetto Middle School, students spend hours in the same classroom, at times without a lesson. At José Martí, half the students can be missing from any given class because they’re out taking an exam.

More here.

April 30, 2015

Higher-Ed Hustle: For-profit colleges flex political muscle in Tallahassee

via @MrMikeVasquez

For more than a decade, “accountability” has been the education buzzword in Florida.

Schools are assigned A-to-F letter grades, teachers are evaluated using a complicated mathematical formula and third-graders can be held back if they don’t pass a standardized reading test.

The rules are different at for-profit colleges. The Herald found that, despite fraud lawsuits and government investigations around the country, Florida’s Legislature continues to encourage the growth of the industry, which says it provides opportunities to disadvantaged students. Lawmakers have increased funding sources and reduced quality standards and oversight. The attorney general in Florida, meanwhile, has been less aggressive than those in some other states in pursuing schools when they skirt laws involving the hundreds of millions they receive in state and federal money.

In Homestead, a school owner gained enormous influence with the local government, working through the mayor, whose wife was secretly hired by the college owner as a $5,000-a-month consultant. Miami-Dade prosecutors looked into the connection but decided it was no crime.

“In other areas of our education system, we promote accountability,” said State Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat. “Why wouldn’t we do the same here?”

Rodríguez filed a bill this session that would rescind state grant funding and suspend the licenses of for-profit colleges where loan defaults exceed 40 percent — or 30 percent in back-to-back years. A legislative staff analysis predicted a “very small number” of schools would be at risk.

The bill struggled to gain traction, particularly in the Florida House, where it didn’t get a single hearing.

“The groups with the largest checkbooks tend to set the agenda,” Rodríguez said. “I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.”

A Herald examination of campaign records since 2008 found that for-profit colleges have contributed more than $1.2 million to state lawmakers and political parties. The Legislature, in turn, passed 15 laws benefiting the industry.

More here.