May 6, 2020

Ex-Employees: Florida Career College Enrolled “Anyone With a Pulse”

The Orlando campus of Florida Career College, according to former employees there, would enroll, as one of them put it, “anyone with a pulse,” even though the school’s programs often failed to help students succeed. According to the ex-employees, the for-profit college’s recruiters found homeless people in strip mall parking lots and lured them to campus by giving them hot dogs. They tricked others into campus visits by claiming they were offering job interviews.

The former employees say FCC admitted students whose physical and intellectual disabilities prevented them from doing the jobs they trained for, including a student whom the school enrolled in a dental assisting program even though she was legally blind and couldn’t adequately see inside patients’ mouths. The school also enrolled students whose convictions for violent crimes made them ineligible for positions they sought; students who didn’t speak English, even though the programs were only in English; and high school dropouts who couldn’t pass entrance exams without the school helping them cheat, which, according to multiple employees, FCC did on a regular basis.

All this recruiting and enrolling was aimed at cashing the taxpayer-funded financial aid checks for which lower-income students are eligible. 

“Once the student is in class,” one of the former FCC Orlando employees told me, “they can’t keep up with college level education and most fail out… Leaving thousands [of dollars] in debt and nothing to show for it.”

“It’s worse than you can ever imagine,” another ex-FCC staffer said. 

“It was the worst three years of my life,” said another of the former employees.

A fourth ex-employee would come home from work and say to his wife, “I could take 10 showers and I still feel dirty.”  He called Florida Career College “the most corrupt institution I have ever seen in my life.”

Former employees speak after new lawsuit filed

We recently reported on a devastating new class action complaint that former students filed last month against Florida Career College, which has about 6000 students on 10 campuses spread across Florida, and an eleventh in Houston, Texas. The school offers programs in business, health care, information technology, cosmetology, and HVAC repair. The chain is slated to get more than $17 million in emergency federal aid under the new COVID-19 relief bill. That’s on top of a lot more federal money: In the last year for which data was available, 2017-18, Florida Career College received $75.3 million in student aid from the U.S. Department of Education, accounting for 87 percent of its total revenue, and got even more taxpayer money from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to enroll student veterans.

FCC’s programs, most of which are nine months long, cost between $18,450 and $51,925.

The new lawsuit alleges that Florida Career College systematically targeted African-American students with deceptive advertising and high-pressure sales pitches, and left those students with overwhelming student loan debt.

But four former employees, who worked at FCC’s Orlando campus over the past decade, some as recently as 2019, provided, from the inside, even more damaging information about the school. Two of them reached out to me, independent of each other, and two others spoke with me after I heard from the initial two.  

All four former employees requested that I not identify them, at least for now, out of concern for their careers. But their accounts were entirely consistent with each other, in terms of describing programs, policies, events, and individuals, and also are supported by numerous internal campus and company documents I obtained.  The former employees have worked at other career colleges with controversial records, but all said FCC was the worst college they been at in terms of unethical and unlawful practices. 

Representatives of Florida Career College’s parent company, International Education Corp. (IEC), have not responded to my request for comment, and nor have individual IEC and FCC officials named in this article. But in a statement last month to Forbes, Aaron Mortensen, IEC’s general counsel, said the new lawsuit brought by former students “is baseless legally and factually.”  And Steve Gunderson, the Republican former congressman who heads CECU, the for-profit college lobby group of which IEC and FCC are members, called the case “the classic harassment suit that has been used against my sector for the past 20 years. They allege every violation in the book and make every allegation of misconduct and hope one or two of them will stick.” Gunderson, who claims that the bad-acting schools in his industry are all gone, did not responded to a request for comment. 

The four employees’ allegations suggest, though, that, far from a baseless action, the new lawsuit against FCC is right on track, indeed long overdue, and if anything understates the abuses at the school. The new employee allegations underscore that FCC has no business getting taxpayer dollars, because it has been systematically deceiving students into attending high-priced, low-quality programs that, far from advancing their careers, wreck their financial futures with student debt. 

How FCC recruits students

FCC’s Orlando campus has enrolled an estimated 500 to 1000 students at a time in recent years.  Most are black or Hispanic. Many are immigrants who speak mostly Spanish or Haitian Creole, with little command of English, even though the school is not approved for ESOL instruction. 

FCC staff, sometimes armed with hot dogs, recruited heavily in low-income neighborhoods in the Orlando area, like Pine Hills and Hiawassee, places with high crime rates and low high school graduation rates. FCC trumpets on its website, “NO HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA? Florida Career College can help! We’ve partnered with adult education providers so that you can meet all of your education and career training needs.” 

FCC has taken strong advantage of an on-again-off-again Department of Education program called “ability to benefit” (ATB), which allows students without a high school diploma or GED to enroll in some college-level programs and receive federal aid, provided they pass an entrance exam. 

But one former admissions staff member said the FCC testing process, using Wonderlic exams, “is highly compromised… I’ve seen countless students who speak very little English pass this test via doctored test scores by … proctors,” i.e. staff engaged to monitor the test-taking.  Another former staffer described the ATB testing at FCC as “corrupt as hell” — the school used paper testing, the employee said, because it’s easier to falsify; school officials coach the students during exams; proctors change answers. A third employee claimed that management had a quota — 90% of applicants had to pass the ATB exam. FCC pays the proctors, who are licensed by the state of Florida, large fees for their efforts. The fourth employee said that a corporate trainer told proctors to instruct students to answer the questions they knew and leave the rest blank, so that proctors could more easily fill in the missing answers. A proctor who refused was terminated. One FCC education manager who expressed concerns about the enrollment, and suspicious entrance exam successes, of non-English speakers was also soon fired. 

But IEC also replaced some proctors over concerns about cheating, and at least one proctor’s license was suspended by the State of Florida. 

FCC also enrolled many of its students simultaneously in an online high school, Brookshire International Academy, so they could obtain a high school diploma and be eligible for more FCC programs. One of the former staffers called the Brookshire program at FCC “a complete joke,” saying there was only one on the ground instructor for some 300 Brookshire students at FCC Orlando, and that most students don’t actually complete the high school program but are given their career training certificates anyway.  

For other candidates, one employee said, FCC staff simply forged proof of high school graduation.

One former admissions employee asserts that FCC staff pushed prospective students to enroll “out of fear of losing their jobs.” FCC policies officially prohibited admissions staff from offering to pay for prospective students’ bus passes, Ubers, daycare, and other expenses.  But admissions representatives, desperate to avoid being fired, went ahead and paid for such things anyway and even provided gift cards to entice students to enroll and remain in their programs.

Sometimes, though, the arguments against admitting a student weighed on the consciences of recruiters, and they tried to prevent enrollment. One employee recalls interviewing a student for the HVAC program: “I see this guy drooling. He was clearly mentally challenged. He had no high school diploma.” The applicant had no reliable way to travel to the campus for classes. The employee didn’t think the prospective student would be helped by FCC’s HVAC program, so he “told him go home and think about it.”  The next day, FCC allowed the student to take the ATB exam, and he somehow passed. The admissions office then told the HVAC instructor to “deal with it,” that is, teach the student as best you can. 

The former employees said that a top FCC admissions manager, Michael Re, and Sherri Boyd, an admissions vice president at FCC’s parent company IEC, rode herd on enrollment staff to sign up students. One said FCC Orlando had “a very abusive culture,” and three of them referred to FCC as “a cult,” whose mantra was “just fucking do it,” meaning enroll students and keep them enrolled long enough to get their aid dollars. “We were brainwashed,” one said, “into doing things you normally wouldn’t do.” The pressure from higher-ups was strong, and the money was good.

One instructional manager filed a complaint against Re, and I obtained that document from another source. In it, she charged that Re had created “a stressful and hostile work environment,” that he had consistently overridden her concerns about overcrowded classrooms, and that other staff refused to help her, citing fear of retaliation from Re and Boyd. The manager wrote that when she sought out another manager to address the treatment of one student, “Michael began to yell at me and said he was the officer in charge, and you will not challenge me…. he was loud, aggressive and pacing while exhibiting violent nonverbal question. For the first time in my profession career – I was scared.” 

FCC managers expected its Orlando recruiters to make 100 to 150 calls every day, to blast prospective students with texts, to “harass people,” one recruiter said. FCC apparently bought many of its “leads,” or names and contact info for prospects, from websites where people look for jobs, and the former staffers said that recruiters often told prospects that they were coming to campus to interview for jobs, not to enroll in school. FCC recruiters were directed to tell such prospects, over the phone: Were you looking for a job? I work at Florida Career College, and I might be able to help you.

The recruiters told prospects that FCC could get them “survival jobs,” meaning jobs to sustain students while in school. But, says one of the former employees, “the survival job scheme was a joke. The idea was the Career Services would help the student find employment, once enrolled, that would help them complete school and make in-school payments. The Career Services Team did not have the resources to execute this program…. The entire point of this discussion was to entice the potential student to enroll.” 

The recruiters were, as is typical for for-profit colleges, armed with scripts aimed at overcoming student objections as to matters like the cost of tuition and needs for child care and transportation to campus. 

One prospective student, according to a written complaint filed by a staff member, was so intimidated by aggressive admissions staff that she asked an instructor how she could exit the campus without the admissions staff seeing her: “The student said she felt pressured and did not know how to get out of this.”

When, in 2018, Florida’s veterans agency decided to remove FCC from eligibility for federal GI Bill funds, which help military veterans attend college, FCC did not tell at least some of its admissions representatives, who kept enrolling unsuspecting vets. 

FCC also fudged home addresses for homeless students so they could complete federal financial aid forms.

Trouble on campus

Many of the students had disqualifying criminal records. One FCC student had served twelve years after lighting her boyfriend on fire. Most HVAC repair companies won’t hire people with felony convictions for residential repair work. Felony convictions also would bar graduates of dental assisting programs from working in most dentist offices. As many as ten dental students at a time had criminal convictions. FCC admitted them anyway, with IEC corporate staff overruling Orlando campus officials. FCC recruiters rarely informed students when they enrolled that their criminal histories might prevent them from getting hired. 

FCC also enrolled in its HVAC program a convicted sex offender who had recently been released from prison. He was caught in the bathroom engaged in a sex act with a young woman, enrolled in FCC’s medical assisting program, who appeared to be intellectually disabled. The male student had been enrolled over the objection of the campus director, after admissions staff appealed to IEC.

Students also sold drugs out of the bathrooms, according to former staff members. 

FCC classes were frequently overpopulated, making it difficult for instructors to teach, but their complaints were regularly dismissed by managers focused on getting new students and thus new taxpayer money. Some classrooms, such as cosmetology and HVAC, had old, broken equipment or regularly ran out of supplies, forcing instructors to purchase their own.

When an instructor raised concerns about the legally blind student’s inability to perform the duties of a dental assistant, noting also that the student was reading at a 6th grade level, she was overruled by management. 

Regulations required that FCC students have class activity at least every 14 days or else be dropped from their programs. The former staffers say management leaned on instructors to keep students enrolled, resulting in, as one put it, “rampant fraud.” Another recalled an instructor meeting a student at a McDonald’s to get the student to sign an attendance sheet, falsely certifying his participation in class. One academic director was fired, according to a staff member, after she repeatedly complained she was being asked to falsely certify the attendance of a student who never showed. 

One of the former staffers said that sometimes FCC failed to drop students even when the students requested to withdraw. 

The former employees said FCC Orlando had heavy staff turnover, with short tenures for campus presidents.  Sometimes staff were fired when caught engaging in recruiting abuses, while other staff who engaged in similar violations were promoted, and sometimes staff that complained about abuses were the ones fired. 

Graduates’ difficulties finding jobs

Many of FCC’s graduates had a difficult time getting hired in their fields — bad for the students but also potential trouble for the school. Approval by an outside accrediting agency is required for federal financial aid to flow to a school, and an accreditor is charged with verifying, among other things, a school’s job placement performance. Until a few years ago, FCC’s accrediting body was ACICS. Even though ACICS has a documented record of lax oversight, in 2016 the agency placed 9 of FCC-Orlando’s 11 programs on probation for not achieving minimal job placement benchmarks.

FCC’s current accrediting agency is Council on Occupational Education (COE), and the former staff say the Orlando campus is using tricks to avoid bad job placement numbers. The school can obtain waivers for students with difficult circumstances, such as a family illness, removing them from the count of unemployed students. One of the former FCC employees says that COE, the accreditor, “accepted waivers like candy.” FCC also managed to get students counted as placed in jobs based on phony claims of self-employment, or if they worked a single day, according to of the employees. “The 50 percent job placement rate they claim,” one ex-employee said, “is a lie.” (COE did respond to a request for comment.)

UPDATE 05-13-20: Gary Puckett, COE’s executive director, says, “We are investigating the matter.”

FCC staff offered former students gift cards to go along with the job placement charade. But, says one of the former employees, gift cards were all may graduates got: “We were saddling them with all this debt and they are not making money.”

Who owns FCC?

The staffers said that the top two officials of Irvine, California-based International Education Corporation, the parent company, were regularly on campus — president and CEO Fardad Fateri and chief operating officer Shoukry Tiab. Internal documents indicate that Orlando campus staff were in email communication with Tiab and with Sanjay Sardana, IEC’s chief financial officer. 

In one 2016 message to the Orlando campus head and other IEC officials, Sardana counseled against deceptive recruiting: “We all want students to start but we need to be cautious about what we say and how we say it.” He added that another company official had “sent quite a few notes and examples on misrepresentation.” 

An online video shows Fateri, who was previously an executive at two other predatory, legally-troubled for-profit college chains, Corinthian Colleges and DeVry, preaching to FCC and IEC staff last year at a company event about “Why Just Working ‘Hard’ Doesn’t Matter.” In the video, Fateri says that he always tells his team, “I don’t care how many hours you work. I care about what you produce and how you perform. You could work 14 hours a day — if your student attrition is six percent, you’re terrible!” Fateri tells the assembled staff that bottom-line results, like keeping the dropout rate low, are important “because our students deserve it.” 

A troubling inspection visit

Exactly what Fateri thinks FCC students “deserve” is unclear. A company internal audit report, based on an October 2016 visit to the Orlando campus by a lawyer and a compliance expert sent by IEC, includes a series of troubling findings.

The IEC report found that: the Orlando campus director of admissions told the instruction staff “that they can’t turn anyone away for enrollment’; admissions staff monitored student attendance during the critical first 14 days and would ask instructors to mark absent students “as present stating that the student had forgotten to sign in”; “during the visit an instructor was terminated for falsifying attendance records”; “numerous students” told the career placement office “they were provided information during their enrollment process that was either incorrect or demonstrated that they should not have been enrolled;” and “Students have claimed that they were promised a job, referring to both the part-time ‘survival’ jobs while they’re in school, and job placement in the field after they complete their program.”  

The report found that a cosmetology instructor said “she was instructed to violate policies (regarding attendance and other accommodations) to which she flatly refused”; and “that Admissions is enrolling non-English speaking students. She stated that she finds this a bad … practice as the student is essentially forced to fail and drop.” 

A financial aid official “expressed extreme displeasure with the lack of discretion by the Admissions department as they are enrolling students who are incapable of paying for school, unaware of the requirement of an informed decision regarding finances. The pressure from Admissions to ‘make it work’ with the students has caused [this official] undue hardship in violating his personal and professional ethics regarding the legitimatization of the student’s financial aid files.”

The report also found that “some classes were above the maximum ratio… The feeling from the department is that they are being pressured by admissions to open new sections when there is not yet space or an instructor in place.”

Finally, the IEC report found: school files were in disarray making it impossible “to retrieve a file quickly during an accreditation visit or an audit”; HVAC equipment “does not work and the lab was extremely messy”; “Students were frequently roaming the halls throughout the day regardless of whether it was break time or not”; “[T]here are not enough computers for students to utilize”; “Campus does not maintain any documentation of complaints”; and some students lacked course materials when they begin classes. 

Another internal IEC email sent the day of the 2016 inspection visit echoed many of the same points and added more, including: “Through speaking with Career Services, our team was informed that numerous students … have had felony convictions which presents a challenge in successful placement.” 

But according to the former employees, nothing changed as a result of the visit and report. No one implicated was fired. Instead, the report noted that Michael Re had recently been promoted to regional director of admissions. 

IEC, FCC, and COVID-19

IEC apparently worked to keep FCC Orlando’s abuses from becoming public. When Orlando managers were considering firing staff members, company lawyers would quiz them on what derogatory information about the school the employee might know. And departing staff were pressured by higher-ups to sign non-disclosure agreements requiring their silence.

High-achieving FCC and other IEC school admissions representatives, meanwhile, were flown to annual events called Pinnacle, a weekend where they gathered at a fancy hotel for cocktails, meetings, and pep rallies addressed by Fateri. Pinnacle, said one of the former employees, is where “everybody drinks the Kool-Aid.”

The former FCC  employees, still in touch with current FCC staff, say the Orlando campus has continued to conduct face-to-face interviews with prospective students during the pandemic.  With a campus parking lot full of vehicles, deputies from the Orlando sheriff’s office visited the campus one day last month to enforce COVID-19 regulations.   

Meanwhile, FCC is seeking to move all its programs online, including hands-on programs like HVAC repair that the former employees believe are ill-suited to distance instruction. One called the effort to shift FCC programs online “a joke.”

Fardad Fateri, meanwhile, presents a more positive outlook for his company. In the video capturing his 2019 remarks at the company’s Pinnacle event, he concludes, “Please, please, please, try to find and recruit people to come join IEC. This is a fantastic time to be with this organization.” 

Other former FCC employees, critical of the school, have contacted me this week; I haven’t connected with them yet, but I may have more to report later. 

As disturbing as the new information about Florida Career College is, similar abuses continue at other for-profit colleges around the country, at time when Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos have trashed rules to hold predatory schools accountable, and with the potential for greater abuses as the COVID-19 era progresses. We’ll stay on this story.