September 14, 2023

Florida Career College’s Owner Faces More Scrutiny from Feds, California, Accreditor

Florida Career College's Owner Faces More Scrutiny from Feds, California, Accreditor

International Education Corporation (IEC), currently fighting a decision by the U.S. Department of Education to cut off student aid to its school Florida Career College (FCC), is now facing additional scrutiny not only from the Department, but also from California’s attorney general and from accreditor ACCSC, which oversees ten campuses of two other IEC-owned schools, UEI College and United Education Institute.

All of these probes are disclosed in a September 11 letter from ACCSC to IEC, now posted on the ACCSC website.

The Department of Education announced on April 11 that it was terminating FCC’s certification to receive federal aid, citing extensive evidence that “FCC broke federal rules,” including rules governing ability-to-benefit (ATB) tests taken by some students without a high school diploma in order to gain admission to college.

Allegations that FCC regularly facilitated cheating on ATB tests were first reported in a May 2020 article on Republic Report.

IEC, based in Irvine, California, has denied the Department’s allegations regarding FCC and has been trying to get the Department to reverse its decision.

In May, in the wake of the Department’s announcement on FCC, ACCSC placed IEC on “System-Wide Warning” status, citing evidence from the Department that senior IEC leaders knew of and encouraged the ATB test cheating at FCC. ACCSC also asserted that IEC did not inform it of the Department investigation in a timely manner, as the accreditor’s standards require.

ACCSC ordered IEC to halt ATB testing and ATB enrollment at UEI College and United Education Institute. There are five such ACCSC-accredited IEC campuses in California, and one each in Washington, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Georgia.

In the new letter to IEC, ACCSC executive director Michale McComis informs the company that it will remain on System-Wide Warning. Schools on this status with ACCSC cannot add new programs or campuses, and must inform all current and prospective students of the status and a summary of the reasons the accreditor has imposed it.

The new ACCSC letter asks IEC to provide the accreditor with additional information. It also offers details not only of ACCSC deliberations but also of new investigations by government agencies.

According to the new letter, IEC notified ACCSC on August 8 that the U.S. Department of Education, on July 31, told IEC by letter that it was now investigating UEI College and United Education Institute, alleging (in ACCSC’s words) “violations of regulations regarding ATB testing similar to the allegations from the Department’s April 11, 2023 letter” regarding FCC. The Department, according to the new ACCSC letter, is also probing UEI College and United Education Institute over “falsification of attendance records leading to improper retention of federal student aid, and misrepresentation to prospective students.”

The Department’s letter, according to ACCSC, includes details of extensive interviews with students and staff and references to internal IEC documents. Among other charges, the Department alleges, according to ACCSC, “That test proctors and UEI staff helped students to pass the ATB exam during and after the exam; That Senior IEC and UEI leadership tracked pass rates and chose specific proctors; That proctors reported pressure from UEI officials to pass students… That campus leaders knew of and did not react to compromising communications between proctors and IEC employees… That UEI made substantial misrepresentations to students regarding employability after graduation and the nature of financial charges; and That UEI’s leadership exerted pressure to maximize student enrollment without regard for whether enrolled students could benefit from the program.”

IEC told ACCSC it is preparing a response to the Department’s new notice.

According to the ACCSC letter, IEC officials met on August 9, 2023, “with senior Department officials at the Federal Student Aid (“FSA”) office,” and the IEC team “submitted a draft proposal to the Department following guidance given by the Department on August 9, 2023. The draft proposal includes third-party multi-department monitoring by a group chosen by the Department.” The ACCSC letter continues, “IEC indicated that it expects the proposal to result in the resolution of all matters before the FSA…” But the ACCSC letter adds, “There is no evidence… that such a resolution has been reached.” IEC’s rosy view of its chances to avoid a cutoff of federal student aid was previously on display when company officials presented at a May meeting of the Florida state college oversight panel.

ACCSC also told IEC in this week’s letter that the new allegations raised by the Department reinforce and expand the accreditor’s concerns about the IEC schools.

The new ACCSC letter also discloses that on July 20, 2023, IEC “notified ACCSC of an investigative subpoena from the California Attorney General pursuant to the Department’s action against FCC.” No other details are provided. But the California attorney general’s office has been diligent in efforts to protect students against predatory for-profit colleges.

There might be even more problems ahead for IEC. Since June 2021, IEC’s Florida-based school, FCC, also has been on “Notification of Apparent Deficiency” status with its accreditor, the Council on Occupational Education (COE). COE has provided this explanation for placing FCC on this status: “Non-compliance with conditions, standards, and/or criteria of the Commission.” In 2020, after I published my first report on FCC, COE’s executive director, Gary Puckett, told me the agency was investigating issues at the school. In October 2021, the U.S. Department of Education informed COE that it had one year to improve its own compliance with Department regulations, including that COE “must demonstrate that it has meaningfully engaged with its obligations … to enforce its accreditation standards with respect to complaints of fraud and criminal activity at Florida Career College.” COE, at its March 2023 and June 2023 meetings deferred action on renewing FCC’s accreditation, and the school is listed on the agenda (and designated for an “Unannounced Focused Review”) for COE’s meeting this month.