Higher education

College gave Florida students an education in deceit

 

mrvasquez@MiamiHerald.com

As a mother of two in the throes of a divorce, Whitney Collins inquired about ATI Career Training Center because she wanted a better life for her young boys.

The admissions rep called almost daily, persistent as a car salesman, pressuring her to enroll. Though the $46,000 price tag for ATI’s two-year Ultrasound Technology program seemed awfully steep, Collins was assured that federal grants and loans — paid directly to the school by the government — would make it affordable.

She took the bait.

Six months into her studies at the Miami Gardens campus, ATI shuttered its doors under the weight of two damaging whistleblower lawsuits in Florida and Texas that claimed the school was an elaborate fraud, designed to siphon millions in student aid from the government while sticking students with an overpriced, often worthless diploma.

The suits were settled last month. ATI, which is in the process of liquidating, agreed to pay a total of $5.7 million. Not one dollar though, will go to making Collins and other Florida-based students whole.

Collins has this question for the company’s leadership: “How is it that you can walk away, and wash your hands clean, knowing that you left all these students in financial ruin?”

“How can you even sleep at night?”

Bit player

In the big-money world of for-profit colleges, ATI was something of a bit player. Former CEO Arthur Benjamin, of Delray Beach, says his compensation topped out at about $500,000 or so, and the school’s enrollment was about 18,000 when he stepped down in 2010. That’s tiny compared to the nation’s largest for-profit, the University of Phoenix, which enrolls hundreds of thousands of students, and pays its chief executive more than $25 million — higher than what the head of Coca-Cola or Starbucks makes.

But when fueled by a steady pipeline of federal dollars, even a small school like ATI can be lucrative. The school boasted more than $100 million or so in annual revenues.

The settlement with ATI followed a familiar pattern: for-profit colleges accused of breaking the rules receive a small fine that amounts to pennies on the dollar compared to the overall federal money they take in.

The ATI punishment was a bit harsher in that it forced the school to permanently shut down. The deal also set aside $2 million for “student loan refunds” to former ATI students in Texas who had filed lawsuits against the school.

In Florida, ATI had four campuses: Fort Lauderdale, Miami Gardens, Oakland Park and Doral.

The Florida whistleblower suit included evidence that ATI had routinely defrauded the government of student financial aid such as Pell Grants and federal student loans. A former high-ranking ATI employee at the school’s Fort Lauderdale campus provided documentation showing the school would alter students’ grades and attendance records in order to keep them academically eligible.

As long as students remained in good standing, ATI could receive millions of dollars in federal financial aid money. The whistleblower suit also accused ATI of using false documents to sign up students in the first place — a fake high school diploma from Haiti was allegedly used to admit students who didn’t meet entrance requirements.

Former ATI student Yakiviah Joseph, who attended the school’s Fort Lauderdale campus, has about $15,000 in loans from ATI that she says she never agreed to. Joseph studied in ATI’s Medical Assisting program for about two months back in 2006.

During that time, Joseph said the school had her sign a blank form “to get enrolled.” Joseph said she was told federal Pell grants — a form of student aid that doesn’t need to be repaid — would likely cover her tuition, and if it became necessary for her to take out loans they would let her know. Joseph said no one ever followed up with her.

After one of Joseph’s instructors warned her the school was rife with fraudulent practices, she abruptly withdrew. It wasn’t until a few months ago — almost seven years later — that Joseph said she found out she had a $15,000 loan in collections, dating back to her time at ATI. Joseph was trying to find out why she had bad credit. An agent at a collections agency told her about the ATI loans.

“They gave me the impression like we weren’t taking out any loans,” Joseph said. “I’m like, how dare they even do this?”

The good life

The personal website of former ATI CEO Arthur Benjamin (arthurebenjamin.com) contains a biography, a blog, and lofty quotes from the likes of Voltaire and Mahatma Gandhi. But it’s the photo gallery section that has attracted attention lately.

As news of the federal settlement (and ATI’s alleged wrongdoings) spread in recent weeks, the Huffington Post website posted many of Benjamin’s high-society pictures, showing him mingling with actors, former U.S. presidents and the like. It was a lavish lifestyle fueled by taxpayer fraud and the destruction of students’ lives, the Huffington Post wrote.

In many of his black-tie gala photos, Benjamin (a self-described animal rights advocate) is seen holding a dog. When Benjamin visited the Miami Herald newsroom last week to tell his side of the story, he brought a small canine along with him — a Shih Tzu/Lhasa mix named Bandit.

Benjamin complained he’d become the scapegoat for the downfall of a company that he stopped running three years ago. The former CEO said he’d suffered too, as he invested most of what he earned at ATI into a small ownership stake in the company.

When ATI disappeared, that investment vanished, Benjamin said.

“I lost all of that,” Benjamin said. “It changed my life. It’s a big loss.”

Benjamin declined to say the exact amount.

The former CEO said he never saw any systemic fraud while he ran the company between 2005 and 2010. All ATI campuses had a toll-free phone number that students could call with complaints, Benjamin said, and only a few dozen calls came in.

Benjamin ran ATI for most of the time that the whistleblower in the Florida lawsuit, Dulce Ramirez-Damon, worked for the company. In her lawsuit, Ramirez-Damon said she witnessed widespread cheating of the taxpayer-funded financial aid system.

Ramirez-Damon, who was assistant director of education at the Fort Lauderdale campus, said she brought her concerns to superiors, and was demoted as a result.

“She didn’t come to me and tell me about those things,” Benjamin insisted. “I didn’t have a chance to look into any of them.”

U.S. Department of Education records show about 29 percent of students at ATI’s Oakland Park campus defaulted on their loans within three years — more than double the national average. Benjamin said that ATI students tend to be poorer, which can drive up default rates.

Though community colleges offer similar programs at much cheaper prices, Benjamin said his own adopted stepson struggled in the community college setting. At a career college similar to ATI, his stepson benefitted from the extra personalized attention, and earned a two-year degree, Benjamin said.

Colleges with clout

Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities has spent decades calling for tighter regulation of for-profit schools. He said the millions fined to a school like ATI might seem like a significant punishment, until you consider the much-larger amount of federal aid dollars these schools rake in every year.

“If you are interested in committing wrongdoing, for-profit education is the place to be, because the consequences are minimal,” Nassirian said. “So you get caught, and guess what? You give a little bit of the money back. And the rest of it you enjoy on your yacht, or in your Lamborghini.”

For-profit colleges are generous campaign contributors to both Democrats and Republicans. In Washington and in state capitals, the industry’s considerable lobbying clout has helped it successfully fight back against calls for greater consumer protections.

Though the federal settlement ordered that ATI as a company be dissolved, those who led the corporation are still free to form new schools and enroll more students. When the assets of ATI were sold, it appears that at least some of the company ended up in the hands of the people who used to run it.

For example, the Texas-based company Ancora Education announced last month it had acquired six vocational schools that used to belong to ATI — five in Texas and one in Arizona.

The CEO of Ancora is Michael Zawisky. Zawisky’s last job? Chief operating officer at ATI.

Zawisky’s profile on the LinkedIn social network shows he worked as an ATI executive from 2010 until last month, when the feds shut the school down. Zawisky could not be reached for comment.

Allowing ATI to essentially be sold to itself is “just totally wrong,” said Victoria Hernandez, director of governmental affairs for Miami Dade College.

“What’s going to keep them from fraudulent practices and misleading students? “

Graduation day

Ramirez-Damon was only a month and a half into her job at ATI when she grew suspicious of the company. Having previously worked at both the University of Miami and Florida International University, Ramirez-Damon said she noticed something wasn’t right with ATI’s graduation ceremony.

In the audience, several instructors were grumbling as their former students crossed the stage.

“They would say, ‘You know, he failed my class...I didn’t pass him,’” Ramirez-Damon said. “I heard those comments, and I thought they were odd.”

Ramirez-Damon came away with the impression that grades were being fixed so that failing students would still graduate. In her lawsuit, she says those suspicions were later confirmed.

When it came to student attendance, administrators’ priority was that students fill out the sign-in sheet that was necessary to maintain financial aid eligibility, Ramirez-Damon said. Whether the student actually stayed for class didn’t matter, she said.

If a student hadn’t been seen for a while, administrators would scramble to get him or her to show up for just five minutes to provide a signature, Ramirez-Damon said. One student was promised a free Frosty milkshake from Wendy’s just for stopping by, she recalled.

“I, first of all, couldn’t believe that they would show up for a Frosty,” Ramirez-Damon said. But the student did, she said.

“The Frosty was handed over, and the attendance sheet was signed,” she said.

The document fraud was sometimes quite blatant, Ramirez-Damon said. The fake Haitian diploma, which was used to admit ineligible students, was re-used over and over to the point that the previous student’s name would still be visible, she said.

Student’s struggle

Collins, the former ATI student, said she took her studies seriously. When she chose to enroll, she sold her home in Key Largo and moved to Miami-Dade so she could be closer to ATI’s Miami Gardens campus. When she thinks back to the sales pitch she received, she’s convinced that school administrators knew the college was at risk of closure, and yet they signed her up anyway.

Once ATI shut its doors, Collins and other students had a bunch of college credits that they couldn’t transfer to any other school. One other local technical school, Southeastern College, agreed to teach out the remainder of Collins’ ATI program, but only if she coughed up an additional $10,000. Collins was forced to cancel her kids’ summer camp for August, she says, to pay the $1,000 a month that Southeastern now demands.

When Collins, 27, signed up with ATI, she said the admissions rep knowingly pushed her emotional buttons at the time of her divorce. The recruiter said going back to school would be “moving forward” with her life, Collins said.

ATI’s whole philosophy, Collins said, was “playing off of people that are down and out, and giving them some sort of false hope that this going to be better for you, and ATI is going to be the answer to all of your prayers.”

Some for-profit colleges have coached their recruiters to play on students’ emotions. A U.S. Senate oversight committee in 2011 obtained written manuals from multiple schools that outlined this specific strategy.

At ITT Technical Institute, for example, recruiters were told to “poke the pain a bit and remind them who else is depending on them and their commitment to a better future.”

Though Collins says she now feels double-crossed by ATI, she’s determined to still be successful. She volunteers once a week at Homestead Hospital — eager to gain ultrasound experience, and also to prove she’s a dedicated employee.

“Even if I have an ATI diploma,” she said.

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