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? “
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.