Students who have been taken for a long and costly ride by some for-profit colleges need look no further than the state’s Commission for Independent Education — CIE — if they are wondering why they have not found relief from the schools’ predatory practices.
The CIE, putatively, is Florida’s watchdog over the such schools. But not only does it rarely, if ever, bare its teeth at complaints of possible wrongdoing, it has been the industry’s compliant lapdog. The CIE is larded with school insiders who see, hear and speak no evil about their industry.
Herald reporter Michael Vasquez’s series, Higher-Ed Hustle, outed the strong links between the CIE and the schools that it oversees. Seven members sit on the CIE; four of them are school executives, as mandated by state law. Vasquez wrote: “Though the CIE has received more than 2,200 student complaints in the past 14 years, it could not identify a single instance of a school being disciplined as a result.”
Sam Ferguson, the CIE’s top administrator, likened those complaints to “parking tickets,” swatting away any hint that some of the schools under his purview are not honest dealers.
That’s a callously dismissive view, and Mr. Ferguson should be ashamed to have articulated it. Aggrieved students seeking a fair and dispassionate hearing from the CIE have ended up paying far more than a parking fine for their troubles. Meanwhile, for-profit colleges continue to rake in millions in federally funded Pell Grants for strong-arming vulnerable students into their programs.
The students, perhaps unable to get into a community college where the costs are far lower, are often left with huge debt and the inability to get a job, as recruiters so rosily promised them, because of unaccredited programs. Some school recruiters flat-out lie. Vince Martin, a former recruiter for Everest University, told the Herald that, “I just felt like I was doing evil.”
Despite thousands of complaints, the CIE and its inspector general see nothing worth pursuing. The IG recently gave his blessing to a CIE staffer’s dubious personal and professional ties to the Institute of Healthcare Professions in West Palm Beach. A former employee alleged that Marybell Serrano was a roommate of the for-profit’s owner, Karyn Vidal, and held a 2-percent ownership stake in the school. The IG accepted stock certificates from 2013 that showed Ms. Vidal shared ownership with her ex-husband and, ultimately, found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Left unexamined, however, are allegations that the two women had relatives pose as fake students in order to obtain accreditation for the school, which is a key to getting federal financial-aid funds. Several students who are related to Ms. Vidal or Ms. Serrano were allegedly listed by the schools as students who had graduated and successfully gotten jobs. For some strange reason, investigators have decided to let the CIE investigate this serious matter separately.
There are too many red flags waving here for lawmakers to ignore — though the for-profits’ generosity come reelection time no doubt makes it easier to look the other way. But the composition and attitude of the CIE clearly need to change. Some for-profit schools are sowing pain and despair among elected leaders’ constituents. Where these schools are doing a credible job, they should be praised, but they should not reap rewards for destructive and, possibly, fraudulent behavior. Other states are cracking down. Why isn’t Florida?