No high school diploma? No problem for some for-profit college recruiters

The FastTrain campus in Plantation
The FastTrain campus in Plantation

It’s a term that sounds like a form of street crime: “Snatch and grab.”

At Miami’s FastTrain College, that’s how some employees described the recruiting of students. Prosecutors say FastTrain’s recruiters, some of them former exotic dancers, would drive around poor neighborhoods trying to cajole the men on street corners or at bus stops into jumping into a car for a trip to the school.

“It’s called snatch and grab, man, snatch and grab, baby,” said Anthony Mincey, a former assistant admissions director, on a phone call that was secretly recorded by federal investigators.

Mincey and three other employees at the for-profit college, including former CEO Alejandro Amor, are facing criminal charges of conspiracy and theft of government money. Regardless of the outcome, the federal trial — scheduled to begin in two months — promises to be a primer on how to fraudulently obtain federal education grants and loans.

The alleged fraud at the heart of the FastTrain case — improperly enrolling students who lack a high school diploma or its equivalent — has been an issue at other Florida for-profit colleges. Billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded financial aid are at stake.

At some for-profit colleges, students are allowed to enroll simply by stating they completed high school — without providing any sort of proof. The student just signs an “attestation” form that they have a diploma.

“Anyone can walk in there and say ‘I graduated from Orlando High School in 1987 or whatever,’ and that’s good enough,” said Pat Elston, a former recruiter for Southern Technical College.

For-profit colleges say their goal is a noble one: to provide college access for working adults and minorities. Southern Technical said it “does not knowingly enroll students who lack a high school diploma or GED equivalent, nor is such a process authorized or encouraged.”

Miami Dade and other community colleges say they, too, aim to provide open access, but MDC requires an official high school transcript.

“There has to be some structure to the process,” said MDC spokesman Juan Mendieta.

A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted the persistent allegations of taxpayer fraud dogging Florida’s for-profit college industry. At the Fort Lauderdale campus of now-defunct ATI Career Training Centers, a doctored Haitian high school diploma was allegedly used over and over to enroll ineligible students — with only the student’s name and graduation date changed.

Former FastTrain student Peter Cardenas said he told the admissions rep at the Miami campus he never finished high school — and the college told him not to worry about it. Cardenas later dropped out because he was unhappy with the quality of teaching. Seven years later, he’s still haunted by more than $30,000 in student loans, which are in default.

“I wish I could make it go away,” he said.

FastTrain’s seven campuses were shut down following a 2012 FBI raid, but not before they raked in more than $35 million in taxpayer-funded Pell grants and loans. At another school, Florida Career College, undercover agents found employees producing fake high school diplomas and telling prospective students to lie about their high school diploma status.

The school — which boasts eight campuses in South Florida — is still operating. Federal prosecutors closed the case in 2012 without filing criminal charges.

Florida Career College’s former CEO, David Knobel, told the Herald that the improper recruiting was done by rogue employees.

Raul Valdes Pages, a 40-year for-profit college industry veteran, said “it is really easy to game the system, and just take bodies.” Valdes Pages, who has called for tougher regulation of for-profits, said he was once fired from a CEO job for not “hitting my numbers.”

At Southern Technical, which has nine Florida campuses, a former instructor said the “high school attestation” loophole is routinely abused. Students are told, with a wink and a nod, that they need either a diploma or GED to attend, she said.

“You tell them if they want to go to school here, they need to check one of these two boxes,” said Cheryl Kelley, who said students clearly understand the school will look the other way.

“I’ve actually had students that couldn’t read or write,” said Kelley, a licensed nurse who taught medical assistant classes. “What we were told is we needed to read the questions to them, and read the answers.”

Kelley said she resigned in November. Southern Technical, in addition to denying the allegations, called Kelley a “disgruntled” former employee with a “biased agenda.”

“STC does not knowingly enroll students who do not have the mental capacity to attend college,” wrote school president and CEO Pedro De Guzman.

A senior vice president at Southern Technical, Ilia Matos, is a board member for Florida’s Commission for Independent Education — the state watchdog agency supervising for-profit colleges. During an October, 2013 inspection of Southern Technical’s Tampa campus, the CIE noted “the college is accepting attestations in lieu of high school diploma or general equivalency diploma.”

Because of this, the CIE wrote, “verification of education [high school or GED] was not available in most of the student files reviewed.”

The same was true for Southern Technical’s Fort Myers and Port Charlotte campuses. Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said “this is not a violation” because attestations are allowed by Southern Technical’s accreditor.

Accrediting agencies are funded by fees paid by their member schools.

Southern Technical’s accreditor is the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. ACICS specializes in “career colleges,” which are mostly for-profit institutions.

ACICS also accredits Florida Career College, and previously accredited FastTrain.

An ACICS spokesman, Tony Bieda, said less than one percent of students are admitted through high school attestations, which he said have been allowed by the accreditor for at least a decade. Bieda said ACICS contacts some students during its campus visits to ask if they really graduated from the high school that the college has on file. In some cases, they didn’t.

“That does happen, but very infrequently,” Bieda said. “The school will be cited for that...and we’ll have an in-depth discussion of how they need to change their procedure.”

Strict high school requirements might work in traditional higher ed, Bieda said, but he said the working adults enrolling at career colleges might have graduated 10 years ago, and may no longer live in the same state as their parents.

Students giving false “attestations” is one area of potential fraud; high school diploma mills are another.

A former director of admissions at FastTrain, Luis Arroyo, told federal investigators that employees were admonished in a conference call not to question the validity of any high school diploma.

“I forbid you to ask questions,” Amor said, according to Arroyo. “If a student said they graduated, that’s it, we are not the FBI.”

Amor could not be reached for comment, and his attorney did not return calls from the Herald.

A former regional campus director for FastTrain, Jose Gonzalez, wore a wire as part of his cooperation with investigators. He then walked into FastTrain’s Jacksonville campus at around lunchtime on Jan. 19, 2012.

“Let’s just say my estimation is that FastTrain has about 700 students,” Gonzalez said to Mincey, the admissions director. “I would say 400 don’t even have a diploma, bro.”

Responded Mincey: “Mm-hmm, that’s a fact.”

In statements to investigators, ex-employees said Amor built FastTrain’s enrollments by hiring ex-strippers as recruiters, some of whom wore “short skirts and stiletto heels” to work.

Gonzalez said Amor told him: “Hire some hot mommas” and “hire the sluttiest girls he could find.”

“Gonzalez remarked that he was a Christian man and did not know how to hire those kinds of women,” federal investigators wrote in their summary report.

Thayris Bonilla said she worked at Miami’s King of Diamonds strip club just prior to joining FastTrain as an admissions rep, though she told the Herald in an interview that she was a waitress, not a dancer.

Bonilla lasted only a few months at the job, and she said she hated it because the school targeted “vulnerable” people.

Bonilla said she’d drive through the poorest neighborhoods in Fort Lauderdale, looking for men or women who could be convinced to enroll. Bonilla said the first step was to ask the person “are you looking for a job?”

Once they said yes, the recruiter would switch the conversation to FastTrain’s programs, Bonilla said, and how they could lead to a job in only six or seven months. The next step: convincing the person to get in the car and travel 20 minutes to the FastTrain campus.

Bonilla usually worked with another admissions rep, but she said she still felt unease about her safety when inviting men off the street into her car. One day, her admissions partner was a very-aggressive saleswoman who convinced four men to hop in the car.

The recruiter was hugging the men, while being “extra, like, super-friendly” to them, Bonilla said.

“It was very uncomfortable,” Bonilla said of her FastTrain experience. “I always had pepper spray and I had a Taser in my car.”

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