Education

As Miami for-profit college considers closing, 700 students in limbo

Students protest outside Mattia College, Feb. 19, calling for the school to receive the federal funding it says it needs to stay afloat.
Students protest outside Mattia College, Feb. 19, calling for the school to receive the federal funding it says it needs to stay afloat. ldixon@miamiherald.com

Less than four months after the sudden closure of Dade Medical College shook Miami’s for-profit college industry, another nursing school — Mattia College in West Kendall — has canceled this week’s classes, stopped paying its teachers and is getting ready to close.

The college, which also operates a second campus in Doral, has more than 700 students and more than 100 employees.

Should the Mattia campuses shut down, it would be the latest blow to the industry in Florida, where nearly one in five students attends a for-profit school. The past few months have seen the arrest of Dade Medical owner Ernesto Perez, the conviction of another Miami school operator on federal theft and conspiracy charges, and a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit against DeVry University — a national chain with three Florida campuses — that alleges “deceptive” recruiting practices.

DeVry denies those allegations.

The cause of Mattia College’s financial turmoil is the same thing that put Dade Medical out of business.

At Mattia College, administrators earlier this month assured students that everything was fine — even though the college had stopped paying employees. Students were told not to believe the rumors of an upcoming closure.

“I want you to know that the rumor is “FALSE,” wrote Mattia’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Rodriguez, in a message to students.

But on Tuesday morning, when about 40 students sat in an emergency meeting with school officials and the Florida Department of Education, a closure seemed imminent.

At that meeting, Rodriguez told students that her college is trying to arrange a “teach-out” option with students so they can transfer their earned credits to another for-profit school. A teach-out would be necessary only if Mattia closed, so the school is clearly preparing for the worst.

“We want to make sure that you guys have a home,” Rodriguez told students. “Whether it be here or with another institution.”

But there were no concrete details given to students, who left the meeting unsure if their school will survive or where they’ll go if it doesn’t.

“I want to know what’s going to happen with the school, but nobody has an answer,” said nursing student Edys Rosabal, who spent all weekend studying for midterms.

I want to know what’s going to happen with the school, but nobody has an answer.

Edys Rosabal, nursing student

Mattia College has been in business for 22 years, administrators said. Its academic programs include nursing, ultrasound, and dental assisting. If it closes, students don’t have to accept the “teach-out” at another for-profit: they can instead ask the federal government for “closed school” loan forgiveness. But students can only receive the loan forgiveness if they give up any college credits they earned at Mattia.

That loan forgiveness option might be the best route for a student who decides he or she doesn’t want to switch to a cheaper community college or state university. Those schools usually don’t accept for-profit college credits.

The cause of Mattia College’s financial turmoil is the same thing that put Dade Medical out of business: The U.S. Department of Education slowed the flow of federal Pell grants and student loans.

The federal disciplinary action, known as heightened cash monitoring, forces a school to absorb the upfront cost of teaching students and then ask the federal government for reimbursement later on. Because for-profit colleges are heavily dependent on taxpayer money — receiving as much as 90 percent of revenues from Pell grants and federal loans — any slowdown in that funding can put a school’s survival in jeopardy.

Dade Medical, for example, closed its doors only nine days after it was placed on heightened cash monitoring.

At Mattia, the school has limped along for months, bringing in new investors to try to manage the cash-flow problems caused by the delay in receiving federal payments. In its Sept. 3 notification letter, the U.S. Department of Education told Mattia College the restricted status was needed because a June program review found numerous examples of “conflicting information regarding student eligibility and with student attendance.”

A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, showed how some for-profit schools have falsified attendance records and proof of student eligibility. Ex-employees at a Florida campus of Everest University said they would bill the government for students who weren’t really attending school — a practice called “ghosting.” At Miami’s FastTrain College, ex-employees said students were fraudulently listed as having a high school diploma in order to qualify for federal money.

The Miami Herald spent a year investigating Florida's for-profit colleges - conducting scores of interviews and reviewing tens of thousands of pages of documents. Here's what it found.

At Mattia, Rodriguez said she believed the school’s problems were caused by employees incorrectly filling out certain paperwork, and were not the result of any intentional fraud. Rodriguez said the errors have since been fixed.

“We’ve cleaned out the student paperwork, we’ve done what we’ve needed to do,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the U.S. Department of Education is now holding up payments for an unreasonable amount of time, and without proper justification. But on Feb. 10, according to a USDOE spokesman, the college was told it had failed to submit all the required documents, and would need to resubmit its funding request.

Students at Mattia told the Herald they were generally happy with the quality of their teachers — teachers who, until now, had continued coming to work even though they were owed back pay.

But graduates of Mattia’s nursing associate’s degree program — who paid $43,800, or five times the tuition at Miami Dade College — have struggled on the required license exam. In 2015, 34 percent of those students passed the license test, known as the NCLEX. The national average for associate’s nursing programs was 82 percent.

Florida’s for-profit college oversight agency, the Commission for Independent Education, operates a “Student Protection Fund” that is supposed to help students hurt by school closures by paying for them to finish their training elsewhere. But the fund applies only to for-profit colleges that offer diploma or certificate programs, such as beauty schools.

Colleges that offer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, like Mattia, aren’t eligible.

Degree programs are more expensive, so the state’s safety net fails to help those students who need it most.

A bill proposed by state lawmakers this year would have fixed that loophole — changing the protection fund to help students from all schools. But the bill is stalled in the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

The chair of that committee is Miami Republican Erik Fresen. In a series of text messages to the Herald, Fresen said the House sponsor of the bill, Longwood Republican Scott Plakon, hadn’t pushed aggressively for the bill to get a hearing. And Fresen said the bill’s next committee stop, the Education Committee, hadn’t intended to take it up anyway, so his committee’s inaction didn’t matter.

In recent years, Tallahassee lawmakers passed at least 15 laws that encouraged the growth of for-profit colleges. One of those was sponsored by Fresen. But the Legislature has done nothing to protect students from fraud and abuse.

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