WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Department of Education is locking a Florida for-profit college out of a federal student aid program, saying it saddled students who might not have needed postsecondary education with unnecessary debt.
Federal ability-to-benefit regulations are at the heart of the decision striking Miami-based Florida Career College from aid eligibility.
For students who do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent — a point of commonality for students at Florida Career College — receiving public aid money first requires passing a test to determine if a postsecondary education would benefit them. Education Department officials say the test protects students from unnecessarily taking on debt and that it is supposed to be administered independently from a student’s prospective school.
But with tests administered for Florida Career College students, regulators found that proctors routinely broke testing rules — whether permitting unauthorized use of calculators, helping students during tests, filling in or changing answers, and even taking the tests themselves.
Both the school and its parent company, International Education Corp., “knew about and encouraged violations,” the government found, going as far as pressuring proctors to increase pass rates.
With 10 campuses in the Sunshine State and two in Texas, Florida Career College focuses on short-term certificate programs primarily in health care and trades, such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
A spokesman for the school insisted Monday that all its programs meet or exceed state and federal regulations.
“We are deeply disappointed in the Department of Education's myopic and misguided decision. The DOE risks harming thousands of students seeking economic stability and a better life,” spokesman Joe Cockrell said in a statement. “We intend to fight this unjust and inequitable decision vigorously on behalf of our students and the communities we serve.”
In 2022, according to DOE data, nearly all of the 8,991 students enrolled at Florida Career College received some type of federal aid. Depending on the campus, that number ranged from 95% to 99% of enrollment, and graduates were left with a median debt of $9,500.
DOE officials contend that Florida Career College violated the rules to bring in students who might not have been suited for postsecondary education. Between 43% and 48% of all Florida Career College’s students were enrolled through the ability-to-benefit testing process since 2018, the government found. And during the 2021-22 school year, the college and another owned by its parent company accounted for nearly 75% of all such enrollments nationwide. More than half of students who were required to take the test eventually withdrew from school before completing their certifications.
In July 2022, after an initial investigation, the government placed the college under additional oversight. Its provisional participation in federal student aid programs expired on Sept. 30, but it was authorized to continue on a month-to-month basis during the investigation.
The school will continue operations, but is not accepting new students until the matter is resolved. Students receiving federal aid who are enrolled in programs are allowed to continue their programs and maintain their financial support through Sept. 30, 2023, if the school continues to meet certain mandated criteria.
“Federal Student Aid is holding Florida Career College accountable for taking advantage of some of the most vulnerable students,” Richard Cordray, COO of the department’s office of Federal Student Aid, said in a statement Monday. “Despite the school’s actions, they have an opportunity to do right by some of these students.”
The government took action only days after the Supreme Court declined an appeal by several for-profit colleges seeking to block the Biden administration from canceling $6 billion in debt for students of the institutions. That case is separate from pending litigation about the administration’s plan to forgive student debt from millions of borrowers.Follow @TheNolanStout
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