"This is not the program that I signed up for," North Carolina Kaplan student Jaclin Mack told WSOC North Carolina Eyewitness News Channel 9 about the for-profit Kaplan College Dental Program.
Kaplan dental assistant student Trisha Bone was even more frank, telling the WSOC team: "I bought intentions, and I can't get a job. This is not what I'm paying $18,000 for. I want my money back so I can go to a school that will actually provide me with credentials."
Another student, Stevanna Singleton, illustrated student frustration when she said, "I feel like my life has been messed with. Like, I put everything into this."
The students were talking about the Kaplan dental assistant program that was shut down on January 13, 2012 - with little media coverage - in Charlotte, North Carolina. Student whistleblowers accused Kaplan College, back in November 2011, of misleading them about the school's accreditation. At that time, they contacted Channel 9, asking if the station would help them and investigate the for-profit college.
According to WSOC, the college was being investigated by two state agencies for accreditation problems at the time the students approached them. It seems that the facts the channel's investigation discovered show that the dental assistant program was never accredited, even though students say they were misled by recruiters into believing it would be.
The investigation started when 15 student whistleblowers from Kaplan's dental assistant program, many of them in tears, approached Eyewitness News and told one consistent story - Kaplan recruiters had signed them up for an 18- month dental assistant program, promising the program was about to be nationally accredited - but the promise was never realized. The program was unaccredited then and still is now. Kaplan, as is their business plan, targeted low- income and minority students, most of whom must borrow from the federal government to pay their tuition.
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Student Tiffany Nesbitt and 14 other women told Eyewitness News the same story: Kaplan College - and the "highly refined sales pitch" used by recruiters - had misled them to encourage them to enroll in a 12-month, $18,000 dental assistant program. What was being sold instead was an overpriced vocational dental program that would have ameliorated the need for a student to work in a dentist office as an entry-level dentist assistant, or DA1, for 3,000 hours - essentially two years - to become qualified as dental assistant 2s. They were told they could get the dental assistant 2 diploma through Kaplan.
Although the 15 students admitted they had signed a disclosure form in which Kaplan made it clear its dental assistant program was not approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), according to the students, Kaplan counselors (recruiters) told them not to worry and assured them the dental assistance program would soon be accredited. Nesbitt told WSOC, "They told me they were in the process of becoming CODA accredited, that it was already in the making, that they would be accredited by the next month."
As many of the students approached the end of the coursework, they were told the program wasn't accredited at all.
At the CODA winter meeting in 2011, a report on the accreditation status of educational programs does not even have Kaplan's North Carolina campus listed as a program provider. (A Kaplan program in Omaha, Nebraska, is listed.) Nor does the 2011 site visit report, where the only Kaplan locations listed are in Detroit and Boston. It is as if CODA did not even know of the school's existence, let alone grant it accreditation.
The news that the program was not accredited was devastating for students. Students who graduate from an accredited program are eligible for national certification and eligible for jobs at the higher-level, better compensated position of Dental Assistant 2; the students who came forward to blow the whistle on Kaplan's unaccredited program are not. Add to this substantial setback the hours of sacrifice the students invested in the program and the stress of having to pay student loans that covered the cost of tuition.
But that's not all. The Eyewitness News Channel 9 investigation uncovered an even more damaging revelation. Not only was Kaplan's dental assistant program not about to complete their year-long accreditation process, but Kaplan hadn't even applied for accreditation for that program. In other words, while their recruiters were telling students accreditation would soon be a reality, the college had not even taken the formal steps to seek accreditation.
North Carolina's Community College System licenses and regulates for-profit colleges in the state, including Kaplan. The state board also has the authority to suspend or revoke the license if they find that the college has not complied with guidelines.
Eyewitness News reporter Jim Bradley has been investigating Kaplan students' claims since the 15 students approached the station in November of 2011. He has been taking their grievances to state regulators and questioning college leaders about the college's lack of accreditation.
Bradley recently asked the group of 15 Kaplan students about the dental assistant program and Kaplan's claims:
"Was everybody here told by the admissions people this program is going to be accredited?"
The students answered loudly in concert:
Students made a recording of a meeting they had with Kaplan head honchos in which the executive director of Kaplan's Charlotte location, Connie Jakubcin, admitted the college misled students:
"I think there was a lot of miscommunication and inaccurate information. Now your job opportunities are limited because of the misinformation, inaccuracy about DA1 from the beginning throughout your program until now."
Oddly, in that same meeting, Kaplan continued to tell students the accreditation needed to be a recognized dental assistant 2 program was to be forthcoming.
Kennon Briggs with North Carolina's Community College System has spent two months investigating the students' claims. When the controversy surfaced back in November, Briggs told WSOC, "If they misrepresent (Kaplan), then that is a cause, if you will, for the revocation or suspension of a license."
Immediately after Eyewitness News began raising questions about the dental assistant program, Kaplan announced it was refunding tuition, books and fees for all dental assistant students and offering a post-graduation financial stipend as well. Representatives for the college said it was suspending enrollment of new students until it received accreditation for the program which, at the time in November 2011, corporate attorney Janice Block indicated to Eyewitness News that Kaplan would pursue: "We don't have the accreditation yet but we are moving as expeditiously as we can to get it."
Of course, we now know that this was untrue. In fact, it now appears that Kaplan is ready to give up its license to operate the dental assistant program in North Carolina.
On January 16, 2012, it was reported that a letter had been written from Kaplan's Charlotte campus which advised the North Carolina Community College System that it was requesting "withdrawal of the college's approval to operate its dental assistance program." When asked why they closed the program, Kaplan said it had to withdraw its license because it stopped enrolling new students. They never acknowledged or mentioned the accreditation issues surrounding the college. When asked if the program will ever return, a Kaplan representative told WSOC, "We will reassess the program and determine how or if we want to apply for a new program."
As one commentator noted, as soon as the sheriff arrived, Kaplan left town - leaving the students on the side of the road.
The students, on the other hand, are now faced with the prospect of trying to find another dental assistant program, having wasted time, money and emotional energy attending the unaccredited North Carolina dental program they were told would be accredited.
In early January of this year, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper also launched an investigation of the for-profit school. Cooper's staff said they met with Kaplan representatives who admitted students were given inaccurate information about the dental assistant program. (See below: Attorney General Decides Not to Prosecute Kaplan.)
Immediately after the meeting with the top law official, Kaplan's corporate office in Chicago flew Chief Compliance Officer Janice Block to Charlotte to answer Eyewitness News' questions and run interference for the corporation.
Jim Bradley asked Block, "Do you believe there was misleading information given to students?"
In typical Kaplan style, Block replied, "What's really evident is, we weren't as clear as we could have been with at least a group of students. That's just unacceptable ... What this reveals is that Kaplan is doing everything it can to rectify any mistakes that might have occurred."
Block confirmed to Eyewitness News that after Bradley began investigating Kaplan's dental assistant program, the company made students an offer, which they distributed via email. The offer included a full tuition refund as well as a refund on books, fees and supplies, the waiving of all costs on classes for the remainder of their program, and a post-graduation stipend.
The Kaplan offer to students misled by the program and the recruiters was e-mailed to not only the approximately 120 current students affected by the news, but also to recent graduates of the program - even those who dropped out, about 200 students in all. According to WSOC, the "miscommunication" could cost Kaplan more than $5 million.
This may be just part of the cost of doing business for the seedy corporation, however, the fact that Kaplan agreed to refund students' monies to the tune of what could be $5 million dollars suggests possible malfeasance. What is clear is that within a matter of weeks, the program was shut down, a $5 million settlement was reached and the license to operate was forfeited by the corporation, all in what appeared to be an attempt to stave off further questions and inquiry and staunch any damage the corporation might have suffered.
The money students use toward tuition overwhelmingly comes from taxpayer-funded student loans. The whole grubby encounter is fueled by a debt-for-growth model not unlike the subprime mortgage fiasco. Students have no funds to pay the for-profit behemoth, so they borrow from the federal government (private debt). If they default, the federal government is left holding the bag and the for-profit school has its funds; however, students are never off the hook as student debt is nondischargeable in bankruptcy. The cost of the defaulted loan is simply moved over to the public ledger, with taxpayers out the loan amount (public debt). Kaplan, their shareholders, CEO and other senior executives walk away with the "profits."
Settlement Comes Less Than Six Months After the Settlement of the CHI Case
The Kaplan dental assistance program hullabaloo is not an isolated incident at Kaplan. In July 2011, Kaplan settled a similar case involving the CHI/Surgical Tech case with the US Department of Justice (DOJ). In this case, Kaplan had been enrolling students in a surgical tech program in Indiana, knowing that there was a lack of clinical externships necessary to complete the program. It took the corporation four years and a lawsuit filed by a whistleblower to finally enter into a settlement of $1.6 million dollars to pay back students for the cost of the phony program.
Since that time, Kaplan has tried to cover its tracks by "disappearing" the issue from the record. They have recently renamed the CHI school to erase any memory of the surgical tech malfeasance.
Kaplan has been involved in other schemes similar to the North Carolina dental assistant controversy. In March of 2011, Eric Kelderman, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the unaccredited "registered dietician program" that Kaplan was peddling:
Type the words "registered dietitian" into the Google search engine, and you're likely to see an advertisement at the top of the Web page directing you to Kaplan University's degree in nutrition science.
The problem: You can't become a registered dietitian just by earning that degree at Kaplan Inc., a for-profit institution owned by the Washington Post Company.
More troublesome, say some students who have enrolled in Kaplan's program, is that they don't find that out until they've spent or borrowed thousands of dollars to take courses. In fact, the online college is not accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education. Without that accreditation, students who earn the degree from Kaplan can't get a dietetic internship or take the commission's exam, which is required in many states to become a licensed dietitian.
In this case, the American Dietetic Association, the parent organization of the commission, took steps by warning students on its web site that degrees from Kaplan and 11 other colleges are not approved by the commission. We can only hope that CODA does the same.
Kaplan Attempts to "Set the Record Straight"
In a press release drafted after the dental program was outed for non-accreditation, Kaplan tried to minimize the fraud by placing the blame on the students. Kaplan also tried to dismiss 16 whistleblower cases by belittling them - all 16 cases. Kaplan also neglected to disclose the CHI settlement with the DOJ. Furthermore, the press release boasted about the suspect prosecution of whistleblower Ben Wilcox. If the Wilcox prosecution was legitimate, why did the Washington Post newspaper not report a single word of it? The case is US v. Wilcox, 08cr256, US District Court, Northern Division of Illinois. Wilcox was found guilty in 2010 and sentenced to one year and a day in federal prison.
Most notably, Kaplan's attempts at "setting the record straight" conveniently neglects any mention of Kaplan's legal position, echoed by Block in November of 2011 when the students came forward, that Kaplan was pursuing accreditation.
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx Touted For-Profit Colleges as "Efficient" After the TV Station Exposed Fraud at Kaplan's North Carolina Dental Program
Readers should note that it is especially ironic that this matter took place in North Carolina, home of Virginia Foxx, the congresswoman who has publicly stated that for-profit colleges are more efficient and effective than public universities. More ironic, perhaps, is that prior to joining Congress, Foxx was a community college president in Maryland (as noted, the North Carolina Community College System licenses Kaplan and other for-profit colleges). Foxx now joins a klatch of politicians on the gravy train who have received, and continue to receive, campaign donations from the for-profit educational sector in a serious misuse of public power for private gain.
Another such politician is Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina). Burr is on the Veterans' Affairs and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. In a tawdry show of non-support, Burr boycotted Senate hearings on the "gainful employment" regulations recently passed by the Department of Education, calling them "partisan shows" and claiming: "The fact is that more employment is achieved through for-profit institutions than not-for-profit institutions. For-profit institutions are providing a great service, or they wouldn't have a clientele."
He has also called investigations of the for-profit educational industry a "witch hunt." One can only wonder what he would tell the students damaged by Kaplan.
Then, of course, there is Judge David Sentelle. Judge Sentelle is from North Carolina, as well, and is a close friend of the Washington Post Company, which owns Kaplan. He is the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Sentelle appeared at WaPo's October 29, 2011, "academic" symposium for Concord Law School - another unaccredited Kaplan school which lacks American Bar Association accreditation and a Kaplan subsidiary. The symposium was entitled "Privacy vs. Free Speech in the age of Mass Media, 21st Century Communications and Social Media." This is the same judge who voted to overturn the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter and served on the Special Division of the Court which appointed Kenneth Starr under the renewed Independent Counsel statute and who replaced Anton Scalia on the US Court of appeals in DC.
Lax Oversight Also Comes Into Play
The accrediting agencies that govern the for-profit colleges and universities, much like stock-rating agencies - Moody's, Fitch or Standard & Poor's - give their imprimatur for these schools by either not investigating their business practices or stamping the schools "in compliance" and never looking back. This is what happened with CHI. One can only wonder how the North Carolina Community College System could be unaware of Kaplan's foray into offering an unaccredited dental assistant program for more than one year.
Given the lax oversight of the for-profit Kaplan and the indifference of politicians and regulatory agencies in North Carolina, students made a smart choice when they decided to blow the whistle to Eyewitness News instead of to politicians, the accrediting agencies, the courts or Kaplan.
The North Carolina attorney general has decided, at least for now, not to prosecute the Kaplan dental assistance program, because they withdrew their license to practice from the state. If a dentist had committed fraud, would the attorney general extend the same courtesy to him or her? It is doubtful. So then, why did he pass on bringing any legal action, civil or criminal, against Kaplan?
The following information from the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) web site, may shed some light on why the North Carolina attorney general has failed to file any actions against Kaplan or its parent company, The Washington Post. At APSCU's web site, one can find legal assistance for the for-profit educational sector. One such service is Dickstein Shapiro's education practice, which:
... focuses on representing clients in the education industry in legislation and negotiated rule-making, regulatory compliance and corporate finance, joint venture and merger and acquisitions transactions. Firm attorneys represent educational institutions and educational service providers in regulatory and accreditation matters; in investigations by State Attorneys General; in obtaining insurance coverage for a variety of losses; in intellectual property matters, such as copyright disputes and acquiring and licensing patents; in employment and employee benefit assignments; and in immigration matters. Firm attorneys also have significant experience in qui tam (whistleblower) actions.
The existence of such firms and their advertising is certainly suggestive in the context of the apparent legal foot-dragging and otherwise indifference to corporate crime in favor of capitalist cronyism.
It does not seem outside the realm of possibility that Kaplan was caught red-handed engaging in fraud and misrepresentation and quickly hired a politically connected or other high-powered attorney experienced in negotiating corporate criminal cases with attorney generals: hence the $5 million payout, the closing of the program and the license forfeiture - all accomplished virtually silently and within only a week's time. This appears to have been part of a negotiated settlement.
The real story is that Kaplan is a repeat offender: first the CHI case, then the dietetics case and now the dental assistance case. We don't know how many more cases there are, but one can only imagine what other shenanigans might be going on at the for-profit Kaplan chain. At the Kaplan meeting with head honchos, one of the 15 student whistleblowers affected by Kaplan's misrepresentation asked, "I want to know, was it ever intended for you guys to be a DA 2 program?"
While WSOC reports that Kaplan is expected to apply for accreditation "sometime after the first of the year," the real answer to her question at that time might well have been "no."