Washington — As a former student of the recently closed Westwood College, the last thing Jayme Hill needed was another disruption in her pursuit of an associate’s degree in medical assisting.
So Hill was understandably upset when she learned from a reporter Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Education was cutting off federal student financial aid for three MedTech College campuses—including one that Hill considered a last resort—because MedTech officials allegedly lied about job placement rates at the three schools.
The three MedTech campuses, which enroll a total of about 750 students, received about $16 million in Pell Grants and federal student loans for the 2014–15 award year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“This school is like the only school that was left,” Hill said in an interview Tuesday outside the MedTech campus downtown in the District—one of three schools the federal department of education said had “significantly overstated” its job placement rates.
Hill said she enrolled in the for-profit school just last week and has already experienced trouble getting her class schedule.
“This was like the next step,” Hill said. “I wasn’t aware of what you were saying,” she told the reporter who informed her of the school’s looming loss of financial aid before a security guard emerged from the MedTech offices and asked the reporter “What’s going on?” and “What’s the story?”
The security guard wasn’t the only one in the dark.
Despite increased calls for better communication between the federal government, states and accreditors—generally known as the “triad” when it comes to higher education accreditation—even the executive director of the agency that accredits MedTech didn’t know about the school’s alleged infractions until contacted by a reporter.
“This is all news to me,” Gary Puckett, executive director and president of the Atlanta-based Council on Occupational Education, or COE, which accredited MedTech, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“I had no idea until I saw your (e-mail),” Puckett said in reference to the electronic news release regarding the matter from the U.S. Department of Education.
Puckett said “we don’t always know” what kind of action the federal government is taking against a school that it accredits.
“Sometimes we know. Sometimes we don’t,” Puckett said. “All I know to do is we’ll just take the institution through our process, and, once we get the official (letter), we’ll probably act on this.
“We do take action and we do start by putting the school on what we call ‘notice of apparent deficiency,’ and then they have to respond to us,” Puckett said. “Then we decide what action to take after that.”
Diverse reached out to MedTech and spoke briefly with Todd Harlow—identified on the MedTech website as interim campus president for MedTech’s Washington, D.C. and Falls Church, Virginia, campuses.
Harlow said “that’s not true” when a reporter informed him that three MedTech campuses, including the two under his purview, were losing their federal student financial aid. The third campus is located in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Harlow asked for the electronic news release from the Department of Education and said he would speak about the matter after he had time to review it. However, when a reporter sent him the news release via e-mail and called him back, the call went to Harlow’s voice mail and a message indicated that his voice mailbox was full.
Harlow also did not respond to a follow-up e-mail from Diverse.
The details of MedTech’s alleged infractions are outlined in document posted on a U.S. Department of Education website.
According to the letter, MedTech made “numerous misrepresentations” to its accreditor, the department, and to the public regarding the career outcomes of its graduates.
Specifically, MedTech reported a total placement rate of 73 percent for each of the Falls Church Medical Assisting Program, the Silver Spring Medical Assisting Program, and the Silver Spring Medical Billing and Coding Program, the letter states. It also claimed a total placement rate of 70 percent for the Washington, D.C. Medical Assistant Program.
“Each of these reported rates were at or barely above the threshold required to avoid potential COE sanctions, which was 70 percent,” the document states.
However, the actual job placement rates—calculated by a department contractor—were approximately 56 percent for the Falls Church Medical Assisting Diploma Program, approximately 54 percent for the Silver Spring Medical Assisting Program, approximately 49 percent for the Silver Spring Medical Billing and Coding Program, and approximately 35 percent for the Washington, D.C. Medical Assisting Program, the letter states.
“Students should be able to trust that colleges are telling the truth—not using smoke and mirrors—about their graduates’ job placement rates,” said U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell. “Unfortunately, MedTech violated the trust of both students and taxpayers by valuing profits over the students they serve.
“When schools mislead students, accreditors or the federal government, we will take action,” Mitchell said.
In interviews Tuesday, Hill and other MedTech students were not clear on basic information about their enrollment, such as how much they are expected to pay in tuition.
“I think it’s like $15,000,” Hill said.
The Washington campus is not listed on the federally-maintained College Scorecard or in the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System known as IPEDs. Tuition for the Falls Church campus of MedTech is listed at $21,452 for the 2013-14 school year, according to IPEDS.
According to the scorecard, the cost to attend the school is $18,772—slightly above the national average of $16,574—but the salary for those who attended the school is $27,400, less than the national average of $34,300.
Its graduation rate is 68 percent, above the national average of 43 percent.
Its typical total debt is $9,236, and just 42 percent—below the national average of 66 percent—are paying off their student loans. Typical loan payments are $103 per month.
Nearly 70 percent of its students are low-income, and 48 and 43 percent of its students are Black and Hispanic, respectively.
Hill, who is African-American, said she is hopeful that she will be able to earn an associate’s degree from the school.
“I just want to make sure everything is cool before I continue,” Hill said. “Because I don’t want to get a bill and I can’t pay for it,” she said, relating that the now-defunct Westwood College is still trying to collect on a student loan she had to take out to attend that school. Diverse could not independently verify that claim.
Not all MedTech students seemed worried or upset about MedTech’s future.
Toni Bowman, 21, who began at MedTech’s D.C. campus last year and is studying medical coding, said the school has good instructors and that she has seen many students return to the D.C. campus to tell their instructors that they had landed jobs.
“This is a good school,” Bowman said. Asked if she thought differently since the federal government accused the school of lying about its job placement rates, Bowman said: “That don’t got nothing to do with me.”
MedTech has until Aug. 5 to dispute the Department of Education’s findings.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.