Student travails hit home
Friday, December 16, 2005
The voices of Harrison Career Institute students and employees were heard this week as the U. S. Department of Education opened its case against the school which is charged by the government with cheating students and committing financial student aid fraud.
The witnesses told the court about problems with student loans, irregularities with student testing, and pressure on employees to enroll students and sign them up for financial aid.
Students also said they had problems getting the educational services that they contracted to receive, and even problems with dropping out of school.
Harrison, also known as HCI, has its corporate headquarters in Voorhees and operates 13 career schools in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The private, for-profit school enrolls about 4,000 students per year and receives $25 million in federal financial aid annually.
The following are snapshots of testimony presented this week in court, here, by former students and employees.
Tina Hines, who enrolled at HCI's Philadelphia campus but never attended a day of class, is receiving letters to repay a student loan for an entire course.
Hines, who does not have a high school diploma or a GED, further testified that a school employee gave her answers to a preadmission test called the "ability to benefit test," also known as ABT. The federal government requires certain students to pass the test if they are applying for federal financial aid.
South Orange student Atiya Conover said she received a grade of "90" for an externship that she never worked. A vital part of students' educational programs, externships enable them to practice their classroom skills in the work place and find jobs after graduation. Conover said she repeatedly asked for an externship, but HCI suggested she find one herself. HCI was supposed to place the student as part of her enrollment contract.
"Were students ever graduated without externships?" asked Denise Morelli. Morelli, who is attorney for the Department of Education, was addressing John Smith, former director of education at HCI's Philadelphia campus.
"Yes," said Smith.
"Who told you (to do that)?" asked Morelli.
"That came from corporate . . . (HCI President) Jim Mannion," said Smith. Smith also said that the dropout rate in Philadelphia was 50 percent.
Smith complained to corporate about the lack of simple educational supplies, such as latex gloves for students enrolled in medical-related courses. "I had to go into my own pocket so the instructor could go around the corner to Rite-Aid for gloves for the phlebotomy class," he said.
"The stuff that we needed to learn how to do IV insertions, they didn't have," testified former practical nursing student Dorothy Marie Webb, who attended HCI in Philadelphia.
Atiya Conover, who attended class in South Orange, said her school provided no computers for students who were learning how to process medical billing.
Conover's mother, Verna Conover, another student in South Orange, said her classmates and instructors would go begging for medical supplies, such as alcohol pads, and even surgical instruments. They tried to get the materials from friends and relatives who worked in hospitals and medical offices.
Student Dorothy Marie Webb testified that she and her classmates in Philadelphia complained to the Pennsylvania Board of Nursing when HCI said part of their course would be "self-taught." Students were upset that their class, which cost $10,000, went two months without a teacher.
Webb also said students were not helped with job placement as the school contracted with them to do. "I was told that since I was taking practical nursing that my phone should be ringing off the hook," said Webb. "But when the time came to apply for a job -- nothing," she said.
When students went to look for jobs, Webb said they were told to register with Legal Medical Staffing, a temporary placement company which occupies space in the HCI corporate office building, Voorhees. Students who worked with LMS were promised by HCI corporate officers to receive certain concessions on their student loans.
Webb also testified that she is getting letters to repay an Access Loan. Access is another company owned by HCI owner Harrison Commisso. Webb testified she never applied for an Access Loan.
Webb was challenged by HCI attorney Steve Gombos about why she refused to cooperate with an HCI private investigator named Elliott.
"Did anyone from the DOE officials tell you not to speak to him?" asked Gombos.
"No," said Webb, who said she heard Elliott was using aggressive tactics to gather information from witnesses, such as trying to force his way through doors.
"I'm a victim of domestic violence. If that man forced my door, I would have beat his brains out," said Webb.
"Did you tell Mr. Elliott that you were directed by someone from the Department of Education not to speak with him?"
"No," said Webb.
"Your honor, I don't believe her," said Gombos.
Franklinville, New Jersey