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Students Call College That Got Millions In Coronavirus Relief 'A Sham'


We have the story now of a for-profit career college that got millions of dollars from the federal government to help low-income students whose lives had been upended by the coronavirus. Many schools have gotten help from the CARES Act. What is unusual about Florida Career College, FCC, is that a new class-action lawsuit calls the school a sham. NPR's Cory Turner has been covering the suit and joins me now. Hey, Cory.


MARTIN: What do we know? Explain this lawsuit.

TURNER: So FCC is a for-profit vocational college. It's got 10 campuses across Florida, one in Texas. According to federal data, it serves around 6,000 students. And it offers mostly short-term certificate programs. Think, like, HVAC technician, auto mechanic, medical assistant. And the school really sells itself as a gateway not just to a job but to a career. Rachel, there's one ad in the complaint that really caught my eye. It says quote, "Are you tired of working minimum wage jobs, eating ramen noodles? Are you ready to step up to steak?"

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, so that's a sketch of the school. What does the lawsuit say about what the school was allegedly doing wrong?

TURNER: Yeah, so let's start with a student I spoke with. His name is Stephen Stewart. He enrolled in FCC's HVAC program using a federal Pell Grant and taking out some $15,000 in loans for what is essentially a 10-month course. Here's what he told me.

STEPHEN STEWART: They made it seem like they were going to put you into a job, and the job was going to be paying enough to the point where you could handle your own necessities while still paying this ridiculous tuition. In reality, none of those jobs were paying like that.

TURNER: And the plaintiffs say that this is the pattern, that FCC charges exorbitant prices and pressures students into loans they don't understand by promising to find them jobs that it never does. The complaint also says multiple programs lack basic equipment. One student told me his teacher admitted to the class that he had little experience in their field. But honestly, Rachel, what really sets this complaint apart, you know, compared to previous suits I've covered against for-profit colleges is that this one alleges that FCC specifically targets not only low-income students but communities of color. It's a practice known as reverse redlining.

MARTIN: OK, so explain that term, reverse redlining. How does it apply here?

TURNER: Yeah, so redlining obviously refers back to the decades-old practice of denying home loans and, essentially, homeownership to African-American families. So in this case, instead of denying a product to a protected group of people, reverse redlining is targeting that group with an allegedly predatory product. So students of color make up the vast majority of FCC's student body. And the complaint says too many leave without a job, training or really any hope of paying down their loans. And it's also worth noting that this suit comes at the same time that the ed department has really tried to scale back accountability measures instituted during the Obama administration for for-profit schools. And it matters because, you know, even though FCC is a private for-profit, around 86% of its revenue comes from federal student aid. And that's not counting the $17 million FCC's been allocated through the coronavirus relief package.

MARTIN: Very quickly, what does the school say about all this?

TURNER: They sent me a statement from the general counsel. It says quote, "This lawsuit is baseless legally and factually. Though we cannot comment because the matter is in litigation, we will aggressively fight these false allegations."

MARTIN: NPR's Cory Turner, thank you.

TURNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.