tampabay.com

FMU settles complaints with state

Florida Metropolitan, now Everest University, agrees to help students transfer credits.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 6, 2007


After a 21-month investigation, the Florida Attorney General's Office has settled with Florida Metropolitan University, a for-profit school accused by some former students of misrepresenting the transfer value of its classes.

The agreement, quietly reached in August, says FMU does not admit it did anything illegal or unethical. But it touches on one of the students' main complaints - that they were not clearly told by FMU officials that credits earned at FMU might not be accepted at other colleges and universities if they transfer.

Under the agreement, FMU - which officially changed its name Monday to Everest University - says it will continue to help students with credit transfer by maintaining a "transfer center" it established in 2004 and working out transfer agreements with other colleges and universities.

It also agrees to "modify disclosures given to students prior to enrollment to provide clear and conspicuous disclosures regarding transferability of credits."

"They have agreed to amend their business practices to comply with our concerns," Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Sandi Copes said.

The issue of credit transfer is central to still-pending lawsuits filed on behalf of more than 100 former FMU students, including some from the Tampa Bay area.

Both sides in the ongoing litigation sought to spin the settlement in their favor.

"In my opinion, the settlement shows the Florida Attorney General's Office has done its best to address the problems that are going on and are widespread" at FMU, said Tampa attorney J. Dan Clark, who is representing the students.

FMU agreed to the settlement because "it's pretty benign," said the school's Tallahassee attorney, Barry Richard. "Essentially, this says the school has been doing a lot of things already and will continue to do them."

The settlement required FMU to pay $99,900 for investigative costs and attorneys' fees.

FMU enrolls 11,000 students on 10 branch campuses, including ones in Tampa, Clearwater and Brandon.

It is owned by Corinthian Colleges Inc., a California company that operates 94 schools in 24 states and enrolls 65,000 students. A news release issued Monday said Corinthian is changing the name of FMU and some of its other schools so it can build "one identifiable brand across North America."

FMU is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

But it is not regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits all state schools in Florida and most of the state's private, nonprofit schools.

FMU applied for SACS accreditation, but withdrew its application in March 2003. Corinthian spokeswoman Anna Maria Dunlap said it did so because during the two- to three-year accreditation process it would not be allowed to expand course offerings or open new branch campuses. She said it has no current plans to reapply.

FMU representatives have long maintained that the school has been up-front with prospective students. They also say the problem lies with the transfer schools, for wrongly rejecting credible FMU credits.

"Nobody questions the validity and competence of the course offerings and the faculty," Richard said.

Corinthian has been in recent news for other reasons.

In July, it agreed to pay $6.5-million as part of a settlement with the California Attorney General's Office, which had accused the company of engaging in "false advertising and unlawful business practices by presenting inaccurate salary and employment information to students."

Two weeks ago, federal officials raided the Fort Lauderdale branch of the National School of Technology, another Corinthian-owned school in Florida.

School officials say they were not told why the action was taken, and Copes, with the Attorney General's Office, said she was not aware of a connection with issues involving FMU.

Two South Florida campuses of another for-profit college were also targeted.

Times Capital bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.