NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
Students at for-profit trade schools get $4 billion in grants a year from U.S. taxpayers.
To be eligible for that money, trade schools must obtain jobs for 70 percent of their graduates in fields related to their studies. Last year, News 8 discovered Everest College claimed to have placed 288 students in non-existent jobs.
Now, News 8 has discovered dozens of similar cases at ATI, another for-profit school headquartered in North Richland Hills.
ATI runs more than two dozen for-profit schools across the country. The company claims it gets its graduates “meaningful employment.” But, WFAA discovered that dozens of employment claims involving ATI students don’t match reality.
From the outside, Paradise Landscaping and Renovation in Grand Prairie looks like a small lawn maintenance business, and that’s just what it is. A trailer outside the front door is stuffed with grass cuttings, and another holds plastic sprinkler pipe. Yet, in a letter to News 8 in December, ATI claimed 13 graduates of its “Combined Welding Program” were employed at Paradise and ATI received "completed Graduate Satisfaction Surveys from eight of these graduates about their employment experience at Paradise Landscaping and Renovation.”
“We don’t do welding,” said Brad Pratt, owner of Paradise Landscaping and Renovation, “We basically cut lawns. We’ve never hired anyone from ATI.”
News 8 also contacted Erik Wences, an ATI welding graduate, who is listed in state records as having worked at Paradise Landscaping.
“They’re just lying, and trying to get their money and trying to make money off of us because we’re not even working as a welder,” he said.
William Wise, owner of Wise Construction Company, is a former ATI student. He was surprised when he got three letters from ATI thanking him for hiring three ATI welding graduates while he himself was still enrolled in ATI’s air conditioning program.
“I do all kinds of things, but I do not employ welders,” Wise said.
“This was false, a falsifying document basically,” he said while looking at one of the letters.
Wise said he believes the letters were only paperwork designed to go into a student file.
The incentive for ATI to create a paper trail affirming its students are employed after graduation is strong. For a school to tap federal funds, it must be accredited. One of the principal accrediting bodies sets its benchmark employment rates for student graduates at 70 percent. To remain certified in the state of Texas, career schools must prove that 60 percent of student graduates work in their field of study.
At Pointtronics Plus TV & Video in Garland, Cyril Maduagwu has a similar sheaf of letters from ATI thanking him for hiring graduates as “an TV repair” (sic).
Pointtronics is a small electronic repair shop nestled in a low-traffic shopping mall along Interstate 30. Maduagwu has no full-time employees because he only has business when a customer brings in a TV or VCR for repair. He pays workers on a piece rate to fix a single item of equipment. Such workers, he says, could make a one-time $35 fee to fix a 27” TV.
Maduagwu said ATI has sent more than one dozen electronics technicians to him upon their graduation. He allows them to work on equipment for practice, and pays them upon fixing the electronic equipment. He said the ATI students may be slow and inexperienced in repair and admits the compensation is low.
FLH and BMW
A small office in Richardson is the headquarters of FLH Enterprises. There’s a bumper sticker with an FLH Enterprises logo in crimson and black stuck on the window. Also on the window is the title “General Concepts.”
State records show the same address is home to Phoenix Advertising, 1st Place Promotions, Trinity Concepts, RR promotions and Inner-Link Marketing Concepts. Many of these businesses share the same founders and registered agents. This is just an office complex.
Kelvin Price said he spent $23,000 on ATI’s auto repair technician program, hoping to begin a good-paying career. Price said ATI career services representatives brought him and carloads of other graduates to the Richardson office for jobs that they thought would be as sophisticated as fixing BMWs. But,there is no auto repair facility in sight. Instead, Price said he and other graduates were taken to gas stations, where they “solicited customers by washing their windshields.” The sales product were car wax and windshield repairs.
Greg Whittaker, who answered the door at the office, confirmed ATI graduates were hired there and that they sold “wash and wax.”
The Texas Workforce Commission is supposed to regulate and monitor trade schools. One of the
TWC’s functions is to review annual job employment and placement reports filed by trade schools. Schools are required to file reports listing the names of student graduates, their job titles and respective employers.
However, much of the oversight is passed off to accrediting agencies like the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC).
After several News 8 stories aired last fall, the ACCSC notified ATI Technical Training Center in Dallas that the agency had questions about ATI’s practices “with respect to graduate placement and recruitment.”
According to the December 2 letter by executive director Michale McComis, the commission planned an unannounced on-site evaluation to assess the school’s compliance with accrediting standards. McComis confirmed the letter and inspection, but declined to comment about the on-site evaluation or findings.
In early 2011, ATI began suspending or firing career service representatives. News 8 later obtained a copy of an ATI letter that said career representatives were being terminated because “certain activities were discovered, leading us to question the validity of some student placements.” ATI has since confirmed it has terminated six career services representatives.
Former ATI employees and internal memos obtained by News 8 say the company awarded $75 bonuses for each student “placed” in jobs. ATI, however, said it no longer pays such bonuses for finding students jobs.
According to TWC regulations, trade school graduates are considered employed when they are hired to do a job within their field of study. However, the regulations consider a school graduate employed if they work only a day, or in a temporary job.