Kaplan College's Charlotte campus has surrendered its license to operate a dental assistant program following allegations that its officials lied to students about the credentials they'd receive after graduating.
Many students with the program have complained that they took out large loans to attend the for-profit college on Independence Boulevard, only to learn they would not graduate with the kind of dental assistant certifications that school officials had promised them.
Their tuition and fees for the 12-month program: more than $18,000.
"I could have spent my hard-earned money on (an) education from a reputable college," one student wrote last year in complaints to state agencies. "...Now I'm stuck with loans I can't possibly pay back."
Kaplan says it has paid refunds to about 200 students to cover the cost of tuition, books and fees. It also has agreed to pay each of the program's graduates $9,000 stipends while they work to get their certifications. Janice Block, Kaplan's chief national compliance officer, said the company is spending "well over $1 million" on the refunds.
"This is a story of a college that went above and beyond for all of its students to make sure all of them were completely satisfied," Block said.
Block said Kaplan officials had "no intent whatsoever" to confuse students.
"And yet somehow ... a misunderstanding occurred," she said. "It occurred with more than one student."
On Jan. 20, the N.C. Board of Community Colleges accepted Kaplan's request to surrender its license to operate the dental program. The agency began investigating the program last year, but ended that probe after Kaplan asked to have its operating authority withdrawn.
A second investigation, by the N.C. Attorney General's office, is continuing.
In a November email to state officials, Kaplan Vice President John Carreon wrote that the company was retraining staff "to prevent any future misunderstandings."
More than 100 students were enrolled in the dental program last year.
Many who complained said they were told they would graduate with a "Dental Assistant II" certification - a credential that allows dental assistants to perform expanded functions and be paid more than those without such training. Those students later learned they would graduate with only a "Dental Assistant I" certification, a much less valuable credential.
The college lacks the accreditation necessary to provide DA II certification. Before starting their classes, all students signed a disclosure form saying they understood the program was not accredited by the ADA, Block said.
But in their complaints to the attorney general's office, some students said they were told the school would soon obtain that accreditation. The program has never been accredited by the American Dental Association - and had never been scheduled for the initial site visit required for accreditation, the ADA says.
"I want it to be public knowledge that this school is stealing from people who are trying to better themselves with the promise of a better future," one student wrote in a complaint to the attorney general's office.
That student was one of nine to complain to the attorney general. Fifteen students also complained last year to WSOC, which first reported their claims.
Now, many students say, they can't discuss the situation because Kaplan required them to consent to confidentiality as part of their agreement.
The college opened in 2010 in an east Charlotte building that once housed a Toys "R" Us store. Other programs at the school are designed to prepare students for work as medical assistants and for careers in criminal justice and medical billing. The college as a whole is accredited by the Commission of the Council on Occupational Education.
Owned by the Washington Post Co., Kaplan Higher Education is one of the nation's largest for-profit college chains, with revenue of more than $1.7 billion in 2010.
It's not the first time the company has faced government scrutiny. A 2010 investigation by the Government Accountability Office found deceptive practices at 15 for-profit college campuses, including two owned by Kaplan.
The undercover investigation came in response to rising loan default rates among students at for-profit colleges - and allegations that some schools were making deceptive claims to lure students.
For-profit colleges account for almost half of federal student loan defaults, but enroll only about one in eight students in the U.S., according to the U.S. Education Department.
Industry representatives have said that's largely because for-profit colleges serve lower-income and minority students who often can't attend traditional schools.
In Charlotte, Kaplan is evaluating whether it will eventually resurrect the dental assistant's program.
Staff researcher Maria David contributed