Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rio Salado Exposes Financial Aid Fraud

Rio Salado College, working with federal authorities, has exposed a massive financial aid fraud scheme, resulting in 130 indictments against the perpetrator and her accomplices. Upon its early detection of suspicious activity, Rio Salado contacted authorities and worked in partnership with them throughout the investigation with the intent to bring the perpetrators to justice. We are grateful to our staff for their alertness, which lead to the identification of this problem, and their vigilance over federal student aid funds. At no time were any Rio Salado employees participants in the financial aid scheme.

What is the nature of the financial aid fraud that was committed against Rio Salado?
Rio Salado College in Tempe was targeted by an individual (not an employee) who, it is alleged, purposefully set forth to commit financial aid fraud. She recruited four other individuals (non-employees) to assist her, and they in turn recruited dozens of others who agreed to pose as “straw students” – in other words, non-authentic students—in order to obtain financial aid funds, which would then be illegally shared with the original perpetrator. There was considerable forgery of documents, such as high school diplomas, and false information was supplied to the college. These straw students had no intention of staying enrolled and dropped or were dropped from their classes once their checks were received. The estimated amount of federal financial aid that was fraudulently obtained in the form of loans and grants is in excess of $538,000.

On June 24, 2009, after an extensive investigation by federal authorities, the U.S. Attorney/District of Arizona (Diane J. Humetewa) held a press conference to publicly expose the fraud and to announce the indictment and arrest of the original perpetrator, identified as Trenda Lynne Halton of Peoria, AZ, on 130 counts of criminal activity, plus indictments against 64 other individuals suspected of involvement.

How was the scheme exposed?
Early on, a very alert part-time employee in Rio Salado’s Financial Aid office noticed similarities in handwriting on financial aid applications. She brought it to the attention of her supervisors, and internal investigations revealed irregularities on multiple applications that suggested suspicious activity. These facts were quickly brought to the attention of the U.S. Department of Education/Office of the Inspector General in Long Beach, CA. Because mail fraud was also suspected, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service became involved as well. Rio Salado not only uncovered the scheme but assisted with the extensive federal investigations every step of the way.

What is the position of the federal authorities toward Rio Salado College?
During the June 24 press conference, U.S. Attorney Diane Humetewa publicly commended Rio Salado for its alertness in detecting the fraud and its ongoing cooperation with the federal investigation.

What safeguards does Rio Salado have in place to protect against fraudulent financial aid schemes?
First, it is important to note that in the case of Rio Salado, the processes already in place worked and there was early detection. These processes are followed by Rio employees:
1. Rio adheres to the Maricopa Community College District policy to mail financial aid checks and not deliver them in person. In fact, many checks in this fraudulent scheme were never received because the addresses used were false.
2. Rio Salado’s own policy is to mail checks only after the drop/add period ends. This prevents students from enrolling and quickly dropping simply to receive financial aid.
3. Rio Salado verifies identification through photo ID for certain types of disbursements, such as book vouchers. ID may include drivers’ licenses, birth certificates, and passports.
4. Financial aid employees are trained to follow standardized policies and procedures to detect irregularities or fraud.

Do colleges with a significant online student population face an increased risk of financial aid fraud?
There is no reason to think online colleges are more at risk, because the FAFSA application is the same for online and in-person students.

What are the penalties for federal financial aid fraud?
It should be noted that the official FAFSA application for financial aid carries warnings that financial aid fraud is a crime punishable by significant fines. However, multiple other charges, including mail fraud, are pending against everyone indicted in this particular scheme. Conviction for mail fraud, for example, carries penalties of up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000, or both for each count.

What is Rio Salado’s current point of view regarding the investigation?
President Linda M. Thor released a statement during the June 24, 2009 press conference that read:
“As President of Rio Salado College, I want to express how proud I am of the staff of our Financial Aid Office for their stewardship of taxpayers’ funds. I commend them for being alert, vigilant, well-trained and cooperative. Federal financial aid is for the benefit of serious students wishing to better their lives and definitely not for misuse. We will not tolerate abuse of the system, and we will continue as a college to practice due diligence in processing all financial aid applications. It is our intent to continue to fully cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and all designated authorities for this case.”

To view the US Attorney’s Office press release, click here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Students Learning Sign Language Via YouTube

Parents used to tell their children to turn off the tube and do their homework. Now, some college students are being told to do their homework by turning on the tube — YouTube that is.

Recently, Tempe-based Rio Salado College started using the popular social networking site YouTube as the classroom for its American Sign Language (ASL) classes.

YouTube is a video sharing Web site, which allows users to upload videos and share them with other people.

“Using a social networking site has taken online learning to a new level, and I don’t think any other school is offering an entire sign language class online,” said Angela Felix, faculty chair of languages at Rio Salado College. “With YouTube, teachers and students get to see each other and this makes the class a more personal experience for both.”

ASL Instructor Maryann Stegall agrees with Felix, and said she and her students are lucky to get to interact with each other using this medium.

“Sign language is a visual language and the students need this type of interaction,” said Stegall, who helped develop the courses for Rio Salado College. “As I review the students’ videos, I can give them immediate feedback, which will keep them from forming bad habits and signing the wrong words.”

One student who enjoys the quick feedback from Stegall is Diane Vasquez, a Mesa schoolteacher who is taking the class to fulfill an ESL endorsement.

“The teacher gets back to me promptly,” said Vasquez. “This helps me practice my signs properly and confidently move on to the next assignment at my pace.”

Besides immediate feedback on her progress, Vasquez appreciates the convenience of being able to take the class at anytime and from anywhere.

“I’m going to a conference in Baltimore and I will be taking my class while I’m there,” said Vasquez. “Rio Salado is the only school I could find that offered a sign language class entirely online. If this class weren’t available, I would have to choose between going to Baltimore or completing my endorsement. This class is allowing me to do both.”

Besides her out-of-town trip, Vasquez said the classes do not interfere with her busy family life either.

“My son is involved in several activities at school,” she said. “The flexibility of the class lets me be involved with my family and take the class when it fits into my schedule.”

Kate Cleaveland, of Mesa, is a home-schooled student who needed language credits and found the Rio Salado class easy to adapt into her schedule.

“My mother teaches me at home and this class meshes well with my schedule,” said Kate, who is starting her junior year of high school. “I need to learn a second language and thought sign language sounded interesting. I think online learning works well for people who have irregular schedules.”

Vasquez and Kate are not the only people who are enjoying the YouTube classroom. According to Felix, every class has been full since it was introduced.

“This class is more popular than we anticipated,” said Felix. “The second level was slated to begin in the fall, but due to demand we had to make it available sooner. Now, we are preparing to offer the third level and bringing in another teacher.”

Other language classes offered by Rio Salado College include: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. For more information, please visit http://www.riosalado.edu/programs/general_education/Pages/languages.aspx.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New Programs Offered by Rio Salado

With unemployment still a hot topic in Arizona today, going back to school is more relevant than ever. Those looking to re-career and get a job in a new field, and even new students deciding on a career can look to community college as an affordable option. And now, students have even more educational options to choose from with six new academic programs being offered through Rio Salado College.

New programs offered through Rio Salado College:
· General Business
· Accounting
· Paralegal Studies
· Creative Writing
· Sustainability and Ecological Literacy
· Language and Literary Culture of the USA

The Accounting, Paralegal Studies and General Business programs are offered as a certificate of completion or an associate in applied science degree. Creative Writing, Sustainability and Ecological Literacy, and Language and Literary Culture of the USA are offered as academic certificates.

General Business
For those interested in a business career, the first step is to understand the fundamentals of how a business works. Rio Salado’s general business program provides an overview of business courses including management, accounting, computer information systems and business communications. Having an understanding of general business concepts can help students identify a specific business field to pursue.

Because accounting is an important part of the business world, Rio Salado offers a program that provides students with the basic skills and knowledge needed to enter the accounting field.
Students learn about how a business operates through its financial activities, with courses covering accounting principles, managerial accounting, payroll and more.

Paralegal Studies
Paralegals assist attorneys with their legal work, including legal research, legal writing, preparation of exhibits and case management. While not authorized to provide legal advice or practice law, paralegals are an integral part of the legal community. Through the Paralegal Studies program, students will get an overview of the types of law and the fundamentals of litigation.

Creative Writing
For those more interested in the liberal arts, Rio’s Creative Writing program offers the ultimate form of self-expression. Students will have access to a community of writers, and creative writing activities and workshops. Established authors provide instruction and offer guidance on improving writing techniques and marketing your works. Writing-centric classes focus on poetry, fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and children’s literature.

Sustainability and Ecological Literacy
Sustainable and green practices are a growing concern in today’s world. In this new program, students gain an understanding of sustainable living practices, and the skills necessary to become ecologically and environmentally aware through classes like Environmental Ethics, Geological Disasters and the Environment, and the Economics of Natural Resources.

Language and Literary Culture of the USA
The Language and Literary Culture of the USA program was developed to give students of English as a non-native language a strong foundation in the oral and written structure of North American English.

For more information about these or other academic programs offered through Rio Salado College, visit www.riosalado.edu/programs.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Head Start on College

High school students earn college credit

Throughout the Valley high school seniors are celebrating graduation and preparing for college. Among these teens are students who already completed their first year of college while they were in high school. Now, they are selecting courses for their sophomore year of college. How did they accomplish this? The students enrolled in Rio Salado College’s dual enrollment program.

One student who has benefited from the program is Wayne Unger, a recent graduate of Mountain Pointe High School in the Tempe Union High school District. Unger started taking dual enrollment classes during his sophomore year and completed high school with 40 college credits.

“The dual enrollment program was a great opportunity for me,” said Unger. “This will allow me to pick a flexible schedule next year. With these credits, I’m seriously considering a double major, too.”

While students like Unger are appreciating the flexibility and likelihood of graduating from college early, they are not the only people who see the benefits of the dual enrollment program. Parents are enjoying the program, too.

“The dual enrollment program is a tremendous asset for our daughter,” said Kathrine Komarnisky, whose daughter, Sydney, is a starting her junior year at Hamilton High School in the Chandler High School District. “There is the obvious financial savings, but my husband and I thought it would be a great experience for her. It is teaching her responsibility and preparing her for college life.”

According to Kathrine, Sydney earned college credit for her Spanish classes and is looking forward to earning more credit before she graduates in 2011. While Kathrine is proud of her daughter’s accomplishments, she sees even more benefits to the program.

“This means a lot of her teachers are highly qualified, and that is something parents want to hear about teachers and the school,” said Komarnisky. “Sydney is the oldest of five children and we will definitely look into this when our other children reach high school.”

Rio Salado College has partnered with 50 high schools throughout the Valley to make the dual enrollment program a reality. For a class to qualify for dual enrollment, the syllabus and textbooks are evaluated by Rio Salado to ensure it is a college-level course.

Dr. Vernon Smith, Dean of Instruction at Rio Salado College stated, “In order to teach dual enrollment classes through Rio Salado College, high school instructors must meet strict qualification requirements, which usually include having obtained a Master’s Degree in their teaching discipline and being approved by Rio’s Faculty Chair. Once qualified, these instructors teach the high school class using the college curriculum, so students are assured they are receiving the highest quality college experience early on.”

With parental permission, students can take online classes through Rio Salado College even if their high school does not have a dual enrollment partnership established.

Dual enrollment credits transfer to all Arizona public colleges and universities, as well as many public and private colleges and universities outside of Arizona. As college tuition rates continue to increase, Rio Salado College is holding steady and not raising tuition rates for the upcoming 2009-10 school year; thus, earning college credit in high school is one of the smartest decisions a parent or student can make.

For more information about the dual enrollment program, visit http://www.riosalado.edu/dual
or call 480.517.8080.