A group of former nursing students, many based in Maryland, are crying foul after their online nursing classes were abruptly canceled earlier this year, leaving them scrambling for thousands of dollars in refunds and searching for answers.
An investigation by the News4 I-Team found the Florida-based school, Jay College of Health Sciences, shouldn’t have been offering online classes to students outside the Sunshine State at all.
“The reason why I chose this school was because it was online,” said a Montgomery County, Maryland, woman, who said she was enrolled in its practical nursing program for just a couple months when it was suddenly canceled earlier this year. She asked News4 not to use her name out of concern for reprisal. “It was just very devastating for me that all of that happened -- the way it happened.”
The I-Team’s months-long investigation found that, while Jay College is approved by Florida officials to teach in-person classes there and had temporary emergency approval to offer programs on-line due to the pandemic, state education officials said it has not been approved to offer distance learning to students across the country.
Maryland higher education officials tell the I-Team Jay College has not received the required approval to offer nursing programs to Maryland students online or in-person, either.
What’s more, the I-Team found local graduates wouldn’t be able to sit for Maryland’s nurse licensing exams, because even though some states’ nursing boards recognize degrees from Jay College, the Maryland Board of Nursing does not include the school among its approved in-state or out-of-state programs.
The Maryland man who heads Jay College, Ejike Asiegbunam, has not responded to multiple phone, email and in-person inquiries from the I-Team. Maryland business records show Asiegbunam is also listed as the registered agent of a nursing exam test prep facility in Maryland called Living Spring Institute, but no one answered the door when the I-Team recently knocked.
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Several former Jay College students are now demanding an investigation into the school that they say took advantage of students, many of whom are African immigrants, by not disclosing the school was operating online without approval.
Their complaints come as the nation grapples with a critical nursing shortage amid a global pandemic -- a reason some of the nearly 10 students interviewed by News4 cited as a reason they enrolled in the online nursing program.
“I just wanted to help people and I just felt going into the nursing program was another level of helping people,” the Montgomery County woman said.
The majority of students – many contacted by the I-Team through the course of its investigation – asked News4 to not share their names. They live in multiple states but most are from Maryland and said they were unaware they’d be ineligible to sit for Maryland’s nurse licensing exams with a degree from the school.
“They're literally preying on people with the hopes and dreams of becoming a nurse,” said Beanca Fries, a New York woman who said she enrolled in the school’s online registered nursing program late last year.
Fries said she paid $1,000 a month for the online instruction, believing it was a fast-track way to become a registered nurse.
“The thing that made it so believable is because there wasn’t … at the time any in-person classes due to the pandemic,” she said.
Fries provided News4 with multiple screengrabs she said showed the online classes in progress. She said she withdrew from the school earlier this year after teachers and staff began publicly squabbling on the online platform and classes were disrupted, raising questions for her about its professionalism.
Fries said she repeatedly sought answers from Asiegbunam about her concerns but to no avail. She said she eventually received a $7,000 refund -- via a cash app -- but still wants more to be done to crack down on schools operating beyond their authority.
“The more I started looking, I started realizing that this man is just not who he says he is. The school is not what he says it is,” she said.
Complaints filed with attorneys general in both Maryland and Florida, obtained by the I-Team through open records requests, reflect similar concerns.
In an anonymous complaint filed with the Florida attorney general in May, a person who self-described as a former Jay College student asked state officials there to investigate the school and alleged, “Nurses from this school are released into the workforce unqualified. This is dangerous to patients and the public, alike, especially in a pandemic.”
In 2018, a Baltimore woman filed a complaint with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office stating she attended an open house for the school in Hyattsville, Maryland, but grew concerned when she learned the school wasn’t accredited. In the filing, the woman stated Asiegbunam told students the school was “approved” by the Maryland Board of Nursing.
In a statement to the I-Team, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education said students who want to file a complaint about Jay College for “offering online nursing courses without any necessary approvals or permissions” should contact the Florida Commission for Independent Education.
But the state has not yet said whether the school is under investigation or if it could face penalties if the allegations are proven true.
A spokeswoman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), which oversees distance learning programs offered in the state, said in a statement its staff has been “in close contact” with counterparts at the Florida Department of Education regarding complaints about Jay College. The spokeswoman advised Maryland students should first file a complaint with Florida as it’s the regulating authority over the school.
“MHEC will follow up with the Florida Department of Education in regards to any additional findings,” the spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman said Jay College would first need Florida’s approval to offer online nursing classes before applying to MHEC to either teach online nursing courses to Maryland students or to teach from a Maryland location. The school has not yet applied to do so, she said.
Like several students the I-Team interviewed, the Montgomery County woman said she had trouble getting a refund from the school. She said when the school later reimbursed her $4,150 investment, the check provided bounced.
After hounding Asiegbunam, she said she eventually did get her money back. She showed News4 two wire transfers that state they were sent from Jay College to her bank account in July.
Still, she said she can’t get back her lost time.
That’s why the head of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) said prospective students should do their homework to make sure online schools aren’t just approved to operate, but are accredited, which ensures they’re getting a quality education.
Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, who leads CHEA, wouldn’t comment specifically on Jay College but said, “So many times the public would have invested money and time in these non-accredited programs that have absolutely no validity in the real world.”
The Montgomery County woman said she plans to continue pursuing her nursing dream, but will enroll at a community college.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper and Steve Jones.