Students claim unethical actions by Terra State

FREMONT — To date, more than 200 former students have signed a petition taking action against alleged unethical actions being done by Terra State Community College.

Former student Kristen Todd created the petition on Change.org about a year ago, following her own situation with the college.

In February 2014, Todd enrolled in classes at Terra State, but was forced to withdraw after discovering from the financial aid department she was not going to be eligible for aid. Todd then was told she still was able to drop classes according to Terra State’s drop period and would not be penalized for the remainder of the semester’s tuition. The financial aid worker helping Todd had told her — according to Todd — the drop period was the same as the refund period, but it had turned out it was not.

“She told me I had a few days left to ‘drop my classes without being penalized financially, with the exception of not receiving my original first month’s payment to the school back,'” Todd said. “Seeing as this was her job to give me the best advice for my situation, I did what she advised and dropped from my classes because I knew I would not have enough money to pay out of pocket for my classes.”

When the next semester came around, Todd received her Free Application for Federal Student Aid, but was told she could not register for classes due a hold being placed on her school account. Todd filed an appeal twice, with the first never being filed.

Todd said after months waiting for answers she kept calling the institution and was passed off from one department to another.

When Todd did finally hear back about her situation, she was contacted by someone from the financial aid department. After explaining the situation, Todd said the worker had “laughed” and said “it was impossible that had happened, and that I should have known that my financial aid wasn’t going to go through. I should have thought about not being able to afford classes before enrolling at their institution and this was (her) problem.”

Todd said she then attended another institution but later was unable to obtain her own school records to complete financial aid with her new school, which was in violation of her Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 rights not to have access to her school information.

“Without the knowledge of my FERPA rights, I honestly wouldn’t have known any different and would not have pressed because they had me believing I wasn’t entitled to any of my school documentations,” Todd said. “But then again, Terra has proven to do an excellent job at misleading students.”

Todd said she owes the college between $3,000-$4,000.

“Terra State has cost me everything,” she said. “They have destroyed my credit from lying to me and I can’t even begin to explain the emotional strain this whole ordeal has caused.”

In addition to those who have signed the petition, Todd has connected with 29 other students who have similar stories that have taken place over the same time.

Mickelle Barr of Oak Harbor said Todd’s situation was similar to what happened to her. Barr said she called the first day of classes to check on her aid status and was told the aid was pending. After calling the next week, the financial aid department told Barr she wasn’t eligible for aid and that if Barr wanted to continue with classes, she had to pay out of pocket.

“I had to obviously withdraw from classes, which she told me five days into the semester,” she said. “Then I didn’t think it would be a big deal about the full refund of my classes so I withdrew the next day. (The financial aid department) failed to tell me the day prior that it was apparently the last day for 100-percent refund.”

“We had a very similar experience,” said April Reeves of Port Clinton. “My husband was going through classes there and as he was entering his final semester, his student aid suddenly was withdrawn in a very similar story as listed here. He kept trying to push through and graduate however the school kept creating similar issues for the next 3 semesters. Ultimately he spent 4 years and $30,000 at that school and came out without a degree.”

Ashley Matthews of Tiffin said she has been enrolled in classes at Terra State for two years and she still has the same problems as Todd.

“The (individuals) in the financial aid office that I’ve been dealing with has lied to me numerous times and has an attitude with me every time, and has laughed at me,” she said. “The advisers have lied to me many times. I have written appeals. I can understand where everyone comes from so that is why I stand for this petition.”

These are just a few of the statements students who have responded to as why they have signed Todd’s petition.

Todd also said two former financial aid employees also have come forward who themselves have witnessed alleged fraudulent actions from the college’s financial aid department firsthand.

A former financial aid department staff member, Kristen Wadsworth came forward to Todd, stating “I find this and many other situations to be true because I worked in the financial aid department at Terra and witnessed lies being told to the students as well as the financial aid advisers avoiding students and phone calls.”

“I also witnessed students files being misplaced or set aside because the advisers felt they did not deserve financial aid or did not want to deal with that student,” Wadsworth said. “After three months of going against this behavior and not fitting in with the other advisers way of operating, I was forced to resign by (Terra State Vice President of Enrollment and Student Affairs) Heath Martin.”

According to Todd, after speaking with representatives of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, they had confirmed to her that Ohio has a gap in the law in order for students attending community colleges to be victims of fraud with little to no recourse on behalf of the institution committing the crime.

To combat the issue, Todd said she is working with Joseph Henry with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office to hold Terra State accountable for its alleged fraudulent activities against students. Her request for assistance has been sent to the U.S. Department of Education’s Congressional Relations Office. Todd said she still is waiting to hear back about her situation.

Todd said Dec. 6, 2017 she was told again by Joseph to file a complaint through the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Inspector General’s Office. Her request was then sent to the U.S. Department of Education’s Congressional Relations Office Feb. 1, and asked that the complaint referred to the inspector general for appropriate action.

According to a letter Todd received from Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost’s office, “The Auditor of State does not have jurisdiction in a matter involving a debt between a private party and Terra Community College. We understand that (Ohio Department of Higher Education) has not been able to resolve this matter. Please see their response to us, which is attached.”

The response was from Stephanie McCann — associate vice chancellor of the Academic Program Approval and Development of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid — “The department does not have any domain over an institution when it comes to resolving student account issues. … We were unable to find a solution in this case. In addition, I was unable to confirm that Terra Community College officials lied to the complainant. Ultimate authority on these issues rests with the Terra Community College Board of Trustees.”

ODHE also responded by stating, after receiving letters regarding Todd’s complaint, “At this time, no action is warranted by the Department of Higher Education. … The ODHE does not have authority regarding how institutions structure their billing policies.”

“This is the consensus I have gotten, not having jurisdiction that is, from any department I’ve contacted either because — Terra State is a community college and not actually a state college and no student loans were actually drawn,” Todd said. “This leaves a loophole in Ohio’s law to allow Terra State to mislead students and then charge them, ultimately sending their bill to collections. This was confirmed by a response by Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office on Sept. 9, 2017.”

Todd said her hopes are to see the “loophole” closed to better protect students, see regulations put in place for colleges so no institutions can “intentionally mislead students and see Terra State held accountable for “misleading/lying to students.”

“Ultimately, this is very frustrating and upsetting,” she said. “That’s why I’ve made my story public in hopes for the attention to create a necessary change in Ohio’s law. This should never happen to a student and if I can prevent it from happening to anyone else at least I can say I did that much.”

Todd is working on finding representation due to not having enough people for a class action lawsuit.

Martin, Terra State President Jerome Webster and Dean of the School of Business at Terra State Cory Stine did not respond to requests for comment at the time of the publishing of this story. Inquiries had been sent to the aforementioned parties and referred to the Marketing Department, due to media procedures established in February.

In a statement made by Amanda Pochatko, marketing manager at Terra State, “Ms. Todd’s case has been reviewed by several different agencies who have concluded that the College acted according to documented policy. The U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Higher Education have reviewed Ms. Todd’s complaint and have found that Terra State has acted in accordance with federal financial aid rules and regulations and has fairly applied published College policies and procedures related to this matter. Any student may file a complaint related to an administrative process as outlined in our Administrative Student Complaint Policy found in our College catalog. When receiving such a complaint the College reviews the complaint and issues a formal response. The College has a long history of resolving student complaints and issues when a claim can be substantiated.”

“Terra State needs to be held accountable and responsible for their actions,” Todd said. They need to acknowledge all of these students they have wronged and not only apologize but make things right by keeping their word.”

“I will not stop until I see justice,” Todd added. “I will keep submitting complaints; if it stops even just one more student being a victim of fraud at Terra State.”

To access Todd’s petition, visit https://bit.ly/2HzH3Q4.

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