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Hundreds of veterans scramble after for-profit college closes

WILLIAM WISEMAN/U.S. AIR FORCE

By EVA-MARIE AYALA | Dallas Morning News | Published: September 29, 2017

GARLAND, Texas (Tribune News Service) -- Hundreds of veterans are scrambling to figure out what's next for them after a for-profit college they were attending suddenly shut down Wednesday.

The Texas Veterans Commission issued a news release Thursday evening stating that the Retail Ready Career Center's approval to use federal funds to train veterans in a heating and air conditioning program had been withdrawn.

The commission did so after learning that a search warrant had been executed at the school because the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General is investigating the for-profit campus.

Representatives from the center have denied any wrongdoing and said they are cooperating with an administrative investigation. It's unknown if the school will reopen.

Commission officials said they are connecting veterans with any immediate housing or financial assistance they may need and that Eastfield College was working with veterans who want to continue their HVAC certification.

Thursday the school issued a written statement saying, "Retail Ready Career Center is attempting to address any issues that may have arisen from this unfortunate situation. Further, Retail Ready Career Center has provided free shuttles to the airport along with plane tickets home. At this time, all veterans should be in the air and heading home."

Retail Ready was closed one day last week as well when authorities executed the search warrant.

A handful of students left the school then, but many of the 330 who were enrolled continued to attend classes, including Navy vet Robert Velasquez. But by Thursday morning, he was on a bus to the airport, questioning why he believed the school's aggressive sales pitch to him that sounded "too good to be true."

The center recruited him from Washington state through a job-search site, telling him he could earn certification to work on heating and air conditioning units in six weeks with all expenses paid through the GI Bill, the federal education benefit earned by those who have served in the military, Velasquez said.

Velasquez  -- who was named one of the school's students of the week on Monday -- said he needed to change careers because carpal tunnel syndrome had made his job as a mechanic difficult. This was his last year of GI Bill eligibility, the 28-year-old said.

"The VA had processed my payment yesterday at midnight, and I was told I can't get that back," Velasquez said. "I needed to get back on my feet. Now that's it. I'm not sure what I'll do."

School founder Jonathan Davis said last week that the center is cooperating with authorities during the review, and he denied any wrongdoing, adding that the school takes compliance issues seriously.

Davis said a former employee retaliated against the school by filing complaints alleging that Retail Ready was taking advantage of veterans and the GI Bill.

"We have about the highest success rate of any other GI program out there, so they think we must be doing something wrong," Davis said. "We're not."

Garland police said a former employee faces theft charges after being accused of stealing $20,000 that was due to the school from a private company. Davis said the company had donated scholarship money so that it would eventually be referred top graduates.

In 2016 alone, 1,554 veterans went through the Retail Ready program, and received $28.8 million in GI funding, according to Veterans Affairs. School representatives said more than 90 percent of the center's students are veterans, with more than 2,500 graduating since 2014.

The Department of Veterans Affairs will not let veterans use the GI Bill in a program where more than 85 percent of enrollees are so-called "supported" students, meaning they receive the VA educational benefits or institutional aid, according to the agency.

Davis said many of the veterans at his school use the GI Bill, but some don't.

The GI Bill covers up to nearly $26,000 per qualifying veteran for tuition, housing and other supplies at the school. Davis said veterans stay at a hotel during the six weeks and are bused to campus, with most meals provided for them along with a stipend.

The center has assigned staffers who work on job placement for each veteran before they even graduate, Davis said. He said the school has a placement rate of more than 80 percent.

Velasquez said that kind of support is what enticed him to leave his job and come to Texas. But now he's worried about his classmates, many of whom are struggling much more than he was.

"I'm lucky that I have the support of my fiancé," he said. "To be honest, a lot of my classmates are going to be homeless when they get off the plane. They're going back to divorces and city parks."

(c) 2017 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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