Belmont High School graduate Ricky Alfred enrolled in online classes at Bay State College during the pandemic, but he quickly came to regret it.
“No one was there to really guide me,” the 20-year-old recalled. “It was always another person you had to cross or [another] no one has this information.
Alfred wishes he hadn’t spent his father’s GI benefits to pay for two semesters of college, and he believes he was overcharged thousands of dollars for the courses he took remotely. When he tried to transfer to another school, he said he was wrongly re-enrolled and charged tuition.
Alfred is the latest student to report trouble with Bay State College, a for-profit university owned by a Chinese company that operates campuses in downtown Boston and Taunton. Several students told GBH News they had been misled about the school’s academic programs and charged for classes that either didn’t exist or were suddenly cancelled. Now the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office is reaching out to former students and faculty online for information about college practices.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said staff are “working to obtain more information about the situation” and encouraging current and former Bay State students to share any concerns or complaints with the AG office and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.
Bay State did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“It fits a very unfortunate pattern,” said Barmak Nassirian, vice president of higher education policy at Veterans Education Success, a nonpartisan political and advocacy organization in Washington, DC.
Nassirian said colleges — especially for-profit institutions — have long oversold the quality and scope of what they offer by misrepresenting course offerings and inflating graduation and placement rates. These actions, he said, undermine public confidence in the higher education sector.
Following the collapse of for-profit giants Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, Nassirian said the dismantling of schools like Bay State has also become very recognizable.
“As the results catch up with the reputation of the place, you start to see the numbers drop, you start to see complaints filed,” he said. “And the consequence of all of this is that the place starts this downward spiral of business problems.”
Ambow Education, a Chinese holding company based in the Cayman Islands, bought Bay State College in 2017. Last month, GBH reported that enrollment in Bay State had plummeted from more than 1,200 students in 2010 to around 300 last spring. After this story was published, Ambow’s CFO abruptly resigned.
Over the summer, Bay State’s accreditor placed the college on probation for financial and personnel issues. Even so, the college is still not among the schools financially monitored by the U.S. Department of Education or the Securities and Exchange Commission, which would bar it from receiving federal dollars.
“There’s a lack of oversight,” said veteran Dahn Shaulis, a former community college instructor who now writes a blog focused on the for-profit college industry and manages a private Facebook group for veterans who “had their GI bills stolen through higher education fraud.”
Shaulis said for-profit colleges fit a model of targeting veterans using government benefits to pay for their tuition.
“Once there are companies that know there is free money, they will take advantage of it,” he said.
Nassirian said government agencies meant to hold institutions accountable are “rather inefficient and very weak.”
“It’s really post-disaster triage,” he said, noting the challenges ahead for the Massachusetts attorney general’s office if it pursues action against Bay State.
“It becomes very difficult for a state agency to go after an entity that has the approval of federal departments and has legal access to millions of dollars of federal money,” he said. .
As for Ricky Alfred, the Bay State student who used his father’s GI benefits to pay for his tuition: he decided to transfer to another local college.
And he said quitting college brought new challenges. Bay State automatically re-enrolled him and said he was financially responsible for paying tuition.
“I emailed the dean,” he said, recalling his initial shock. “I tried to contact admissions – anyone – just to let them know, ‘Hey, I never said I was going to attend, and you’ve got this debt. It came out of nowhere .'”
Alfred is now working with the US Department of Veterans Affairs to recover his family’s GI benefits.