Learning to Steal: The Trouble with Financial Aid for Online Degrees

Online students never even have to set foot on Coconino Community College's beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona, campus.
Online students never even have to set foot on Coconino Community College's beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona, campus.

They say attending college increases your earning power. Some ambitious students apparently take that mantra to an extreme.

A 30-year-old Dallas woman named Sussette Sheree Timmons is accused of bilking financial aid programs out of tens of thousands of dollars during a three-year college career at more than a dozen schools. Timmons allegedly became expert in applying for, and receiving, federal grants and loans without ever taking the online classes she enrolled in.

A May federal indictment alleges that Timmons schemed her would-be educators out of almost $20,000 in financial aid for online courses she never took. The indictment outlines a brazen but pretty simple fraud in which Timmons collected federal loans and grants for courses at six online programs in New Mexico, Arizona and Iowa. In each case, she applied for admission and aid, enrolled in a few courses, collected aid money and withdrew from the school soon after.

She didn’t try too hard to conceal her intentions from administrators. “I request the full amount of the unsubsidized + subsidized Stafford loan,” she wrote Ashford University officials in April 2009. “And I want to redraw [sic] from the University after May 25.” When financial aid officers took too long or sent less than she expected, she’d call to get the money flowing again. In a letter to Timmons explaining why they cut off her aid, Coconino Community College officials said they’d learned she dropped out of more than a dozen schools since 2009. Even then, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas, Timmons managed to enroll in online courses at Pima Community College and pocket another $5,600 for her trouble.

Is it really so easy to scam thousands of dollars this way? According to a 2011 federal report, it certainly is. Back then, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General warned of a “dramatic increase” of financial-aid fraud in online programs. Online-only programs “present unique opportunities for fraud and challenges for oversight,” the inspector general warned, because federal aid programs were designed for traditional classroom programs, while online programs let students enroll, apply for aid and take classes (or not) without ever showing up in person.

A follow-up report from the Education Department inspector general in January 2013 estimated the problem’s scope. For the academic years 2009 to 2012—about the same time Timmons is accused of working her scheme—the report estimated that fraud rings took the system for around $187 million. During that time, the report says, the number of “students” taking part in fraud jumped from fewer than 19,000 to more than 34,000.

The Education Department says it’s going to flag more students with suspicious applications and watch IP addresses and emails for signs of a fraud ringleader. So far, though, most fraud rings are uncovered at the local level by financial aid officers who grow suspicious.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

Published at 11:49 am CST