- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2012

One accountant at Metro took Federal Income Tax 1, a course at the University of Maryland University College described as “an introduction to federal taxation.” Another took Intermediate Accounting 1. Several other Metro workers in financially sensitive positions — who help oversee million-dollar contracts — used the transit authority’s tuition reimbursement program to enroll in introductory courses on contracts or business.

One office administrator enrolled in “Intro to Sociallity,” as she spelled it, at Strayer University because it “helps to understand paperwork.”

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has spent millions of dollars on college courses for its employees in recent years, with use of its generous tuition reimbursement program growing from $380,000 in 2007 to almost half a million dollars in fiscal 2010, records show.

But the use of the program, which doles out nearly all the money to employees in cash rather than directly paying the schools, has a member of Congress questioning whether it’s an effective use of taxpayer money.

The majority of institutions where courses are taken are for-profit schools, many of which have dismal completion rates, some of which are online, and almost all of which are far more expensive than public schools, especially for District residents, who are eligible for in-state tuition anywhere.

The most common schools were Strayer University, the University of Phoenix, Everest College, University of Maryland University College and Prince George’s Community College, all but two of which are for-profit.

“I am increasingly concerned that many government agencies, not just WMATA, are using taxpayer dollars to send students to low-quality, high-cost for-profit colleges with terrible student outcomes,” Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said in a statement. “Most troubling is that these agencies do not provide students with sufficient information to protect themselves or perform adequate due diligence regarding the schools’ value.”

In May, Mr. Harkin and Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat, issued a scathing condemnation of for-profit colleges and government programs that pay for veterans to attend them as a waste of taxpayer money. Their denunciation came after a critical audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in March on the use of GI Bill funds.

Mr. Harkin read from a letter from one veteran: “In hindsight, I regret attending ITT Tech. The institution provided at best an absolutely minimum education and left me with nearly insurmountable debt. Even worse, ITT Tech took taxpayer money in the form of grants and my GI Bill, amounting to a net loss for all taxpaying Americans.”

Metro is subsidized by the federal government, the District, states and local jurisdictions.

For-profit schools cost two to six times as much as traditional colleges, Mr. Harkin found.

Several are under investigation for misleading recruitment practices, and critics say the industry recruits entirely among uneducated, impoverished populations that respond to late-night television ads and don’t research the value of the schools.

The remedial accounting courses were taken by accountants at Metro after the agency hired as an accountant a woman who had disclosed several financial fraud convictions on her job application and who prosecutors said got her introduction to finance by keeping track of money for one of the District’s largest heroin gangs.

Documents were obtained by The Washington Times through an open-records request submitted last year and returned this week, and they cover fiscal 2006 through 2010.

A Metro spokeswoman didn’t directly address concerns about the program but emphasized that it gives employees the opportunity to grow professionally.

“The Tuition Reimbursement Program is one way that Metro invests in its employees and in its future,” spokeswoman Caroline Lukas said in a statement. “Employees are eligible for reimbursement for classes that support the pursuit of a degree, including electives and requirements for other classes.”

Some Metro workers did enroll in courses that seemingly could advance their careers. A transit police officer, for example, took a $3,154 Introduction to Policing class at Westwood College. A purchasing agent took a $1,945 course from Strayer on business strategies and proposals.

But many courses paid for by Metro had no relationship to professions, such as courses on video games and black history, one of the more commonly taken courses.

Among the multiple people who had Metro foot the bill for classes on parenting was Robbie O. McGee, a repeat felon who was promoted rapidly to a high-level management position shortly after being released from 12 years in federal prison for dealing PCP.

Workers in a wide variety of positions also took courses that indicated minimal grasp of basic skills. A Metro project management analyst took Fundamentals of Writing and Grammar at the University of Maryland University College. A mechanic took Speech 1000 at Prince George’s Community College, while others took basic English.

Limited literacy was on display even on the forms, sometimes filled out by midlevel managers. A manager of bus service operations, for example, took “Element of Supervision” at Prince George’s Community College and filed for reimbursement because “this course have eqqptd me in forming my duties as a manager, and have helped better prepared me for the position of Superintendent.” He was seeking a promotion from a $78,000 job to an $89,000 job, payroll records suggest.

One Metro employee applied for reimbursement for courses at prestigious Villanova University, a Catholic school in the Philadelphia area — but he misspelled the name of the school as “Villinova.”

At least one course, frustrated riders might suggest, was much-needed for the improvement of job performance. One station manager took a $1,500 course at the Sanford Brown Institute called “human relations.”