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Franklin County
Illinois Board of Higher Education appoints officer to oversee next steps in Morthland College investigation

WEST FRANKFORT — In a unanimous vote during a special meeting Tuesday, the Illinois Board of Higher Education appointed a hearing officer to oversee the possible revocation of Morthland College’s authority to operate and grant degrees.

In a seven-page report detailing a review IBHE conducted in September, concerns werer raised involving the financial stability of the institution, its relationship with sports academies and its record-keeping. The report provides evidence of numerous violations of higher education statutes.

“The first area of primary concern is the financial stability of the institution. Staff are not able to state that the College has the capacity to continue operations uninterrupted, serving all admitted students,” the report says of its September review.

The report indicated that as of the review date, there had been no new enrollment for two consecutive terms and that all students enrolled were there on a full scholarship from the Morthland Foundation, which the letter says is bankrolling the institution.

A review of the college's financial records revealed “numerous overdrafts and returned checks.”

The report also questions the institution’s capacity to deliver the services a college is required to provide. There were three different organizational charts provided to investigators when asked about the college’s structure.

“Updated organizational charts were only produced after IBHE staff asked to speak with key administrative staff listed on the charts provided,” the report states. Staff also did not appear to possess the proper skill sets needed to perform their duties, according to the report.

“No members of the key administrative staff have the background and training to prepare them for their roles, nor was there an indication that any training or professional development was ongoing,” according to the report.

Regarding the college’s dealings with sports prep academies, the IBHE report indicates that Tim Morthland, founder and president of the college, said the college’s online students performed 10 percent above the national average, but a November 2016 snapshot provided in the report indicated that of the 107 students enrolled, 13 of the students had a GPA over 2.0 and “93 percent of students in that term were failing.” The summation was that Morthland College was admitting students not ready for college-level work.

The letter from the U.S. Department of Education that tipped off the IBHE investigation uses strong language to describe activities at Morthland College — a form of the word “illegal” is used multiple times in the 17 pages of that letter.

Top among the concerns was the way the college handled enrollment and financial aid for prep sports academy students.

The letter was the result of a program review conducted by DOE in early 2017 that ended with the department placing the college on Heightened Cash Monitoring 2 status, forcing a temporary halt to Title IV student aid dollars flowing to the college. The letter, signed by Susan D. Crim, director of the department's Administrative Actions and Appeals Service Group, informed the college that an “emergency action” was being placed on it, with the intended result being complete termination of its Title IV fund availability.

“I have based this decision upon reliable information obtained during a review and investigation that was conducted by the Department’s Chicago/Denver School Participation Division,” Crim writes in the August letter.

Crim writes Morthland “repeatedly breached its fiduciary duty to the Department.”

“Morthland’s misconduct is exemplified by its illegal disbursement of Title IV funds to ineligible students, its improper retention of unearned funds when students ceased attending, its improper handling of Title IV credit balances, its use of an inflated cost of attendance, and its failure to meet Title IV institutional and program eligibility requirements,” Crim writes.

Crim's letter lays out a timeline for Morthland College’s relationship with several prep sports academies throughout the country for which the college provided online education. Tim Morthland has said in emails to IBHE that the college had no real relationship with these schools. But, the letter states that in 2016, Morthland enrolled more than 300 students from 12 prep academies into distance education classes.

The prep academies the college worked with take high school athletes that either need more game footage for scouts or work on their academic records and promise to help them be placed within college athletic programs.

Crim's letter says that the DOE's investigation revealed that when totaling the cost of attending Morthland College for online students, the college “inflated the tuition charges and included a significant cost for room and board at the various sports academies when calculating the students’ cost of attendance.” The letter alleges that the college did this to boost the amount of money students were eligible for, allowing them to pay tuition at the sports academies as well as Morthland College.

The letter also states documents reveal that many applicants were encouraged to take out large Parent Plus loans on top of their Federal Pell Grants and Direct Loans, some of which totaled as much as $18,000.

Crim writes that “... there was a clear attempt by both Morthland and the academies to circumvent the Title IV eligibility requirements and illegally obtain Title IV funds.”

Crim writes that the way the college handled credit balances for these student loans was also questionable and at times flatly illegal. The letter states that “any credit balances created on a student’s account must be paid to the student or parent (emphasis Crim’s) within a supplied time frame.”

To get around this, Crim writes, Morthland created a “Financial Aid Delivery Method Waiver” form for students to sign. According to the letter, Morthland claimed this was for the benefit of the student, which Crim writes “is patently false.” She writes that the students provided their “local addresses” for delivery, but often the addresses were to the sports academies themselves, and in one specific case even to the home of one of the academy owners.

This created an opportunity for other illicit activity, she writes.

“Morthland’s actions also opened an opportunity for individuals from the sports academies to forge signatures on checks or to illegally deposit the checks without the student or parent endorsement,” according to the letter.

For both the DOE and IBHE actions, Morthland has the ability to appeal. It was unclear as of press time if the college was engaged in the appeal process in Washington. A media liaison for the college has not yet returned answers to the paper’s questions.

Candace Mueller, associate director of external relations for IBHE, said the hearing officer appointed Tuesday will hold a hearing, at which the college will be able to defend itself. The officer will then make a recommendation during the board’s June 5 meeting as to whether or not the school’s ability to operate and grant degrees should be revoked.

Mueller said revocation by the board is not common. In an emailed statement, she said the last time the board revoked operating and degree-granting authority from an institution was in August 2004.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Looking like broken glass, pieces of ice from Crab Orchard Lake collect on the south side of the lake near the Wolf Creek Causeway on Tuesday afternoon. Following a night of wintry weather, sunny and warmer weather is forecast for today through Friday.

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IDOC | Murphysboro Re-Entry Center
IDOC Re-Entry Center set to open in Murphysboro aims to give adults exiting prison tools to succeed

MURPHYSBORO — Illinois Department of Corrections inmates with three years or less on their sentences who have demonstrated good behavior may have a second chance because of the new re-entry facility set to open this spring in Murphysboro.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and state Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, announced this past week the Murphysboro Re-Entry Center will open in a matter of months. The facility is in the same building that housed the former Illinois Youth Center, which closed in 2012. Bryant said Monday the target date for inmate arrival is between March 1 and April 1, depending on how long it takes for the 63 correctional officers hired to staff the facility to train.

Lindsay Hess, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said inmates must apply to be transferred to the center. On top of the requirement of having three years or less on their sentences and positive behavior, offenders must also write an essay explaining why the center would help them.

“The Murphysboro Reentry Center will offer educational, job readiness and cognitive behavior therapy courses to offenders who have one to three years left on their sentence and qualify for placement,” Hess wrote in an email. “The offenders will learn skills that help them readjust to society, like how to manage a bank account, use the latest technology and schedule medical appointments.”

She said General Education Development and Adult Basic Education classes will be available at the center as well. Other training opportunities include construction occupations and construction management, horticulture and horticulture management, and manufacturing skills.

Advocacy groups in the state are pleased to hear of the facility's opening.

Benjamin Ruddell, director of criminal justice policy at the American Civil Liberties Union, said for decades, Illinois has incarcerated too many young people while offering few programs to give adults exiting the prison system the tools to succeed.

“Closing a youth prison and opening an adult re-entry facility in Murphysboro represent encouraging steps toward a more sensible allocation of the state’s public safety resources,” he said.

Jennifer Vollen, executive director of the John Howard Association in Chicago, said there is benefit in an offender using his time in prison to get an education or learn marketable skills that can be used upon release.

According to its website, the John Howard Association independently monitors correctional facilities, policies and practices, and advances reforms to achieve a fair, humane and effective criminal justice system.

Vollen said in Kewanee, the site of another re-entry facility the Murphysboro facility is supposed to model, offenders who finish the program typically are placed back in a prison where they act as mentors to other prisoners.

“It is a way of maximizing the impact,” she said.

Vollen said re-entry planning and individualized planning for soon-to-be-release inmates is critical to their success after incarceration.

“It is not just being able to get a job. We need to think about the very basic needs,” she said. “Where are those people going to sleep the first night? What clothes are they are going to wear? Do they know how to use a cell phone? Do they have a family to go home to?

“What are the options making sure people aren’t walking out into nothing?” she said.

Hess said the plan is to have 63 officers and 240 offenders in the facility when it opens. She said those numbers could increase as the program grows.

Hess said the cost to reopen and repurpose the facility is about $500,000. The annual expenses are projected at about $8 million.


A sign outside the IDOC Re-Entry Center sign in Murphysboro is pictured in October 2017.

bhetzler / The Southern File Photo 

Investigators from the Illinois Board of Higher Education arrive at Morthland College on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in West Frankfort to begin an institutional investigation detailed in a September letter from the IBHE to the school.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Murphysboro's Jeremy House (25) is fouled by Marion's Terrell Henderson (43) in the fourth quarter on Tuesday in Murphysboro. Murphysboro held on to win 46-39.

Trump aide: Some immigrants 'too lazy' to sign up for DACA

WASHINGTON — Some immigrants may have been "too afraid" or "too lazy" to sign up for the Obama-era program that offers protection from deportation, White House chief of staff John Kelly said Tuesday as he defended President Donald Trump's proposal on the divisive issue.

Kelly discounted the possibility that Trump would announce a temporary extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program beyond March 5, when its protections could expire. He said the administration would not ask Congress to set a later date to give bargainers more time to reach a bipartisan deal, but said the government would not start deporting "Dreamers" who don't have criminal records.

"They are not a priority for deportation," he told reporters.

Kelly spoke as lawmakers have deadlocked in an effort to reach an immigration compromise. Barring an unlikely last-minute agreement, the Senate is expected to begin debating the issue next week, and it is unclear what if any plan will survive.

"We just don't know where 60 votes are for any particular proposal," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., citing the votes needed for passage. Republicans have a slim majority and any measure will need around a dozen Democratic votes to succeed.

Kelly said Trump's recent offer to provide a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million immigrants went "beyond what anyone could have imagined." A bipartisan offer by six senators that Trump rejected would have made citizenship possible for the 690,000 "Dreamers" registered under the program, nicknamed DACA, which shields immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and stayed here illegally.

"There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million," Kelly said. "The difference between (690,000) and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn't sign up."

Immigration experts cite various reasons why people eligible for DACA's protections do not apply. These include lack of knowledge about the program, a worry that participating will expose them to deportation and an inability to afford registration fees.

"I'm sorry for that characterization. It doesn't surprise me from Gen. Kelly," No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, his party's chief immigration negotiator, said of the White House staff chief's remarks.

At a later bargaining session among lawmakers and White House officials, No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland "had an exchange" with Kelly about the comments, Durbin said.

Hoyer later declined to describe his comments, saying, "I want to get a deal done."

Durbin also scoffed at Kelly's assertion that "Dreamers" would not be deported after the March 5 deadline arrives.

"It's cold comfort to DACA people that if Congress does nothing, they're still safe in the loving arms of the Department of Homeland Security," said Durbin.

With leaders working on a separate track toward a budget pact, Trump threw a knuckle ball into the mix, saying he'd "love to see a shutdown" if Democrats didn't meet his immigration demands.

Trump said last September that he was ending DACA but gave lawmakers until March 5 to pass legislation shielding the Dreamers. A federal judge has indefinitely blocked Trump from terminating the program's protections, blunting the deadline's immediate impact.

Many lawmakers are uneasy about what might happen to the Dreamers after March 5, and Democrats — and Trump himself — are using that uncertainty as leverage to help force a deal.

Kelly rejected the idea of asking lawmakers to extend the deadline, saying, "What makes them act is pressure."

In exchange for making citizenship a possibility, Trump wants $25 billion for border security, including money to build parts of his coveted wall along the U.S.-Mexico boundary. He also wants to curb legal immigration, restricting the relatives that legal immigrants could sponsor for citizenship and ending a lottery that distributes visas to people from diverse places like Africa.

"I can't imagine men and women of good will who begged this president to solve the problem of DACA" would oppose Trump's proposal, Kelly said. He added, "Right now, the champion of all people who are DACA is Donald Trump."

Democrats strongly oppose limiting legal immigration, and conservatives are against giving citizenship to DACA recipients, and Trump's bill has gotten little traction in Congress. Durbin, his party's chief vote counter, said Trump's proposal would not get 60 Senate votes, saying, "I don't think it will get any votes on the Democratic side."