Dade Medical College: Political Pull, Poor Student Outcomes

A pungent odor permeates an empty mosaic-tiled room inside a shuttered motel at 304 N. Krome Ave. in downtown Homestead. Mildew seeps through the walls. "Before I owned this place, it was a haven for crack addicts and prostitutes," says the 43-year-old owner, Ernesto Perez, who bought the place for $610,000 two years ago. "The police chief begged me to make the owner an offer because the landlord was condoning what was taking place."

The motel is part of Perez's grand vision for revitalizing a sleepy historic business district. Over the past three years, Perez — through his companies Florida Education Center and Florida Education Centers of Homestead — has been amassing properties. In addition to the motel and three buildings that make up the Homestead campus of Dade Medical College, he also has an old country restaurant — Lucky's Pub & Grub — and the space that was once home to a McCrory's five-and-ten. One day, Perez boasts, the motel will be a dorm for students.

"I see downtown Homestead as College Town U.S.A.," he says. "We'll be able to attract students from the city [and from] the Keys."

A charismatic Cuban-American with gelled-back curly hair and a goatee, Perez is one of the most politically influential for-profit college owners in Florida. He abandoned a rock singing career — marred by a 1990 no-contest plea in response to raunchy accusations by an underage fan ­— and built Dade Medical College from a modest massage therapy school into an institution of higher learning that offers associate's degrees in nursing, physical therapy, and other medical fields.

During the past four years, he has been appointed twice by two governors to serve on the Florida Commission for Independent Education, which sets the rules and regulations for his industry. Perez and his wife have recently donated at least $100,000 to 21 PACS and candidates of both parties including Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, local U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, New Jersey U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Heck, Perez has even put some politicians on the Dade Medical payroll, such as state Sen. Rene Garcia and Nelson Hernandez, a councilman in Miami Lakes, which is home to another of the school's campuses.

But prosecutors and ethics investigators are probing Dade Medical's 2011 agreement to purchase city-owned land in downtown Homestead. Some students complain the school provides a poor education. And in February, the Florida Board of Nursing placed Dade Medical's nursing programs at its Hollywood and Miami campuses on probation. The alleged problem: a high failure rate among students taking the state nursing exam.

"I don't know how they are still in business," says Maria, a student at Dade Medical who asked that her last name be excluded. "The teachers aren't prepared for class, and the administration is a mess."

Adds her classmate Ruben: "The professors are inexperienced and disorganized. You are basically on your own. It's really disappointing."

Perez grew up in West Little Havana in the '70s and attended Citrus Grove elementary and middle schools. He dropped out of Coral Gables Senior High to become a rock star. "At least that is what I thought," Perez says. "I started singing when I was 12 years old."

Onstage he was Rhett O'Neil, the frontman for a hard-rocking band called Young Turk. In 1989, the group signed a six-figure deal with BMG Geffen. Following the release of their first album, Perez and his bandmates went on a U.S. tour. After a May 11 show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, they returned to their hotel and partied with fans, including a 15-year-old girl who engaged in consensual sex with some of the band members. But under Wisconsin law, consensual sex with a minor is still considered rape.

The four Young Turk members were arrested two months after the alleged incident. Perez pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery. He served six months in a Wisconsin jail following a failed appeal and today declines to discuss the matter, adding that it has no relevance to Dade Medical College or his plans for Homestead.

Indeed, the band broke up shortly after recording a second album with Virgin Records, and in 1993, Perez married his current wife, Sylvia. To make a living, he and his father formed a company that sold medical x-ray equipment. In 1999, he decided to open his own school teaching people massage therapy and x-ray machine technique. "I invested the money from the medical equipment company into the school," Perez says. "It took us three years to get accredited by the Commission on Independent Education."

His daughter was born in 2005, he says, and "Dade Medical really began to take off, so I had to ­focus on that... And the world doesn't need another rocker in his 40s."

Perez started his educational enterprise with just 50 pupils. Today, Dade Medical College has campuses in Homestead, Miami, Miami Lakes, Hollywood, West Palm Beach, and Jacksonville. The school employs more than 500 people and has an enrollment of more than 2,000 students. The two-year tuition ranges from $16,000 to $60,000 depending upon the program. Dade Medical targets Hispanics and African-Americans who cannot get accepted at traditional colleges and universities, Perez says. "Forget about having a good GPA. We're taking people who only have GEDs."

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