Florida International University is a juggernaut. The school is fast approaching 60,000 students, has two major campuses plus half a dozen satellite locations, and received voter approval last week to expand into 64 acres of Tamiami Park.
But not all members of the FIU family are happy. In fact, some are downright pissed. Daniel Weihnacht, a 52-year-old graduate student, has fought FIU for more than two years over what he says are hidden -- and perhaps illegal -- tuition fees propping up the ever-expanding institution.
"FIU is overcharging some grad students by tens of thousands of dollars," Weihnacht says. "It is student loan fraud."
Weihnacht's ordeal began in March 2012 when he was accepted into the Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) program. On July 5, he received a letter with a curious sentence: "Our program is considered a 'value added program' which carries an additional tuition fee per credit of $230."
Weihnacht already had a master's degree in special education from FIU but had never heard of "tuition-plus" fees before. He did the math. Instead of costing roughly $27,000, his degree would now run him more than $40,000.
At orientation, Weihnacht and other students asked their professors what the fees were for. They were told that without them, the program would be canceled, as it almost had been in May 2008.
As the semester wore on and Weihnacht kept asking questions, he became convinced the fees weren't just hidden; they were bogus. Normally, tuition increases must be approved by the Florida Board of Governors. But FIU administrators told him the university could unilaterally raise the SLP program's cost because it was a continuing education program.
That didn't make sense. SLP was an exclusive program that required applicants to have a master's degree, not a basket-weaving course for retirees. Weihnacht complained to the school's board of trustees and to the state. When FIU released revised tuition rates in July 2013, SLP's "tuition-plus" fees had disappeared (but the overall cost was still the same).
The next month, Weihnacht received a letter from Vikki Shirley, the top attorney for the state Board of Governors. Shirley admitted the SLP program was not a continuing education program after all but said the extra fees were nonetheless legit, citing an obscure, 20-year-old regulation that "provided authority to charge additional fees." She admitted this rule required "Board" approval -- which FIU never received -- yet still claimed "the university did adhere to the process."
Huh? A year later, Weihnacht says, he has yet to be shown proof that the fees were ever properly approved.
"I don't think the tuition increase was ever assessed at all," he says. "But because I was demanding answers, they had to come up with something."
An FIU spokeswoman declined to discuss the specifics of Weihnacht's case, citing "federal privacy law," but did send a statement disputing the idea that the school hides any fees.
"The cost of the SLP program has always been available and clear on the program's website," the statement reads, "and has been properly authorized by the university. "
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Weihnacht has filed complaints with the governor's office and the U.S. Department of Education. He dropped out halfway through the program and is now studying to be a paralegal -- at Miami Dade College.
"When I left [the SLP program], it was like getting out of an abusive relationship," he says. "At Christmas time, President Rosenberg sends out these emails about FIU being one big family, but it's such a load of crap. I've never been so angry about something in my whole life."