- Approximately $114 million of fake nursing diplomas were sold to roughly 7,600 students from three formerly accredited schools in South Florida.
- Some students are fighting the state nursing boards in which they received licensure to re-qualify for their license, claiming they didn’t know it was a scam.
- School officials who pled guilty claim to have solicited and recruited potential students who attended classes and clinicals.
In January 2023, the nursing profession was rocked by the news that federal authorities discovered roughly 7,600 nursing students graduated with fake diplomas from three Florida schools.
Yet, many claimed they attended classes, took exams, and fulfilled their clinical hours. Since January, more information has come to light.
The Fake Nursing Degree Scandal
On January 25, 2023, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida announced more than two dozen people had been charged for their participation in a wire fraud scheme that created a shortcut for aspiring nurses.
Many of the nurses caught in this fake nursing degree scandal claimed to have been unaware of the fraud perpetrated on their education.
In May 2023, two nurses spoke anonymously to Newsweek. “It’s like you can’t even mention what school you went to now, just in fear of being blacklisted or outcast,” David, not his real name, said in a statement. “Everyone thinks everyone that went to these schools paid for their degree, which is not true.”
In January, officials told ABC News that students purchased diplomas and transcripts from schools that had once been accredited to bypass the qualifying requirements to sit for the NCLEX. Although the nurses still took the exams and passed, the official said that “their fake credentials allowed them to skip vital steps of the competency and licensure process.”
According to the Department of Justice, three schools in Florida created fraudulent diplomas and transcripts: Siena College of Health, Palm Beach School of Nursing, and the Sacred Heart International Institute.
In May 2023, prosecutors announced that five of the 27 people charged in the South Florida scheme pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges. Three admitted to soliciting nursing students who each paid $15,000 for the fraudulent nursing diplomas.
We “expect our health care professionals to be who they claim they are. Specifically when we talk about a nurse’s education and credentials — shortcut is not a word we want to use,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe.
Fake Nursing Degree Recipients Respond to Licenses Being Revoked
Many nurses caught in this scandal don’t feel they took a shortcut. By mid-year 2023, more stories from nurses surfaced, recounting traveling back and forth to Florida to attend classes, completing courses online, and completing clinicals in simulations or at local hospitals with experienced nurses.
Ramatu Ali from Delaware is one of those nurses. She and four friends, who were licensed practical nurses (LPNs), attended an open house in the Philadelphia area to learn more about the Palm Beach School of Nursing after Ali received a flier at her home.
They were promised an associate’s degree within 12 months based on their past college credits. Before enrolling, Ali told The Inquirer that she and her friends checked out the school, which at the time was approved by the Florida Board of Nursing and in good standing.
“We did everything we were supposed to do,” Ali said. “I went to school. I did the work.”
Ali said she didn’t know how the Florida school got her address. To be admitted, she passed a criminal background check and took an entrance examination. Although much of the coursework was online, she traveled to Florida roughly five times.
One problem with Ali’s program was that it was only approved for face-to-face instruction and not distance learning, which she did not know. Ali passed the NCLEX on the second try in 2020 and got her RN license in Delaware. By November 2022, she received a letter informing her that her license had been annulled.
Like other nurses involved, Ali is now working under her original LPN license for less money and no health benefits.
Today, roughly 100 nurses nationwide are represented by Philadelphia area lawyer Joseph Lento. They are fighting to keep their licenses, including a potential class action civil lawsuit for the students who have been victimized by school operators.
Jamal Jones, a health attorney in Miami, represents another group of nurses who are not seeking to recover their money but prove that they did not obtain their diplomas fraudulently. They hope their state board of nursing will consider re-qualifying them so they don’t face the hardship of going through school again.
“They’re really just focused on maintaining their license so they can continue to earn a living,” Jones remarked.
One of Jones’ clients had completed most of her education at an unaccredited institution. She transferred those credits to one of the schools charged with fraud, which was accredited, with the hope that she’d have more job opportunities, only to be caught in the fake nursing degree scandal.
“Every day it’s a roller coaster, and your livelihood is being threatened,” David said. “You don’t want to do anything because you don’t know when it’s your last paycheck.”