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One year after dozens of physician assistant students threatened to sue Miami-Dade Community College over an alleged surprise six-fold hike in fees, those students have made good on their word. A group of 31 students filed the lawsuit against MDCC in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on June 6, claiming that the college raised the fees for the two-year program from $5,000 to $18,000 just days before classes began in August 1999. The suit also names Dr. Norman Rose, a professor, as a defendant. Some students say they didn’t find out about the increase until the first day of class. The suit accuses the college of breach of contract and fraud. The complaint demands unspecified damages to compensate the students for the additional tuition they had to pay, as well as for lost employment and lost prospective employment. David Helfand, the Miami sole practitioner who represents the students, said the school advertised one price for the program and implemented the hike after the students had rearranged their lives and finances in order to take part. “This was a classic bait and switch,” Helfand said. “It was just sprung on them.” Rose referred all questions about the matter to Kathie Sigler, dean of MDCC’s medical center campus. Sigler did not return phone calls. Carol Zeiner, general counsel for MDCC, also did not respond to requests for comment. The students first considered suing in June 2000, but their attorney at the time, Jodi Seldin of Miami, convinced them to put the college on notice. Seldin said that under state law, the students had to wait at least six months before filing the suit. Due to scheduling conflicts, Helfand agreed to take over the case. According to the lawsuit, the college began admitting students to the 2001 class in March 1999. During this period, the students received as part of their acceptance letter a notice that their fees would likely increase, but remain under $6,000 for two years, according to the suit. The students claim that they signed this “contract” and returned it to their professor, Rose. But that July, MDCC president Eduardo Padron approved a special fee of $280 per credit hour, in addition to regular tuition of $49.70 per credit. Later in the month, the school wrote the new PA students, informing them that the special fee would raise their first semester tuition by $2,800. Several students dropped out and were replaced with alternates. The students who did enroll believed that the special fee would be a one-time charge, and they say they weren’t informed until the first day of class that the total cost of the program would be $18,000, Helfand said. By that time, almost all of the students had quit their jobs, sold businesses and, in some cases, sold homes to move to Miami to take the program and pursue their new career. In addition, most had taken out student loans based on the cheaper tuition rate. One student, Huisheng Huang, turned down an acceptance to Barry University because he expected a more affordable program at MDCC. Another student, 25-year-old Robert Bruny, said this week that he was “shocked” when he learned the news of the hike and had to scramble to come up with the extra cash. He asked his parents and other relatives for money and started tutoring students in math and English at nights and on the weekends. He’s also had to move in with his parents to cut down on living expenses. “It’s been tough, it’s been really tough,” Bruny said. “I don’t get much sleep, that’s for sure. But Bruny says what angers him most is that he and the other students signed a document assuring them that the class would not cost them more than $6,000 for the two years. He alleges the college ignored the document when it didn’t fit with its plans. Bruny said students deserved to be warned long ahead of time so they would be in a better position to decide whether or not to sign on to the program. He also said school officials should have done more to find outside sources of funding to ease the students’ financial burden. Physician assistants, who work under doctors’ supervision examining patients, diagnosing ailments and prescribing some medications, often make as much as $60,000 right out of school, according to the American Association of Physician Assistants, based in Alexandria, Va. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of jobs in the field will increase by 48 percent by 2008. The bureau predicts the total number of jobs in the country will grow by 14 percent over the same time period. MDCC created its associate of science PA degree to inject more health care workers into parts of South Florida where there are doctor shortages. Another goal is to encourage more minorities to become physician assistants. Aside from the fee dispute, Helfand said, the students have not raised any complaints regarding the quality of the education they have received.

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