The Department of Education said yesterday it is investigating Friendship College in Rock Hill, S.C., after several D.C. students complained they found that the teachers, facilities or extracurricular activities did not live up to the promises of the school's recruiters and catalogue.
Nearly all the students who were recruited by the unaccredited, 90-year-old college, located about 30 miles south of Charlotte, N.C., were high school dropouts who said they were promised a free college education if they would apply for federal financial help that would be paid to the school. The Department of Education has given the school nearly $250,000 in federal aid this year.
Last week, 110 D.C. students left for the campus following a send-off at the District Building and a news conference at which the college's recruiters said the Friendship College program was a new and exciting way for poor, high school dropouts and students with criminal records to get a college education.
Less than five days later, at least half of the D.C. students had returned home, angry and disillusioned.
"That place isn't a college at all," complained Booker T. Williams, a 19-year-old high school dropout from Northeast Washington, who borrowed $26 to pay for his bus ride to the college. "I really believed I was finally gonna get an education. Man, I should have known better."
What Williams and other unhappy former students claim they found at Rock Hill was far different from the colorful 83-page college catalogue given to them by the school's chief D.C. recruiter, Louis Jenkins, a Washington lawyer who said the college promised to pay him $25 for every student he recruited.
The catalogue shows a campus with photographs of a modern administration building, basketball and baseball teams and a smiling, well-dressed choir. It also listed the names of 28 faculty members, a wide selection of classes and numerous extracurricular programs, including a campus newspaper, drill team, drama club, pep band and choral ensemble.
But what the D.C. students say they discovered at Friendship was a dilapidated campus with few other students, a handful of teachers and activities that did not live up to their expectations.
"We were very upfront about this deal," Jenkins said. "The school's toll-free telephone number was on every flier we put out and we told them that this wasn't any Ivy League school. We told them that if they wanted to go to graduate school, they shouldn't go to Friendship College, but if they wanted a good education for free, they should go."
While Williams and others acknowledge they had been told not to expect a "gold mine" or the "Ivy League," they said that neither Jenkins nor the other recruiters ever mentioned that Friendship was no longer accredited. They also say Jenkins did not tell them that the school had filed for bankruptcy last April.
In an interview, Jenkins said he told students that the school had "institutional accreditations," which he said means that credit for some courses at the school can be transferred to other South Carolina colleges that are accredited. He said he did not know the school had filed for bankruptcy.
"That is not the kind of thing you check, usually, when you visit a campus," he said. Jenkins said he visited the campus for the first time Oct. 5 and 6 to take photographs that he later used for a recruitment poster.
"You can see what you want to see on campus," Jenkins said. "Sure there are old buildings, but there also are nice ones.
"This was not a sham," Jenkins said. "We told them that they could get a good education there and the ones who stayed still can if they want one."
Jenkins said he and others involved in the Friendship College recruiting effort donated much of their time. "This was a real community effort. Look, I'm an attorney. I could charge $50 an hour, but I did this for $700 the amount the school has paid him and paid my expenses out of that because I wanted to help these kids."
Jenkins said he agreed to recruit students after he was contacted by Waverly Yates, president of Bonabond Inc., at 1315 M St. NW, a publicly funded agency that helps D.C. offenders. Jenkins said Bonabond is one of his clients.
Yates said he sought Jenkins' help after Friendship College President C.W. Petress telephoned him. "He Petress said he was having financial problems at his college and he said he wanted to recruit some students," Yates said.
A Washington Post reporter tried to interview Petress at the college, but Willie O. Hinton, Friendship's dean of students, said Petress was not available. Hinton also refused to say how many teachers and students are at the college, which identifies itself as a Baptist-controlled school.
Asked about the claims of the D.C. students who have left the school, Hinton said, "Ain't nobody keeping them here." Asked about Friendship's recruitment practices, he replied: "No picture was painted from this end to make this place heaven. It's not heaven." He later said the school "was better than what they had" in Washington.
Hinton said students at the school are like "Pilgrims when they landed," meaning that "it is up to them to make do with what's available."
School officials refused to allow the reporter to enter Friendship's buildings and later ordered him to leave the campus.
Federal investigators at the Department of Education said they began investigating the college after hearing students interviewed on WDVM-TV (Channel 9) earlier this week. Students who returned from the campus asserted the school appeared to have an enrollment of only 20 students before the D.C. group arrived.
According to federal records, Friendship College has been paid $142,969 in Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (BEOG) funds this year to help 118 students. The school also has received $104,290 from two other federal programs. Since 1974, the college has been paid more than $300,000 through the BEOG program, federal officials said. Colleges are required to have BEOG funds audited every two years. But investigators said federal BEOG payments to Friendship College have never been audited.
Some D.C. students said they plan to stay at the school despite the problems. "I'm going to stay," said Normal Miller, 20, of Southeast Washington. "I just quit two part-time jobs to come down here."
Those who returned to the District, however, remain bitter. "I had a job lined up and gave it up to go down there," said Jacque Diggs. "It really hurts. They ruined my dream."