A year ago, Tawfiq Rahman was enrolled in Windsor University School of Medicine in St. Kitts, trying to borrow money for his education.
But when an official at his school confirmed his student status for the lender, Sallie Mae, Rahman got a shock:
The letter said he was a full-time student "in good academic standing" at Midwest Institute of Massage Therapy in Belleville, Ill.
Rahman, a 22-year old U.S. citizen from Yonkers, N.Y., had never heard of the massage school, which is owned by Windsor's president and his wife.
But Rahman said he and dozens of other U.S. students were told the same thing: If you want a Sallie Mae loan, you have to say you're attending Midwest.
Rahman, who refused to go along with the arrangement, is among several students who recently lodged complaints with elected officials here and in St. Kitts against Windsor, owned by Dr. Srivinas R. Gaddam.
Gaddam, 47, did not respond to numerous requests for comment about Windsor, one of several educational ventures he owns.
As jobless rates soar and promises of work in the health care sector beckon, more Americans of all ages are headed back to school for a range of medical careers. While jumping into physician training in the highly competitive U.S. educational system is unrealistic for most people, a growing number of schools in the Caribbean are willing to feed the dream for a price.
But buyer beware. Oversight of offshore schools by U.S. regulators is minimal to nonexistent. Promises made over the Internet can evaporate once students arrive in a foreign country, leaving them with little recourse. Credits earned at such schools often can't be transferred. And guarantees of training slots in U.S. hospitals — key to getting a physician's license in the States — can prove illusory as fast-growing schools accept more students than they can ever place.
The U.S. Department of Education is considering whether to expand the number of foreign medical schools whose U.S. students would be eligible for federal financial aid. Now, only a handful of Caribbean schools, including Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica, St. George's University in Grenada and American University of the Caribbean in St. Maarten, qualify.
Students at schools like Windsor have not been eligible for direct federal aid. But if these students receive high-interest loans through U.S. lenders and high-paying careers don't materialize, they can be on the hook for life, and taxpayers can be tapped for lender bailouts.
"That being said, we need to ensure these schools meet our quality standards," he said. "If a college is bypassing the federal requirements and bypassing lender requirements, it subverts the entire system."
Windsor officials declined to comment on student loan arrangements. According to its Web site, "Student can still take any private loans from banks, federal loans" and they are told to contact the office for the school code.
Mediha Aziz said she paid $50 to fill out a Windsor loan application last year and later learned it was used to "enroll" her in Midwest Institute of Massage. After the loan failed to materialize, Aziz, a 19-year-old premed student, returned to her home in New York in the spring.
"They made promises that did not make sense," she said.
A spokeswoman for Sallie Mae said the lender stopped making private loans to Midwest Institute of Massage students last February, when it tightened lending as a result of the credit crunch. Prior to that, it had lent $500,000 to 26 people who were allegedly students at the school, or about $20,000 per student. The lender could not provide information on the number of those students who have defaulted on their loans.
Sallie Mae has never made private loans to students of foreign medical schools like Windsor if those schools also do not qualify for federal educational loans.
Regarding students' claims that Windsor students were getting loans through Midwest, Sallie Mae's spokeswoman, Martha Holler, said the lender was investigating the situation.
"We were unaware of any relationship with the medical school in St. Kitts," she said.
Over the past decade, Windsor's popularity has grown through word of mouth, particularly among South Asian families living in the United States and Canada. The school in Basseterre reportedly had an enrollment of 1,200 last fall, including several students from Florida. According to its Web site, Windsor welcomed its largest entering class ever — 250 students — in January.
Prospective students don't need the MCAT, the standard medical school entry test, or even a college degree. Instead, the school offers bargain-basement tuition to all comers: $3,990 each semester for premed students and $4,990 for medical students.
Rahman, who never got a Sallie Mae loan, said he and other students were attracted to Windsor by the pricing, believed to be the lowest of any school in the Caribbean. Though they were assured the fee was all-inclusive, students quickly discovered otherwise. They said college housing was bug-ridden and filthy, so they had little choice but to fork out $300 to $400 per month for private apartments. Other extra charges included $80 for a nonexistent community service project, a $200 hurricane fee and a $300 textbook deposit. Then there was the unpleasant surprise of "retake" fees.
Fail a final exam — and a large percentage of each class does, the students said — and students said they would have to pay $100 for the first retake, $1,000 for the second and $2,500 for the third.
Rahman, who said he did well in undergraduate classes at Baylor University in Texas before enrolling at Windsor, said he and his classmates were stunned to find that questions on their final exams had little to do with material they covered in class. Students said the finals were not written by Windsor faculty and often bore the names of U.S. schools.
"The embryology final had a lot of genetics, the physiology had lots of renal questions," said Rahman, who failed one class his first semester and three the second. "Every time I'd retake the exam, my grade would go down. I kept failing and the school kept racking up the money."
In apparent response to the high student failure rate, Gaddam posted several "letters from the president" on the Windsor Web site last fall, offering study tips and urging hard work.
"Retake exam fees was (sic) only a reason for all the students to study hard and pass the exams on time," he wrote. "I have recommended for a drastic reduction in the retake exam fees as of January 2010. I will do the best I can in my life helping you all in everyway (sic) I can and rest I will leave it to ALMIGHTY GOD."
Gaddam attended medical schools in India and has told students he held a residency in the United States. But, despite repeated attempts, Gaddam never passed the final U.S. Medical Licensing Exam and is not licensed to practice in the United States.
Students said complaining to Gaddam or other Windsor administrators, many of whom are related to the president, led only to trouble. Mariam Ahmed, 21, said she was abruptly expelled in November for "anti-school activities," which she denies.
"Now they have my stuff and said I have to pay $3,400 by the end of January or I won't get it back," the Houston resident said.
Malcolm Dan Twomey, a 37-year-old from Indiana, ran into trouble when he made it known he wanted to transfer out of Windsor. Twomey said he was unable to get his passport, which the school collected at the beginning of the semester for visa processing.
"They kept saying my passport had been misplaced," said Twomey, who figures he spent $30,000 in three semesters at Windsor. "I had to sneak out of the country. I opted for Windsor because Dr. Gaddam said enough of the right things. But from the very beginning, nothing he said came to fruition."
Few success stories
If medical schools are judged on the quality of their graduates, it's difficult to judge the quality at Windsor. The school's Web site lists the name of 56 graduates who reportedly passed all their U.S. medical licensing exams, out of hundreds of enrollees over the years.
While Windsor's total graduation numbers are not known, only 17 graduates are listed on the school's Web site as having landed a residency in the United States. The information is wrong on at least one of them. Dr. Hannie Patel did her residency at the University of Florida, not in Ohio as reported on the school site. Patel is the only Windsor graduate licensed to practice in Florida.
A hospitalist at Morton Plant in Clearwater, Patel said she transferred to Windsor after completing two years of basic science courses at a university in Mexico.
"I never even set foot on the Windsor campus," Patel, 36, said. "I just transferred in so I could set up my own clinical rotations in Miami. I did all the work."
Despite her minimal involvement with Windsor, Patel, one of a dozen graduates in 2002, was reluctant to criticize the school.
"It's my reputation as well," she said. "But any time you go abroad for school, a lot of it is independent study. The stronger a candidate you are, the better you'll do on your own. The goal is passing the boards and getting to your ultimate dream of being a doctor."
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996.