How Easy Is It to Get Into Webster University? Inmate Gets 23 Bogus Students Accepted Via Internet

webster university diploma.jpg
Suddenly worth a lot less.
Yes, Webster University is a fine school. It's nothing like University of Phoenix and other so-called "diploma mills." Webster U. has standards. It rigorously screens its students and selects only the best and brightest. [Insert sound of record scratching here.]

Yesterday the United States Attorney's Office announced it indicted Michelle Owens -- a former South Carolina prisoner -- on charges she submitted fraudulent applications to Webster University using the names of 23 fellow inmates without their knowledge. The women were accepted to the St. Louis-based college's distance-learning program, allowing Owens to apply for student loans in the women's names totaling $467,500.

According to the indictment, Owens was able to get personal information from the women during her 10-month stint in Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, South Carolina, where she was confined from December 2007 to September 2008 and worked in the prison's Education Department.

Prosecutors say that Owens submitted online applications for admission to Webster University's in the names of the inmates from December 2007 and October 2009. Owens then intended to use the financial aid funds for improper non-education purposes. On those applications, Owens used several residential addresses located in South Carolina. Based upon the information contained on the applications, Webster University accepted the individuals and mailed the letters to South Carolina.

Additionally, the indictment alleges that Owens falsely applied for federal student financial aid on behalf of the inmates by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) either by computer over the internet or by paper application using the inmates personal information. Once Webster University received the required supporting documentation, they created a financial aid package for that "applicant" and mailed the award notification to the same South Carolina addresses controlled by Owens.

On those applications, Owens used several residential addresses located in South Carolina. Based upon the information contained on the applications Webster University accepted the individuals and mailed the letters to South Carolina. Additionally, the indictment alleges that Owens falsely applied for federal student financial aid on behalf of the inmates by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) either by computer over the internet or by paper application using the inmates personal information. Once Webster University received the required supporting documentation, they created a financial aid package for that "applicant" and mailed the award notification to the same South Carolina addresses controlled by Owens.

Finally, the indictment states that Owens received the excess financial aid intended for the inmate "applicants" through Higher One, Inc. in the form of debit/MasterCard cards which she cashed or used for personal expenses totaling $124,821.

Michelle N. Owens, 35, of Florence, South Carolina, was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of federal student financial aid fraud, one felony count of mail fraud, and one felony count of aggravated identity theft.

If convicted, student financial aid fraud carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and/or fines up to $20,000; mail fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and/or fines up to $250,000; and aggravated identity theft carries a mandatory 2 years prison consecutive to the other penalties.

This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Postal Inspection Service and the Department of Education. Assistant United States Attorney Hal Goldsmith is handling the case for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

As is always the case, charges set forth in an indictment are merely accusations and do not constitute proof of guilt. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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