NEW YORK - Wishing to remain anonymous, "Sarah" as we'll call her, thought her dream of becoming a registered nurse, just like her mother, had finally been achieved when she received her diploma from the Palm Beach School of Nursing in West Palm Beach, Florida in 2019.
That dream became a nightmare last month when she learned that her nursing school had been busted for issuing bogus nursing degrees.
She says, "My heart sank. My world just crashed. I just couldn't believe that really this was happening to us."
Federal authorities say the owners and recruiters of 3 south Florida nursing schools: Siena College of Health, Sacred Heart International Institute, and Palm Beach School of Nursing created an illegal short-cut that allowed students to skip out on proper training and obtain state licenses and certification.
Assistant Special Agent-In-Charge Fernando Porras ran the oversight investigation for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Porras says, "We sent in, on three separate occasions, undercover agents, cooperating defendants, to actually visit the school and say, 'you know, I'm here for a nursing degree. I have no educational background. You know, I heard it's going to cost me about $17,000' and, in fact, we were able to successfully, on the three separate occasions with three separate individuals, get those degrees, get all the degrees and the diplomas."
According to court documents, between 2016 and 2021 the schools issued nearly 8,000 fake nursing degrees to customers who were willing to pay around $17,000 to obtain the phony certifications.
Special agents closed all 3 Florida schools and arrested 25 people for what the feds say was a pay-to-play scheme.
Porras explains, "You paid your money and they would print out the transcripts and a diploma with those documents is how you're able to go ahead and sit for the state board nursing exam that would allow you to then apply for a license or state to be a nurse."
But not everyone with degrees from those schools obtained them fraudulently.
"Sarah" says she's one of many students who legitimately sought out nursing degrees. She attended classes online and in-person at a satellite campus in New Jersey for a year in 2018.
She just lost her nursing job and has retained a lawyer to see what her options are, which right now are slim.
She tells FOX 5 News, "I don't blame the job. I just blame the school and the owners were doing like fraudulent activities and now we're paying the price."
The New York State Education Department, which oversees nursing licensure, said in a statement: "Our first priority is always public protection... We will continue to work with our partners in law enforcement to ensure that applicants for licensure have met the education requirements and are qualified to practice as a licensed practice nurse or registered professional nurse."
Porras says, "It's unfortunate for those that did do the right thing and went through the program. I would say that, you know, we are going case by case, student file by student file to make determinations speaking with the owner."