By Charlene Crowell
In the midst of holiday festivities, many people wrap themselves up warmly. After all, winter time is supposed to be cold.
But this year, just a week before Christmas, there are people who were dealing with the aftermath of something far colder than the weather: college closures with no advance notice and a promise of more information at a date yet to be determined.
On the afternoon of December 17, Vatterott College told its students and staff by email to gather their belongings and leave the campuses no later than 4:00 p.m. that day. The for-profit college had struggled for more than a year with financial stability as well as a more recent loss of accreditation.
“All Vatterott schools and locations will closely completely and immediately effective today,” the email advised students and staff alike.
With 15 campuses scattered across the states of Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee, an estimated 2,300 students were given next to no helpful information. Answers to questions as to whether studies would be able to transfer to other institutions, how or when students could secure their own student records, were deferred and referred to a web site “in the coming days.”
For its 950 employees, Vatterott sent a similar letter. Staff would be paid through December 17 or the last day worked. Further, their health insurance ended with their employment. Any keys or passes held, were to be returned to the campus director that day – again by 4:00 p.m.
Today, the average student loan balance among baccalaureate graduates is $34,000. But for those who attend for-profit colleges, the cost can be even higher.
Kaylin Reeves, a Vatterott student interviewed by St. Louis’ Fox2 News, publicly shared her reactions. “We are out $38,000, we are out an education…Most of us took time out of our lives and sacrificed our time with our kids to be here, to better ourselves, to pretty much be told, ‘You’re screwed.’”
Monica Williams, another stranded Vatterott student remarked, “My time. I can’t get that back. I worked hard for this, you know? It’s not fair.”
“Another overcharging, underperforming for-profit college has closed its doors,” noted Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. “It’s the second major chain in just the last three weeks to abruptly close. And it won’t be the last.”
The ‘other’ for-profit institution Senator Durbin referenced was Virginia College, another for-profit college that closed on December 5. With 75 campuses across the nation, the Southeast was where the majority of Virginia College’s campuses were located across the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Students were enrolled in studies that included cosmetology, culinary arts, and medical or dental assistant programs.
Both Vatterott and Virginia College closures followed on the heels of their lost accreditation just a day earlier.
What bothers me the most about these latest for-profit closures is that they sound so similar to earlier college closures like Corinthian College, ITT Tech, and others. The students targeted – no, preyed upon – continue to be from low-income families, older adults returning to school to better provide for their families, and veterans seeking to make a successful transition from military to civilian life.
And there is one more unifying trait between these institutions: People of color, usually Black or Latino, were disproportionately affected.
Low-income students eligible for the maximum federal student aid, like a combination of a Pell Grant and a loan, and/or veterans with GI benefits, can lead to taxpayers funding nearly all of for-profit college tuition and other enrollment costs.
Across the country, few for-profit students seldom learn until it is too late that fewer than 30 percent of for-profit students graduate six years following their enrollment.
As long as I can remember, Black people were told and taught that education was the barrier to break through to earn entry into the middle class. Yet the continuing spate of for-profit college closures has led to a disturbing pattern of Blacks and Latinos winding up with no degree, no skills, and certainly no job that pays enough for their loans and accruing interest to be repaid.
The Obama Administration designed rules like the Borrower Defense to Repayment Rule as a financial remedy for students who were promised but failed to receive a college education with marketable skills and higher earnings. Others, like Gainful Employment were meant to rein in abusive schools before they could harm students. With Secretary Betsy DeVos heading the Department of Education, both rules have been undermined.
For these latest closures to take place just a week before Christmas, delivers a range of reactions that are polar opposites to the holiday season’s joy and goodwill.
Instead of the seasonal refrain of ‘Ho, ho, ho’ these consumers, former employees and students alike, are likely shaking their heads and repeating, ‘No, no, no.’
Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s Deputy Communications Director. She can be reached at: [email protected].