When Brandon Comedy began pursuing his bachelor’s degree last year to fulfill a promise to his late mother to complete his education, he never imagined it would cost him so much.
Last month, the school he attended, Argosy University, failed to distribute the $4,500 in financial-aid funds owed to him. As the primary breadwinner for his family, losing out on that money has the potential to spiral into other consequences.
Comedy relied on those funds to supplement the income he earns from his full-time job. Without the money, he couldn’t afford to get a new laptop — a necessity for school — and eventually one of his bills went into collections.
“It was the perfect storm,” he said. “I was expecting this money to come and it never came.”
‘Transferring to another institution — I’m losing at least half of what I’ve already done. It’s almost like I’m starting over again.’
But for Comedy, 35, the challenges caused by Argosy’s financial turmoil have perhaps only just begun. Argosy campuses across the country, including Comedy’s former campus in Virginia, started shutting down last week.
Now, he’s left with the question of what to do next. “I was going really hard for a year,” Comedy said. “Transferring to another institution — I’m losing at least half of what I’ve already done. It’s almost like I’m starting over again.”
Comedy and his fellow Argosy students are some of the tens of thousands to be confronted with a set of unpalatable choices after the fall of their for-profit college in the past few years.
Argosy is at least the fourth major for-profit college chain to collapse since 2015 and when the schools shutter under the weight of claims they mislead students and mismanaged their finances, their students are left with few options.
“The question on the table is, Do you keep your credits and try to soldier on somewhere else or do you forfeit them and get your loans back?” said Ben Miller, vice president post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think.
The rules governing student-debt forgiveness
Students attending a school within 120 days of its closure are eligible to have the federal student debt they used to attend the program cancelled. But if they use the credits they already earned towards completing their program elsewhere, they lose that opportunity. While weighing those options may seem relatively simple, that basic trade-off belies a complicated reality.
“Students whose schools close unexpectedly are in a really tough spot,” said Debbie Cochrane, the executive vice president of the Institute of College Access and Success, an advocacy organization focused on equity in higher education.
For students close to graduating or who have already put substantial time and effort into their program, it may be seem appealing to transfer elsewhere to finish their degree. But students often need to be wary of the schools swooping in to help, Cochrane said.
For students close to graduating or who have put substantial time and effort into their program, they often need to be wary of schools swooping in to help.
More traditional colleges may be hesitant to take credits earned at a for-profit college. It’s not uncommon for reputable community colleges to step up and help students affected by school closures, but their schedules may be less flexible. Alternatively, due to funding constraints, they may not be able to offer students the necessary courses in a quick sequence.
The calculus may be even more complicated for students in graduate programs. There’s a law school, psychology doctorate programs and others in Argosy’s portfolio whose required clinical experience or more personalized curriculum may not transfer as easily.
“Well-regarded schools don’t typically close unexpectedly,” Cochrane said. “If a school is seeking to enroll students affected by a school closure and making bold broad promises that all their credits will be transferable, that should frankly be a red flag.”
Students, meanwhile, are left with a difficult choice. Jayne Kenney, who is pursuing a doctorate in psychology, said she’s considering getting her $97,000 in debt discharged in starting over.
“But then I would walk away from three years of work with no credit,” she said, adding that she’s found the guidance from formal channels like the Department of Education to be woefully inadequate. “It’s really just a nightmare.”
Starting over would delay Kenney’s progress towards a career she’s passionate about and been working towards for several years. But her experience at Argosy has made her skeptical of the transfer options being presented to her and of the higher education system more broadly.
In the past, the Department of Education recommended other for-profit colleges
In 2015, Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, criticized the Department of Education for including other troubled for-profit colleges on a list of recommended institutions where students affected by Corinthian Colleges could transfer.
Schools, like DeVry University, which settled with the Federal Trade Commission in 2016 over claims it misled prospective students about its job placement rates, appear on a list of partner institutions provided by Argosy to its students.
Argosy provides a list of schools, including DeVry University, which settled with the FTC in 2016 over claims it misled students about job-placement rates.
A coalition of Democratic Senators led by Durbin sent a letter to the Department of Education last week asking the agency to ensure that any institutions where students might finish their programs either by transferring or through a “teach out” — essentially a deal between a closing school and another institution that allows students close to finishing to complete their degrees — “are in good standing” and not facing state or federal probes or lawsuits.
The court-appointed receiver overseeing the Dream Center’s assets didn’t immediately respond for comment. But the organization is hosting a website with a list of partner institutions where they say students will have a streamlined transfer experience.
The Department of Education didn’t immediately provide a comment for this story, but the agency announced this week that it had emailed affected students to let them know about their options. The Department is also hosting a site with dates and locations of transfer fairs as well as other information.
‘I want to know who is going to take as many credits as possible, but I’m also really concerned about falling in with a school that this happens with again.’
Meanwhile, students say they’re scrambling for answers. After attending an event at the Arlington, Va. campus of Argosy where he’s gone to school since the spring of 2017, Matthew Maddalena said he feels lost in weighing his options.
Maddalena started school at age 38, was hoping to earn his bachelor’s in psychology after just one more semester of courses and head to graduate school. He described the event as “wack,” adding that representatives from various schools offered little more information than their standard transfer policies.
“I’m checking my options out pretty thoroughly,” he said. “I want to know who is going to take as many credits as possible, but I’m also really concerned about falling in with a school that this happens with again.”
Critics say government should more closely monitor for-profit colleges
Department of Education officials aren’t monitoring the financial health of for-profit schools closely enough, borrower advocates say. When Corinthian Colleges, ITT Technical Institutes and Education Corporation of America shuttered in 2015, 2016 and 2018 respectively, the eventual closure came after months of financial turmoil and allegations they were misleading students.
“How many more times do we have to go through this before we realize the process of overseeing these big chains as they start falling apart is broken, and it’s hurting a lot of people?” Miller said.
In Argosy’s case, advocates worried for years that the school’s management was putting students in jeopardy. Students said they only began to understand the challenges their college through social media and news reporting after many failed to receive their financial aid funds in January.
‘How many more times do we have to go through this before we realize the process of overseeing these big chains as they start falling apart is broken, and it’s hurting a lot of people?’
In October 2017, the Betsy DeVos-led Department of Education gave preliminary approval for the sale of three for-profit college chains — Argosy, Arts Institutes and South University — from the Education Management Corporation to Dream Center Education Holdings.
At the time, the sale raised questions among consumer advocates for a number of reasons. For one, the small, Christian nonprofit had little experience running higher education institutions.
In addition, the organization hired the former chief executive of another controversial for-profit college as its own CEO. And finally, advocates are typically skeptical of any efforts to convert for-profit colleges to nonprofits because they view them as a way to escape regulatory scrutiny.
Fast forward to the end of last year and the Dream Center off-loaded the bulk of the assets of the Arts Institutes and South to a different company and it’s related nonprofit. Dream Center and its remaining assets, including Argosy, are in receivership, a form of bankruptcy and roughly $16 million in financial aid that Argosy students were supposed to receive is missing.
Currently, 22 Dream Center-owned campuses, including almost all of those in the Argosy chain are closed, after the Department of Education cut off federal financial-aid funding to the school. The past several months of turmoil shows “that sale never should have been approved,” by the Trump administration, Miller said.
Given the harm the sale has caused, Miller said he hopes Department officials will extend the window in which students who attended Dream Center schools are eligible to have their loans discharged at least to the date when the Department approved the sale. Durbin and his colleagues are advocating for a similar plan.
But even if students do decide to have their loans discharged and start over, they won’t really be made whole.
Comedy, who said he was just a semester and a half away from earning his associate’s degree when Argosy closed, said he regularly spent late nights studying to stay on top of his school work — time he can’t get back. “This is something that I put my all into,” he said. “To have it knocked away is just a punch in my chest.”
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