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Podcast: Students feel the pain when for-profit colleges close

This is adapted from our Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Student / Tomorrow’s Talent.” Click the video below to see the show, or if you’re on the go, catch us on iTunes or wherever audio podcasts are found. To see more episodes, please go to the show’s website.

Closing a college should be relatively easy—painful and emotional, yes, but it can be done responsibly.

Yet often, especially in the world of for-profit schools, it’s not.

Consider what happened to Unique Johnson, a Virginia College student who is my guest on the eighth installment of the Lumina Foundation’s podcast “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent.”

Virginia College closed without warning in December 2018, leaving Johnson among the 20,000 students at more than 75 campuses to figure out how to complete their education.

Johnson, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, tells me that she was trying to get into the nursing field as a medical office specialist. She chose Virginia College because its classes fit her schedule. She had finished her coursework and was hours away from completing her externship when the school shut its doors.

The mother of two (soon to be three) approached another college about enrolling but was told she would have to start over. After missing out on family moments like school plays and doctor’s appointments so she could attend classes—and taking out more than $15,000 in student loans—she found herself back at square one.

“I’m not jobless, but I’m careerless,” she said, adding, “I feel like I have been wronged.”

Johnson hopes to resume her studies at some point but said her role now is to take care of her children. She recommends that people who enroll in for-profit colleges do their research, know what they’re getting into and have multiple options.

“We do have hard-working people out here who want better for themselves and not be another statistic,” she said.

What happened to Johnson happens all too frequently. Scott Jaschik, co-founder and editor at Inside Higher Ed, tells me that for-profit colleges have been hit by tighter regulation by creditors, the education department and state governments, which means they are losing easy access to federal aid.

“Almost all for-profits are almost totally dependent on the aid the students receive from the federal government—both aid and loans,” he said. “When that money is halted or slowed, they don’t have the wherewithal to stay in business.”

Jaschik said Massachusetts, which in the past year has seen several small nonprofit colleges announce plans to close, is considering legislation to require colleges to be up front if they think they might not survive.

“Honesty may doom some colleges,” he acknowledged, “but students will be able to make informed choices.”

Jaschik said some colleges have negotiated teach-out arrangements so that another school will step up to take their students.

“No one wants to be forced to switch colleges, but there are humane ways to do so,” he said.

Indiana State Sen. J.D. Ford thinks so too. He sponsored a bill—one that failed to get a hearing in the Indiana General Assembly this year—that would have required for-profit colleges to register with the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and make a down-payment so students could recoup some of their losses if their school closes. He also thinks the state should play a role in helping students transfer their credits if that happens.

College closures are expected to continue, among both for-profit and not-for-profit colleges.  Closing responsibly—giving timely notice, providing effective teach-out plans, and supporting students and staff through the transition—should not be left to chance. 

If you’ve been affected by a college closure, we would like to know. Please share your story by taking a short video of yourself talking about your experience, and send it to me at dpawlicki@luminafoundation.org.


Note: As a private foundation, Lumina Foundation does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research, and analysis to advance the nation's 60% attainment goal.

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Tracy Chen
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