Education

Sacramento area students angry, protest closure of Heald, Corinthian colleges

Heald students Melissa Valentine, 35, left, and Aja Furgason, 24, background right, hold signs  near Heald College's campus in Roseville while demanding answers from administrators as they express their unhappiness with the college's abrupt closing.
Heald students Melissa Valentine, 35, left, and Aja Furgason, 24, background right, hold signs near Heald College's campus in Roseville while demanding answers from administrators as they express their unhappiness with the college's abrupt closing. rpench@sacbee.com

Students arrived early at Heald College in Roseville on Monday, angry that they had virtually no notice when for-profit Corinthian Colleges announced one day before a sweeping shutdown of 28 campuses with 16,000 students.

Some were just weeks away from completing their schooling when they learned Sunday via email about the Monday morning shutdown, affecting 740 Heald students enrolled in Roseville and another 590 at the Rancho Cordova campus.

“I’m still in complete shock,” said Rebecca McKinzie, 28, who arrived at the school hoping to get information, a letter of referral and a transcript. “I am devastated.” The students were one week into the start of a new term and many had only recently purchased books and other supplies for the new quarter. They were told to return Wednesday and Thursday to obtain records.

The Corinthian closures had been anticipated since last year after a series of government sanctions undermined the company’s financial model. Federal and state officials have accused Corinthian of exaggerating job placement outcomes and manipulating transcripts, and the company faced the loss of financial aid for its students, upon which it relied heavily.

The majority of Corinthian’s schools were sold last year to a nonprofit student-loan servicer after a federal inquiry effectively cut off much the company’s revenue flow and state Attorney General Kamala Harris sued Corinthian, claiming it misled students about the value of their education.

The Santa Ana-based company had been trying to sell off the rest of its colleges but blamed its failure to complete a deal on federal and state regulators “seeking to impose financial penalties and conditions” on buyers. Among the remaining Corinthian campuses for sale were the company’s Heald College locations, including 10 in California and one each in Rancho Cordova and Roseville.

Harris said Monday in a statement that Corinthian lied and “continued to deceive its students to the end.”

“Federal and state regulators rightly acted to prevent taxpayer dollars from flowing to Corinthian, which preyed on the educational dreams of vulnerable people such as low-income individuals, single mothers and veterans by misleading students and investors about job placement rates and course offerings,” the statement said.

Harris and the attorneys general of eight other states have asked the federal government to forgive loan debt for borrowers.

Some students likely will be able to get their loans discharged, since the school was shut down. There are rules to qualify. But generally, a student must have been enrolled no more than 120 days before the school closed and cannot get reimbursement for any credits that are later transferred to another school, said Ben Miller, a former policy adviser in the U.S. Education Department and a higher education research director at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Some local students said they planned to protest today outside Harris’ offices, blaming her for enforcement actions they believe led to Heald’s demise.

The U.S. Department of Education announced two weeks ago that it was fining Corinthian College $30 million after confirming more than 900 episodes of misrepresentation in its job placements. It listed examples within the Heald College system.

Heald paid temporary agencies to hire graduates to work temporarily at its own campuses, with some jobs lasting as little as two days. And it counted those graduates as “placed in the field,” the federal agency said.

It classified a 2011 graduate of a Heald accounting program as employed in the field based on a job the student had started in 2006 at a Taco Bell. And Heald counted as “placed in the field” some students whose jobs had started before they began to attend the college, the Education Department said.

Higher education experts questioned why operators did not make efforts to reduce the difficulties for its students.

“We’ve known since early last summer that this was coming,” Miller said.

“There have been clear points for nearly a year now when Corinthian could have admitted its future was doomed and taken steps to slowly wind down campuses and minimize disruption for students,” Miller said. “It chose not to do that.”

Debbie Cochrane, research director for The Institute for College Access and Success in Oakland, said “it says something about the company that they chose not to give the students any notice, and to do it one week into the start of the new term.”

Outside the Roseville campus on Monday, Pura Hernandez, 31, fought back tears as she told how, as a disabled woman already working in the medical field, she had enrolled at the school to improve her options for finding work she could physically manage.

“I can no longer use my legs as much,” said Hernandez, who uses a cane and struggles with chronic neuropathy. “I came back here so I could have a sit-down job. I just found out yesterday they were shut down.”

Hernandez said she became physically ill after learning of the shutdown. “I am depressed. I threw up four times. I am sick to my stomach,” she said. “We’re still having to pay for a degree we do not have.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.

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