Education

Hundreds of students stranded by Heald College’s Modesto campus closure

Students and instructors gather outside the Heald College campus north of Modesto on Monday. Students got emails or text messages early Sunday saying the school would close.
Students and instructors gather outside the Heald College campus north of Modesto on Monday. Students got emails or text messages early Sunday saying the school would close. naustin@modbee.com

Students and teachers gathered at the shuttered Modesto campus of Heald College on Monday to vent their outrage and draw support from what they called their Heald family.

Student Adonika Reilly said she got the school closure notice early Sunday while doing homework. “I’d just opened all my books. Now they’re nonrefundable because they’re out of the packaging,” she said, estimating she lost $500 in books alone.

The quarter had just started the week before, kicking in her student loan. The single mom now owes about $15,000 for her first year of a medical assistant course, a first step on the long road toward becoming a doctor. Besides the loans hanging over her, she lost a college work-study job, and her state aid is tied to her being in school.

“So now there’s no job, no school, no state money,” Reilly said. “I don’t know how I’m going to support my son or pay my rent, or anything at this point.”

Hearing news reports about the school being in financial straits, Reilly said she called April 18 to verify the quarter’s classes were assured before opening her books or starting her classes. “The person I spoke to assured me that everything would be fine, classes were going to start, people who had started would be able to finish,” she said.

But some 16,000 Heald College students in California will not be able to finish, including roughly 1,000 at the campus so far into north Modesto it is technically in Salida.

The Heald campuses were closed by parent company Corinthian Colleges, which faces a $30 million U.S. Department of Education fine leveled for misrepresenting job placement rates. California Attorney General Kamala Harris has sued Corinthian, claiming it misled students about the value of their education, and a federal inquiry effectively cut off much of the company’s revenue flow.

Among those saddened by the closure was Susie Fitzgerald, who graduated from Heald as a word processing and secretarial science specialist in 1992. “I spoke at my graduation,” she recalled. Her daughter Alisha Fitzgerald, 19, expected to graduate in October from Heald’s medical assistant program after 18 months commuting to Heald’s Salida campus from her job at McDonald’s.

“I’ve worked at Burger King for nine years. I wanted to make a better life for myself,” said Jessica Miller. She and older sister Casey Miller were among about two dozen students who came to an informal gathering in front of the school Monday morning.

Several teachers came, as well, getting cheers from the students as they spoke before television cameras, stressing that the campus is a family.

“Heald has operated for more than 150 years in California. These colleges survived the San Francisco earthquake, the Great Depression. What it took was four years under another school system (Corinthian), and we just lost everything in a day,” said instructor Jason Fry, blaming the closure on “liberal grandstanding.”

“I have $25,000 to $30,000 in loans for credits that won’t transfer anywhere,” said Crystal Snider, who finished her associate in applied science degree in medical assisting two weeks ago. “Basically, we have to start over. It’s really awful for everyone.”

The credits and degrees, however, still should stand. Heald College has asked its students to attend on-campus meetings Wednesday and Thursday to “learn more about options for continuing education.”

Other students said they were given the choice to give up the credits and have their student loans discharged; however, a link provided by a student indicates that was only a survey question. On a Heald College Peeps Facebook page, posts gave links to information about loan forgiveness.

Other colleges, private and public, have offered assistance to the students. “MJC welcomes students from Heald and will provide transfer advising for all who are interested in attending Modesto Junior College,” said MJC President Jill Stearns via email. MJC does not offer a paralegal course, but does have most other Heald fields, and a large medical assisting program.

Columbia College is also willing to assist stranded Heald students, said President Angela Fairchilds. “We have a medical office specialist associate’s degree and several related certificate programs including medical coding,” she said.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office issued a statement Monday offering help: Students can find resources on financial aid, enrollment, student performance outcomes and career orientation at http://californiacommunitycolleges.cccco.edu, as well as at the California Department of Justice link: www.oag.ca.gov/Corinthian.

State community college fees are a fraction of the cost charged by Heald, a for-profit private college. The National Center for Education Statistics puts Heald tuition at $13,620 for this school year, with the cost of books and supplies at $1,500.

Humphreys College, with a campus three miles south of Heald along Sisk Road, is reaching out to business, legal and criminal justice students, and will ask the state to expedite handling of Heald students’ financial aid, said Wilma Okamoto-Vaughn, Humphreys dean of administration.

Humphreys is a private, not-for-profit college with $12,456 annual tuition, according to NCES. But, unlike Heald, it is eligible for veteran loans and Cal-Grants, Okamoto-Vaughn said.

“We’re really looking to help these students. After a closure, it’s nobody’s fault, but the students get hurt,” Okamoto-Vaughn said.

Sacramento Bee reporter Marissa Lang contributed to this report. Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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