What’s next for Stratford University students?

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

If you visit one of its buildings or try reaching anyone from Stratford University by email or phone, it’s hard to tell that just months ago, the for-profit college was operating two Northern Virginia locations and enrolling over 2,000 students.

Parking lots at the buildings in Woodbridge and Alexandria are empty, phone lines have been disconnected and emails bounce back.

But the ongoing saga for Stratford’s former students continues to force career changes and difficult financial decisions following the school’s abrupt closure at the end of September. It could also, according to several Virginia lawmakers, lead to stronger regulation of the for-profit college industry in the commonwealth.

After weeks of public pressure, university officials recently agreed to extend a “teach-out” program for about 40 nursing students who were just a capstone course and final exams away from their degree.

But hundreds more students who were in the nursing program are still left with no way forward to a degree that doesn’t require retaking the bulk of their courses, out hundreds or even thousands of dollars of their own money and months — or years — of their time with little to nothing to show for it.

And the saga has some lawmakers asking if more should be done to protect students in the event of for-profit school closures in the future.

‘I felt very numb’

Kathleen Estrada is among those students impacted. Armed with an associate degree from an Ohio community college and a federal Pell grant, she decided in the spring of 2020 that she was finally going to make her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse her reality.

Like many other nontraditional students who pursue their bachelor’s years after finishing high school, she was drawn to a relatively inexpensive price tag for-profits can offer.

Stratford in particular, Estrada told InsideNoVa, also offered more flexibility to switch between day and night classes, something that was attractive given that she was balancing a job and school all while raising an elementary school-aged child.

She had six courses left to finish before she was scheduled to graduate in May of 2023 and take the NCLEX, the licensure exam for nurses. Then Stratford shut down. The last she heard from the university, Estrada said, was in October, when officials were trying to pair students up with other for-profit colleges like Chamberlain and South universities.

Chamberlain told her what they told several other students who’ve spoken with InsideNoVa, that most of her credits would not transfer. If she’d started at Chamberlain in November, Estrada said, she would have had to take between 14 and 19 more courses at Chamberlain and wouldn’t graduate until 2024.

“I can’t do nursing again,” Estrada said. “I’m not doing that, it’s way too much money. [Chamberlain] was offering a $7,000 grant, but when their program is almost $100,000 … it was a little insulting, honestly.”

With help from her job as an urgent care technician and her associate degree, Estrada has switched paths. She’s started taking online classes in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in psychology and possibly a career in counseling after additional time spent on a master’s degree.

The dream of becoming a nurse is now out of the cards after more than two years at Stratford, and she says it cost her about $20,000 of her own money. Unlike most for-profit college students who pay with federal student loans, Estrada said she decided to pay this year’s tuition out of pocket because she worked a lot of overtime last year and had saved up.

“I felt very numb in the beginning,” Estrada said when asked about the last couple of months, “because ever since I was little, that’s all I had wanted to do. It took me a little longer because, youcollege know, things got in the way after I left high school and stuff like that. But I was really determined, and was like, I’m putting all this hard work into getting a nursing degree because this is what I ultimately want to do, work with kids.”

Federal student loans can be wiped out if the college shutters like Stratford, but the university has so far done nothing for students’ out-of-pocket expenses for degrees that will never be granted. Estrada said she’ll have the opportunity to use her Pell grant again, but doesn’t know if she’ll ever see her $20,000 again.

“I was working like 65 hours every week last year, just so I could graduate and hopefully be without debt and just kind of, like, get my life all started,” Estrada said.

“But all that happened. I just did not know what to do. I don’t even think I had, like, an emotional breakdown because I was so confused and so lost … I know I don’t want to remain in the same position I am at right now, but I just didn’t know what else to do. There was, like, no fall back. There was no Plan B.”

Legal hurdles

Like several other Stratford students, Estrada said she’s considering pursuing legal action against Stratford. InsideNoVa has also spoken to attorneys who are potentially pursuing litigation.

There could be one issue for any litigation brought against Stratford, President Richard Shurtz or his wife, Executive Vice President Mary Ann Shurtz. Multiple Stratford enrollment agreements shared with InsideNoVa list several points of routine information, including the number of credits for a bachelor’s degree (180) and the university’s $77,400 tuition with a $6,318 “class fee.”

But one particular clause, according to several attorneys, stands out. The signed agreement mandates binding arbitration in the event of any disputes.

“The student agrees that any dispute arising from enrollment at the University, no matter how described, pleaded or styled shall be resolved by binding arbitration. Neither the student nor the University shall file or maintain any lawsuit in any court against the other and agree that any suit filed in violation of this agreement shall be dismissed by the court in favor of an arbitration conducted pursuant to this agreement,” the seven-page document reads.

One complicating factor is that, for all intents and purposes, Stratford University no longer exists, so while the agreement instructs students to first contact the university president before reaching out to the American Arbitration Association, Schurtz is, functionally, no longer the university president.

The practice of mandating binding arbitration was common in the for-profit university industry — in which colleges frequently face lawsuits over deceptive marketing and abrupt closures — up until 2016, when then-President Barack Obama effectively ended the practice by prohibiting any federal student loan money from being used at schools with such clauses.

It was one of several moves the Obama administration made targeting the for-profit college industry, which relies almost entirely on federal student loan money.

Like most of those Obama-era regulations on for-profit schools, the prohibition was reversed once President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took office in 2017.

That could be one target of potential legislation if lawmakers want to take up the issue of for-profit colleges in Virginia, where there are currently 25 in operation, according to CollegeSimply. A 2020 report from progressive think tank Century Foundation calls on states to take up the issue on their own. President Joe Biden’s administration has not reinstated the prohibition.

“States certainly participate in the educational market when they contract out for educational services through their state grant aid programs; as a result, they could properly manage and protect their government-appropriated investment when contracting out for educational services by eliminating secret arbitration proceedings that mask fraud or poor quality,” the report reads.

“States could also, more broadly, require schools within the state to report all disputes initiated by their enrollees, regardless of whether they went through arbitration of the court system, alerting states to potential patterns of bad behavior.”

Action from Richmond

Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-34th District, says General Assembly action on for-profit colleges could be coming soon. In 2017, she sponsored a bill mandating more transparency in for-profit college enrollment agreements.

At the time, she said she’d been hearing from military veterans who said they were sold a bill of goods and promised a marketable accreditation when looking for work. But instead, the veterans said, they ended up with few transferable credits or any improvement to their job prospects.

“What always just galled me was the fact that these fake schools, like [now-defunct] ITT Tech, said, ‘Here, come get this degree and you’ll get a job.’ But our community colleges cost so little and actually give you a degree or transferable credits … and I was very interested in how we could cure that,” Murphy told InsideNoVa.

“What I was mostly interested in was really getting, especially our military veterans and people with low income, not to be conned and get them into four community colleges where they get a really straightforward path to a degree.”

At the state level, for-profit colleges like Stratford are certified by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, or SCHEV, which investigates student complaints against postsecondary schools in Virginia.

But it only does so after the student has exhausted all available grievance procedures and offers little recourse to students if a school closes down. According to a Virginia Mercury report, SCHEV received 11 student complaints about Stratford dating back to 2013, but no student could have preemptively filed a complaint about the school’s impending closure.

And whereas community colleges in Virginia only offer associate degrees that will transfer credits to four-year bachelor’s programs, for-profit colleges can offer bachelor’s degrees as federally-accredited institutions. What those degrees are worth to employers, however, is often unclear.

For many nursing students, however, that isn’t an issue. The nursing labor market is extremely tight, and many health care providers face a shortage of registered nurses.

“This is heartbreaking. It is simply heartbreaking,” another sponsor of the 2017 bill, Sen. Barbara Favola, D-31st, said of the Stratford situation.

“We have a shortage of registered nurses. We have a shortage of [licensed practical nurses] and we’ve got a cohort of students that did go through some training … There is a real public interest in ensuring that these students have a seamless transition to a community college of a four-year college and they shouldn’t have to retake all of their classes … These students gave their time and their money.”

Favola said that while it was tricky business regulating for-profit colleges given that they’re “private entities,” there is a public interest at play, in part because of how much federal student loan money they draw. She said the state could, potentially, require for-profits to have matriculation agreements with community colleges or nonprofit four-year universities involving credit transferability.

“I have to believe that more could be done and, maybe as part of the accreditation process, more transparency is required or more of a safety net is required,” Favola told InsideNoVa. “I’m now going to look into this.”

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