Students hold their graduation caps. (iStock)

Almost 20,000 students pursuing degrees at for-profit colleges owned by the Education Corporation of America are grappling with the uncertainty of their academic future. Last week, with days left in the semester at many of its schools, the company said it would shutter nearly all of its campuses, offering little more than a letter encouraging students to continue their studies elsewhere.

On Thursday, the U.S. Education Department contacted students enrolled at Education Corp. institutions — Virginia College, Brightwood Career Institute, Brightwood College, Ecotech Institute and Golf Academy of America — to offer guidance, including students at company campuses in Maryland and Virginia.

The agency is hosting webinars on transferring credits and on student debt relief, in addition to deploying staff for on-campus information sessions. It has also posted a fact sheet and spreadsheet of staggered closure dates for specific campuses at studentaid.gov/closures.

Education Corp., known as the ECA, has promised to grant students access to their transcripts for transfers to other colleges. Still, there’s no telling how many schools will accept those credits. Virginia College, one of the ECA’s premier brands, lost access to federal student aid after an accrediting agency raised concerns about the quality of the education. The specter of that decision places the reputation of the chain in question and could hinder students seeking to go elsewhere.

A number of community colleges nationwide have offered to take in Virginia College and Brightwood students, including Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland and Mercer County Community College in New Jersey. The ECA has published a list of for-profit and formerly for-profit schools offering similar programs. Student advocacy groups, however, are disappointed there are no formal agreements to ensure students are treated fairly.

“It’s really concerning that the Department did not and still does not have formal teach-out agreements that provide students options of comparable programs that guarantee their credits will transfer and they won’t be charged additional fees,” Antoinette Flores, a higher education policy analyst at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said in an email. “At minimum, they should be directing students to state approved and vetted transfer options at this point.”

The Education Department said it is working with state agencies to explore transfer agreements at ECA campuses throughout the country. The agreements are supposed to ensure students land at credible institutions with the resources to help them finish their degrees.

Transferring to another school, however, would make students ineligible to have their federal loans forgiven under what’s known as a closed-school discharge.

Anyone enrolled at an ECA school at the time it closed or who withdrew from the school in the past 120 days is legally entitled to have federal loans forgiven through the program. Given the time cap, it is advisable to check out the spreadsheet of ECA school closures on the Education Department website for exact dates.

A recent update of loan forgiveness regulations requires the Education Department to automatically forgive the loans of some students whose schools close, but the stipulation doesn’t immediately apply to ECA schools, according to the department. Under the regulation, a student must not enroll elsewhere within three years of a school’s closure. That means ECA students will only be eligible for automatic forgiveness in three years, but that doesn’t preclude them for applying for a discharge now.