Frustrated students and faculty at Argosy University say the U.S. Education Department is not doing enough to help them after the department’s decision last week to pull federal student aid from the chain of career schools stretching from Virginia to California.
Classes are still in session, but students and professors have no idea for how long. Many say there has been a trickle of information from the university and its owner, Dream Center Education Holdings, and conflicting reports from the court-appointed receiver for the nonprofit, Mark Dottore.
On Friday, Dottore said he would appeal the Education Department’s Feb. 27 decision to cut the school’s access to federal student loans and grants after it failed to give students their aid. By Wednesday, the receiver filed a motion to sell or close all 22 campuses and informed Argosy’s administration that operations would cease at the end of the week.
That plan, however, is up in the air. A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Dottore to appear in court Monday for a hearing on whether to terminate his services, throwing into question the receiver’s authority to close the schools. Dottore’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the order.
Students have turned to the Education Department for guidance, but some are left with more questions than answers.
Niki Terranova, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Argosy in Phoenix, called the Education Department help line weeks ago to inquire about the $9,000 credit balance refund she never received from the university. That refund is for loan funds left over after her tuition had been paid.
“The lady I talked to was very nice. She had absolutely no idea about the situation and said, ‘Why don’t you just contact your financial aid department?' And I agreed to it, just so I could call back and say I tried,” Terranova said. “And then I got ‘We’ll contact you when we contact you.' That was it."
Not knowing where to turn, Terranova, who is four months shy of completing her degree, contacted the American Psychological Association. The organization, which accredits psychology programs, has fielded complaints from a number of Argosy students and sent Education Secretary Betsy DeVos a letter Friday demanding a more robust response.
“While the Department of Education is acting as a clearinghouse for complaints, little advice and counsel is being given,” wrote Arthur C. Evans, chief executive of the American Psychological Association. “Given the significant impact on students and the lack of transparency by Argosy, we believe the Department must do more to protect, serve, and guide these students now.”
After calling the Education Department help line and reviewing online information, the association said the resources failed to provide students with a “road map or solutions” they need. Evans wants the department to provide “timely and substantive” updates and establish a call center manned by people with “technical expertise” to help students.
Argosy students have spent the semester trying to track down federal aid that many needed to pay for housing, transportation and food. Although the Education Department provided more than $13 million to the university, Dream Center illegally used the funds to cover payroll and other expenses, according to the federal agency. As a result, the Education Department ended the school’s participation in federal student aid programs.
Students have not received the money from their credit balance refunds, and may never get it. The Education Department has promised to cancel any student loans taken out for the spring semester, but Argosy students say no action has been taken. And the Web page the department created to help Argosy students says nothing about those loans, or much else, students say.
“The Department of Education has been useless,” said Kevin Davis, who is pursuing a doctorate in psychology at Argosy in Chicago. Davis said the Education Department provided a number for an ombudsman, who they said would prioritize concerns about the missing money. But, Davis said, they “then dashed our hopes by saying the department has 60 days to respond, which is when the semester ends.”
The Education Department said it plans to update its website this week with more information for students, including details about canceling their loans for the spring semester.
Davis and other students say the university has abdicated its responsibility.
“No one in our school’s administration has given us an answer about what to do, and our faculty’s hands are tied as to what to tell the students,” said Jacquelyn Carlton, a first-year student at Argosy’s Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. “Instead, they tell us that the situation is too fluid to make any decisions now.”
Dream Center, which purchased Argosy, South University and Art Institutes campuses in 2017, has referred all questions about Argosy to Dottore. The company entered into receivership, a form of bankruptcy, in January to keep the schools running while sorting out its finances.
Dottore hosted town hall meetings with Argosy students two weeks ago, where he assured them that everything was being done to get their money and keep the university open through the end of the semester. That was before the Education Department turned off the student aid spigot. Now, there is no telling whether Argosy can last until the end of the month.
“We should be receiving more information, being kept in the loop about what they are considering, what transfer options are available ... and they should be reassuring us we will not need to repeat coursework we’ve already completed,” said Davis, who was shorted $11,000 in student aid.
Argosy’s accreditor, the WASC Senior College and University Commission, has requested that by Monday the university submit teach-out plans, a path for students to complete their studies. Teach-out plans typically include a list of comparable programs at other schools that have agreed to absorb students in the event of a closure.
For doctoral students, transferring to another program could be a herculean task. Many PhD programs limit the number of students they accept in a given year. And depending on the field, the pool of accredited programs is limited and the requirements may vary.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Deborah Lewis, a psychology professor at Argosy in Phoenix. “We’re writing letters, trying to help students transfer. They’re all in the middle of writing dissertations, providing patient services and doing research in the community. ... There is no way that will transfer.”
Terranova is finishing up an internship at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Tennessee Valley Healthcare System in Nashville, where she helps treat men and women dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The full-time position pays a nominal stipend that is just enough to keep her cellphone on and put gas in the car, but not much else.
No matter what happens, she said, she will continue her work. But without the $9,000 in student aid, Terranova said, she may need to get a second job.
Lewis said the administration at the Phoenix campus is trying to keep everyone abreast of new developments but is finding it difficult. The school is holding classes at nearby Ottawa University, after moving out of a facility it shared with a now-shuttered Art Institutes branch. Lewis said faculty have brought groceries to campus to make sure students who were shorted financial aid funds have something to eat. She questions how the federal government could have let the situation get to this point.
“The employees and students are collateral damage of theft and mismanagement at the highest levels, and the Department of Education turned their back,” Lewis said. “This seemed impossible, but clearly it could happen anywhere.”