Hundreds of students and faculty at a financially troubled South Gate trade school were left angry and unsure of their fate Thursday, after the school abruptly closed its doors and federal officials said students would no longer be eligible for financial aid.
Authorities confirmed that accreditation and eligibility to offer student loans, grants and other assistance had been withdrawn from Career Colleges of America amid ongoing financial problems.
The for-profit school, which opened in 1988, provides training in such medical fields as surgical technology, medical assistance, and alcohol and drug counseling. About 800 students are enrolled at campuses in South Gate, mid-city Los Angeles and San Bernardino.
"We were informed this afternoon that the school lost accreditation, and when that happens we have to terminate student aid eligibility," said Chris Greene, a spokesman for the U.S Department of Education.
Greene said the school had initially told authorities that it was closing for about a week and intended to reopen, but the loss of accreditation put that plan in doubt.
In August, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training had placed the school on "show cause" status — a step before revoking accreditation — over budgeting and other fiscal issues. The accrediting panel was notified that the school had closed as of Wednesday, executive director William Larkin said.
The private accrediting agency evaluates colleges based on their programs, operations and financial stability. Schools must be accredited in order to offer federal assistance.
Tuition varied by program, ranging from about $740 for students studying to become home health aides to about $37,000 to study diagnostic medical sonography.
College administrators did not return calls seeking comment.
Students say they first heard their classes might be in danger on Monday, when a number of teachers at the school walked out, saying they hadn't been paid in months. On Wednesday, students and teachers — some in the middle of lectures — were told to leave the building, some said.
Anthony Romo, 34, teaches alcohol and drug counseling classes and has worked full-time for nearly three years. Romo said he hadn't been paid since November and had been forced to choose which bills to pay on a slim income from two other part-time jobs. He said he continued to teach until Wednesday afternoon, when an administrator came into his classroom and told everyone to leave.
"I feel defrauded. These are hours that I've worked already," he said, surrounded by students who were holding cardboard signs demanding answers from school leaders.
Alexus Pugh, a single mother who dropped out of high school and was studying to become a medical assistant, viewed the school as a shot at a better life for her year-old son. She quit her job as a home-care worker and took out loans to pay more than $17,000 in tuition. Now, she doesn't know what she'll do.
"I feel hurt. I feel betrayed," said Pugh, 18. "I dedicated my time, my energy and my money to this. I did my part. They were supposed to do theirs."
A reporter who sought to speak with staff inside the South Gate campus was told to leave.
The California Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education had sent representatives to the three campuses Thursday to advise students on recovering tuition payments and how to qualify for having their federal financial aid loans forgiven should the school close permanently, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the postsecondary agency.
Students should try to get copies of their transcripts, financial aid documents and enrollment agreements, which would be required for transfer, he said. They can call 800-433-3243 for information about federal student aid or find information on the agency's website, which has a guide for students facing school closure.
The U.S. Department of Education had been monitoring the financial status of the school and had placed restrictions on reimbursing the college pending "properly documented expenditures," according to an accrediting report.
Officials have also been trying to find other private schools to help Career College students finish their studies. So far, that effort has been unsuccessful.
"We are working with all parties involved as well as with potential 'teach out' schools to finalize a plan," Greene said. "Several schools have indicated a willingness to assist. We'd have to find schools with the same kinds of programs where students could get credit and finish out the curriculum to obtain a degree."
Stephanie Chavez, 24, said she chose the college after her mother made her promise to make something of herself. Recently evicted, she had been staying with friends and relatives when her mother agreed to take in Chavez and her 6-year-old son.
"I took a chance on this school, hoping this would be my big break," she said, "and I got this."