Students scramble as Virginia College prepares to close its doors

HUNTSVILLE, Ala - Virginia College has 27 campuses and an estimated 15,000 students across the country. And those students are scrambling after finding out every campus, including the one in Huntsville, are closing this month.

Students knew the end was coming. Back in September the institution stopped enrolling new students and announced it was closing in June 2019, but Tuesday that date was moved up six months. Many students who thought they would be able to graduate won't be able to finish their coursework before the school closes.

This is Raqueal Hamlett's third attempt at getting her degree and now she is feeling hopeless. "This was my last shot to go to school right here."

She only needed to take two more classes to graduate. "I'm furious and I'm still in shock because I'm like how can you take something like this from somebody you're affecting so many people lives," said Hamlett.

She had sunk thousands of dollars into her education. "$23,000, I'm not getting anything back."

And she thinks she may have wasted her money. She fears her credit won't transfer to another institution. "You get your credits, but you might not transfer."

Virginia College is owned by Education Corporation of America, based in Birmingham. ECA owns several other institutions and is accredited by Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. ACICS released a statement to WHNT Wednesday showing the decision to do this has been a process spanning several months. Most recently the organization told Virginia College they have "serious concerns about the educational outcomes for the approximately 15,000 enrolled students across all campuses of Virginia College, which include students who are set to complete their studies at the end of the December 2018 term."

WHNT tried getting answers from Virginia College and ECA, but those calls and emails were not returned. For Virginia College students, that silence is deafening.

Since ECA lost its accreditation, all the schools it owns lost their accreditation. Senator Doug Jones released a letter he sent to ECA's CEO, Stu Reed, urging the school to help make students aware of their options moving forward.

Dear Mr. Reed,

I am writing on behalf of the students in Alabama and across the country who are enrolled in one of Education Corporation of America’s colleges, including Brightwood Career Institute, Brightwood College, Ecotech Institute, Golf Academy of America, and Virginia College. When the news broke yesterday regarding your decision to abruptly close these colleges, I was immediately concerned about the futures of 20,000 students enrolled nationwide in 20 states, including 4,000 veterans and military service members using the G.I. Bill.

In Alabama, Education Corporation of America’s Virginia College campuses will close in Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, and Montgomery, leaving a combined total of more than 3,800 students in my state, including 670 student veterans who have been using the G.I. Bill benefits they have earned, left scrambling to figure out their educational future. According to your company’s website, there will be information for students regarding transcript retrieval, transfer, and contact information that you “expect to start loading” on or around December 17, 2018. After abruptly closing the doors, your decision to make students and families wait nearly two weeks to receive any information about their next steps is simply unacceptable. You have a responsibility to these students, including our veterans and service members, to ensure they have all of the tools and information they need to move forward, including the choice between receiving a discharge of their federal student loans or transferring to a similar program if they can find an institution willing to accept their credits.

Veteran students also need to understand the impact of the closure on their G.I. Bill benefit eligibility. I am deeply troubled by reports that many Education Corporation of America colleges have not been informing students of their right to seek a “closed school discharge” of their federal loan as is required by federal law under the 2016 “borrower defense” rule.

Additionally, students who are encouraged to transfer should understand the limitations of fully transferring credits, and the impact on their eligibility for a loan discharge. I urge you to do all you can to inform these students of their options. They have invested thousands of dollars into your institution and could potentially lose everything.

Sincerely, Doug Jones U.S. Senator