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School Daze: Students at Troubled Corinthian Colleges Say They’re in the Dark

Image: A person walks past an Everest Institute sign in a office building in Silver Spring, Md., on July 8.

A person walks past an Everest Institute sign in a office building in Silver Spring, Md., on July 8. The dozen campuses that for-profit education company Corinthian Colleges Inc. is closing operate under the Everest name and are scattered in 11 different states, the company announced. Jose Luis Magana / AP

Earlier this summer, Mike Smith, who was finishing his second semester at Everest University Online, stumbled upon a disconcerting news article that said Corinthian Colleges, a giant for-profit school chain and Everest’s parent company, was on the verge of collapse. That article led him to another, then another. Smith called a school official the next day to inquire, but said the official told him she hadn’t heard anything about it.

“She told me not to believe everything I read on the Internet,” Smith said.

Confused and eager for answers, he began posting links from major news sources on one of the student “lounges”—Facebook groups serving as the online equivalent of a study hall or a casual meetup place. “Can anyone tell me what’s going on?” he recalled writing. Smith said the administrator of the group, a member of Everest’s staff who declined to comment, responded by deleting his posts. He also removed him from the lounge for posting “inappropriate” content.

Smith’s experience is similar to those described in recent news reports quoting some of Corinthian’s 70,000 students claiming they were given misleading information about the fate of the for-profit college network—or no information at all. In early July, Corinthian announced it would be selling or closing its 107 campuses and online operations. The announcement came after the Department of Education withheld Corinthian’s Pell grants and loan funds for 21 days, claiming the company was taking too long with a request for detailed records of their students’ performance. The collapse comes on the heels of numerous investigations from attorneys general across the country and the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

On campuses slated for closure, students will either finish their degrees (known as a “teachout”) or, at Corinthian’s discretion, may be eligible for a refund, according to its agreement with the DOE. Students can continue to enroll in the campuses that are up for sale, but if nobody buys Corinthian’s assets or if a buyer makes major changes, those students could end up getting stuck with nontransferable credits, heaps of student debt, and no degree.

After publishing a story about the Corinthian Colleges fallout, NBC News has been in touch with 74 students—through phone calls, emails, and Facebook—who told stories of advisers telling them the news about their school is “a rumor,” “a lie,” “gossip,” that the sale “wouldn’t affect” their studies, that they “shouldn’t worry at all,” that “everything will be okay.” Virtually none of these students remember receiving related correspondence from the school in the weeks following the announcement.

“Lots of us are in the dark,” Smith said.

But a few fed-up students are trying to change that. After Smith was booted out of the online lounge, he started his own Facebook group dedicated to informing students about the closures and sales, as well as other issues related to Corinthian’s wind-down, such as student loan forgiveness, credit transfers, withdrawal instructions, even comic relief to break the tension. (“Never give up!” chirps a cartoon of a beleaguered frog.) Smith’s group, called “Everest University Concerns,” is one of a handful that have become sounding boards for disillusioned Corinthian students who feel they’re getting little feedback from the administration. They vent, share links, problem-solve, and encourage each other to spread the news, trying to correct what they perceive to be an evasive, opaque process.

“Lots of us are in the dark.”

In a written statement to NBC News, Corinthian representative Kent Jenkins reiterated that Corinthian required each incoming student to sign a disclosure mandated by the DOE, and “reached out to existing students through personal contacts, email and newsletters.” One student said he first received information about the sale in Everest College Phoenix’s Student Newsletter dated August 21, 2014.

Jenkins added the company is “addressing the issue of our campus sales openly and honestly,” that “the school has stated [the] facts repeatedly and publicly.”

But Jeffrey Holman, an Everest University Online student on and off since 2010, disagrees. He started a group called “College Corner” after he learned of Corinthian’s plans and felt that he wasn’t getting clear answers. He emailed a school official to ask about the school’s status and inquire about teachouts at programs slated for closure. That official responded, “Rest assured, you will still be able to enroll in your courses, complete your educational program and earn your degree…I don’t see a teach out scenario in our future as there are no plans to stop enrollment into all of our programs.”

This is true: As of now, Corinthian campuses and online programs up for sale are still enrolling students and proceeding as usual. But it’s also not the whole truth: If there are no buyers, the school will close according to the DOE plan. If a buyer decides to make significant changes, some of Holman’s credits may not transfer to the new program. (On at least one Facebook post eventually deleted by a group administrator, Corinthian responded to a student's concern using similar language.)

Facebook

After many phone and email exchanges with multiple advisers, Holman started College Corner, built out a webpage on the host Wix.com, and initiated a White House petition urging the government to close all Corinthian campuses so the students can “choose their own destiny.” Two other College Corner members have started similar petitions on change.org.

For Holman and others, the groups and petitions are about more than the schools’ closure; they’re places to vent their complaints and discuss issues that Corinthian and some other for-profit universities have come under fire for, from critics and attorneys general: aggressive recruiting, high tuition, and dubious job placement rates.

Although he doesn’t remember receiving a disclosure agreement, Holman says he remembers signing “something saying we couldn’t sue [Corinthian],” he said. (Jenkins said he has “no idea” what document Holman was referring to.) “But what you can do is protest and email and Facebook message people.”

Some students said online groups like these are how they found out about Corinthian’s woes.

“We shouldn’t be finding out on our own,” said Everest student Holly Dickey, who learned about the sale after Smith invited her to the Facebook group. “They should be honest with us. When I asked [a financial aid adviser], he literally didn’t answer my question. He got quiet and moved onto another subject.”

Jenkins wrote that Corinthian has “provided staff with information to help them make sure students get thorough answers to their questions.” He added that the closure has been “widely reported by the news media,” and that it’s “hard to imagine a process more public than this one.” But many of the students interviewed by NBC News said they don't usually pay attention to the news, and a handful admitted they weren’t aware that Corinthian was connected to their campus (Corinthian’s schools are under the names Everest, Wyotech, or Heald).

“They should be honest with us."

“At first, I was like, ‘What is Corinthian and why is Mike [Smith] emailing me about it?” said Hope Pryor, a former Everest University Online student who withdrew a few days ago partly because of her program’s uncertain future. Pryor remembers “getting hung up on by several different people” after inquiring about the sale, echoing other students who recalled being disconnected or enduring long waits on the phone. When Pryor did get ahold of someone, she said the school officials deflected by saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” or transferring her to someone else.

Most of her information, Pryor said, has come through “unofficial ways” like links on social media.

But other Corinthian students may not be as plugged-in. Holman and Smith said despite the ample media coverage and their best efforts to reach out to students, it’s been difficult to gain a critical mass. Pryor tried to post a link to Everest University Concerns in the student lounge, but it was deleted by a student administrator. The Facebook groups are still under 200 students each, and none of the petitions have cracked 100 signatures yet. The same factors that attract non-traditional students to online courses and short-term certificate programs make it difficult to organize them for a cause; many of Corinthian’s students have jobs, kids, and unpredictable schedules. For some, the brief time they spend on campus is their only access to the Internet.

Still, for the students who have become galvanized, being part of a community has provided some sanity during a tumultuous time. Discovering the Facebook group, Pryor said, not only gave her the facts, but the confidence to withdraw. She still posts on Everest University Concerns frequently.

“There are new students who have been enrolled in Everest, and they just found out what’s going on by joining our group,” she said. “We’re not trying to force them to leave the school, but we try to tell them the facts. You should know before you spend all this money and time on a degree.”

Meanwhile, Corinthian continues to recruit students to the for-sale campuses—even the ones who have left. Less than a week after she withdrew, Pryor said she got a phone call urging her to re-enroll.

“It was like, ‘Really?’ Why would I want to come back?” she said. “I have $15,000 in debt already. I don’t need any more.”

Education coverage for NBCNews.com is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NBC News retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.