PHOENIX – Niki Terranova has worked for nearly six years to earn a doctorate degree. She was finally set to finish her internship, the last piece of the degree’s requirements, on June 21. Graduation was in sight.
She was picturing the ceremony, where she would get "hooded," a rite of passage for doctoral graduates.
Terranova, 41, was a student as Argosy University, which abruptly shuttered its campuses across the country last week, leaving thousands of students adrift.
Whether she will graduate, or have to redo some of her education, is murky.
"To have done all this work and gone this far to do what I’m dreaming of doing, and then it’s going to get snatched away from me? What do I do?" she wondered the day before the schools closed on March 8.
She's spent tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year. She was owed more than $9,000 in financial aid for this semester that she never received after the school's finances melted down.
Each day seems to bring new challenges, uncertainty and different emotions.
"Every single day I wake up and I have no idea if it’s going to be a positive ... or it’s going to be a negative day," Terranova said.
The nationwide chain of schools closed after months of turmoil and unpaid financial aid led the U.S. Department of Education to yank eligibility for federal aid programs, the final nail in the coffin for a university.
Thousands of students were displaced by the closures, many of whom are pursuing master's or doctorate degrees.
It's unknown exactly how many of the nearly 10,000 Argosy students were set to graduate this spring. The Republic spoke with two such students, who may be derailed by the abrupt closures.
While Terranova was a student at the Phoenix campus, she currently is completing an internship at the Nashville VA hospital. Her internship is set to end on June 21, which is when she would be considered a graduate.
She also accepted a post-doc position that hinges on completing her degree. She can’t take the post-doc without the doctorate.
She wants to be a clinical psychologist the VA. She’s found her passion, something that “gives my life meaning.” Having to spend more time on the degree or redo her internship would be upsetting.
“That would be like asking to do another year of my life, when I should be done,” Terranova said. “But if it’s this or nothing, I’m not going to walk away from my dream for that.”
Argosy almost-graduates miss out
For students who were set to graduate this year, the closure ignited endless questions: Would they graduate? Would they have to repeat courses or redo their internships? Would they receive the degrees they spent years working toward?
One student who was supposed to graduate in May reached out to The Arizona Republic asking how she could get back the graduation fee she paid two weeks before the school closed. Those fees typically pay for the costs associated with final paperwork and graduation ceremonies.
And aside from the ceremonial trappings, they may miss out on career opportunities as there's no longer a school or staff to help connect them with jobs after graduation.
Because of the rapid closure of the campuses, and the lack of transparency throughout the schools’ financial meltdown, it’s hard for the almost-graduates to trust the information they’re getting now. And that information changes frequently.
For the students interviewed by The Republic, the days both before and after the closure brought new logistical issues, constant changes to their plans and endless uncertainty.
Students earlier in their degree programs have tough decisions to make about moving schools or changing educational plans. But the students who are nearing the end said they feel like their years of work could implode at any moment.
Transfer should work for some students
For students who are about to start, or have are already started, doctoral internships in psychology, the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers provided guidance telling them to essentially stay the course.
Internship placements shouldn’t be affected by a change in campuses, the guidance said. The group also said there could be “hardships and unanticipated circumstances” related to internships created by the Argosy shutdown, so the group would consider alternatives on a case-by-case basis.
Terranova hopes she will be able to “seamlessly” transfer to The Chicago School of Professional Psychology to finish out her last few months. She got a notification earlier this week about an agreement made with the school for students like her. She put in her application to Chicago and is waiting to hear back.
No matter what happens, her doctorate in clinical psychology won’t say Argosy University on it, despite the years she’s spent working as a student there.
She’s hopeful the new path will work out, but still angry and sad that all this happened to students. Some of her classmates are still in a financial pickle because of the missed student aid payments, and they may not be able to afford to move to another school.
Terranova and her classmates have leaned on each other throughout the ordeal. Facebook groups of affected students have popped up to share information and provide mutual support.
“I wish I could be in Arizona to say goodbye,” Terranova said in a message to The Republic. “It’s an empty, sad feeling that this group, this thing I was a part of, is gone! It’s just very said.”
Schools step in to help
Several schools across the country have stepped in to help students, but making a move from one college to another, especially late in a graduate program, is not an easy feat.
Transferring often means losing credits as the receiving schools want to make sure classes are of a certain quality and can replace program requirements at their campuses.
Losing credits means more time — and money — spent on a degree.
And in some cases, moving colleges requires an actual move. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, for instance, has no campus in Arizona. There are three sites in California, plus locations in Washington DC, Dallas, Chicago and New Orleans, along with online options.
Other schools have offered deals for Argosy students, like better options to transfer in credits and waived fees.
But some of those colleges don't have the same accreditation as Argosy had, and that could affect students' eventual licensure and career options.
The Argosy students are now vigilant about the colleges they could go to. What's their financial state? Is their accreditation solid? Have there been any red flags?
They don't want to go through this again.
Lack of trust in school's information
Alexandra Beuchat had already watched an Argosy campus close before the demise of the chain. Beuchat was a student at Argosy’s Denver campus before she got word it would close last December.
When that happened, she said she was promised a teach-out at the Argosy online campus. It didn't accept all of her credits.
Many times, when a college is no longer financially viable, the college will “teach out” its remaining students and graduate them before closing, so as not to leave students hanging.
And then the schools closed abruptly, making any teach-out at Argosy impossible.
Beuchat, 33, would have graduated May 1. She already had completed the required hours for her practicum and passed exams. She still was in a final course, though she had already completed the required work for it.
She wants to finish her master’s in marriage and family therapy and get to work. She’s waited for this degree for the better part of a decade and had worked on it formally for about three years.
Her dream job as a family therapist for families who have been in the justice system hangs in the balance.
"Devastating does not cover the feelings I’ve had. I cried all night last night," she said on March 7.
She would be “heartbroken” if she had to redo her internship, which she completed at the Department of Corrections in Colorado. Every next step is dependent on having her master’s. She can’t be a licensed family therapist without it. Her career is on the line.
“I’ve done literally everything I’ve been told and everything I’m supposed to do, so for this to feel unfair is an understatement,” she said.
Though the school is closed, the seemingly endless chain of problems continues. Beuchat thought she would be able to get her degree after her professor gave her a grade for her final course.
On Monday, she said the school had supposedly conferred her degree. An unofficial transcript showed it.
“But until I see that on (an official) transcript, and I get a diploma, it will be hard to believe,” she said.
By Wednesday, a new issue popped up. The transcript doesn’t say the degree was conferred, it says “completed,” which could affect her ability to get a license, she said. She is trying to get Argosy to write a letter saying the school had the proper accreditation at the time of her graduation. Without those elements, her master’s would be “worthless,” she said.
There are only a few days left that Argosy will have staff on hand to help students, she said.
“This is why I said I wouldn’t celebrate just yet,” Beuchat said.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'Unfair is an understatement': Students struggle after national college chain abruptly closes