When a for-profit university told its 2,000 students last week it will close in a matter of days, it blamed the Education Department for its decision.
Virginia-based Stratford University offered courses in business administration, culinary arts and nursing and was one of roughly two dozen schools approved to receive federal money by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. The Education Department, however, stripped ACICS of its power to accredit universities in August because it didn't meet government standards.
Because many for-profit colleges rely on federal aid to stay in business, losing access to that money can be a death sentence. A Friday email from Stratford President Richard Shurtz to students said the government barred the college from recruiting new students and required the school to post a “large letter of credit” – essentially collateral – before the institution could receive additional federal money.
“Sadly, these conditions made it impossible to continue in operation,” Shurtz wrote in an email obtained by USA TODAY. “Without new students, we would not have sufficient cash flow to operate. We will be forced to close operations at the end of this term at all locations.”
The federal government said institutions approved by ACICS, which won't appeal and has begun shutting down, would have 18 months to find a new accreditor if they wanted to keep receiving federal funding.
That grace period did not help keep Stratford University afloat.The last day of the academic term is October 9th, according to the university's academic calendar, but students said their professors are wrapping up their classes by Friday.
When a school closes with little warning, students lose not only the money they paid to the university but also the time and effort that went into earning their degrees. It can be especially difficult to transfer credits from closed schools that no longer have employees.
The federal government may forgive the student loans and reset the financial aid for students whose college closes unexpectedly while they’re attending. But that requires them to give up any credits they may have earned.
Stratford University students who were nearing graduation said they would rather just complete their studies. Nursing student Johanna Altamirano, 40, said she expected to graduate in May 2023, and a local hospital already had agreed to hire her. The school’s closure imperils that job.
“We want to finish. We want to graduate. We want to join the nursing workforce,” Altamirano said. “You’re trying to make a better life for yourself, and it’s being thrown out of the window if we can’t finish.”
The university’s administration has provided few answers. Students, many of them crying, attended an information meeting at the school’s Alexandria, Virginia, campus on Monday, said Amethyst Whitaker, 29. She was one of the first to post about the school's closing on social media.
"It's devastating that there's no guarantee for our education at this point," Whitaker said. "We want to know if we're going to be able to finish our degree without going back to the beginning."
USA TODAY reviewed video of the Monday meeting. In it, students clamored to ask questions as Shurtz said he understood they were upset. He added he would be too if he were in their position.
He said students would receive refunds before the school closed on Friday. He also mentioned that representatives from another college would be on campus Wednesday, but stopped short of saying they would definitely accept students' credits. And he blamed the Education Department for the school's closure, again pointing to the department's requirement that schools now accredited by ACICS are barred from enrolling new students.
"If we could not enroll new students we had no choice but not to continue because we wouldn't have enough cash flow to continue," Shurtz said.
The Education Department didn't immediately return USA TODAY's request for comment.
As of Monday afternoon, there was still no notice on Stratfords website about its impending closure. The news had not been posted on the school's Facebook or Twitter pages. It was not clear if the institution's credits would transfer to another college, or if they had partnered with a university to ensure their students could eventually graduate.
Altamirano, who also attended the Monday meeting, said the administration provided few details about credit transfer or how payments for the fall semester would be refunded.
USA TODAY called the university's Alexandria campus Monday morning and was told the school would issue a statement. The person who answered would not provide a phone number or email address of someone authorized to speak to the media. Shurtz didn't reply to an email requesting comment.
What is Stratford University, and what is its connection to ACICS?
Stratford University, according to federal data, had about 1,600 undergraduates and a graduation rate of about 30%. The federal government estimates it costs $24,700 to attend Stratford, which is higher than the national midpoint for four-year schools of $19,500.
Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow overseeing higher education at center-left think tank Third Way, said Stratford University was the largest institution still overseen by ACICS and received about $20 million in the most recent federal aid cycle. Its closure, he said, suggests that the remaining colleges "may follow suit, as other accreditors will keep their distance."
Itzkowitz questioned why the university hadn't found a new accreditor. Though the federal government officially yanked ACICS's recognition in 2022, there were signs in 2021 that the Education Department would likely pull the accreditor's standing.
"They could have sought out and received approval from another college accreditor by this time," Itzkowitz said. "The fact that they haven't been formally approved, it either means they did not take the necessary steps or they were not approved."
Shurtz’s email mentioned the Department of Education’s most recent action against ACICS, but the accreditor’s future has been under government and media scrutiny since 2016.
The Obama-era Education Department had moved to shut the agency down that year after the high-profile closures of ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges. But following a federal court ruling, the Trump administration, under then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, reinstated the accreditor in 2018. A USA TODAY network investigation in 2020 found the agency had approved Reagan National University, an institution without students or faculty.
In July 2021, under the Biden administration, the department said that it would strip ACICS of its powers to approve colleges. The accreditor appealed the government’s decision, but the Education Department denied the agency’s appeal in August.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stratford University to close. Its president blames the government.