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Students gather inside the Donald F. Stone Classroom Complex at the College of Southern Nevada Charleston Campus on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

When the Brightwood College in Las Vegas went under last December — without warning for students and staff — it was just the latest in a string of high-profile shutterings of massive, for-profit colleges. 

Now months later, a group of Democratic senators say many of those students from for-profit schools have yet to recover. 

Thirty-two senators in all — including Nevada Democrats Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen — sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Wednesday that harshly criticized an “inadequate” response to students left in the cold by several now-defunct for-profit colleges. 

“The vast majority of those affected have not received meaningful assistance in continuing their education, nor have they received the debt relief owed to them under the law, after their lives were upended by the pursuit of profit over the interest of students,” the letter read. 

In particular, the senators took aim at three now-collapsed for-profit institutions: Education Corporation of America (ECA), which operated Brightwood College; Missouri-based Vatterott Educational Centers, which operated more than a dozen career and technical schools; and Dream Center Education Holdings (DCEH), which operated, among a number of other schools, the Art Institute in Las Vegas. 

All three corporations entered financial tailspins in the last year, and at least two — ECA and Vatterott — have in part blamed an Obama-era policy known as heightened cash monitoring, which restricts the federal financial aid dollars a for-profit school can receive. 

In the time since the policy was enacted in 2015, some 70 schools have been removed from the list. But as of June 1, more than 480 schools across the country remain under at least one level of heightened cash monitoring. 

In a statement released alongside the letter, Cortez Masto lambasted DeVos’ leadership on the issue, chiding the secretary for her rollbacks of Obama-era protections for students at for-profit colleges. 

“This is yet another example of Secretary DeVos’ disregard for the concerns of struggling student loan borrowers,” Cortez Masto said. “Instead of helping students who were cheated or defrauded by these predatory colleges, Secretary DeVos hired former for-profit college executives and lobbyists at the Department, and abdicated her responsibility to investigate these institutions.”

As for-profit schools continue to founder, thousands of students are left in the dark, often with outstanding loans or non-transferable credits that can complicate the eventual pathway to a degree, according to James McCoy, associate vice president of Academic Affairs at the College of Southern Nevada.  

“Here you have students saddled with either significant federal loans and no completion, or significant federal aid that they would have to be responsible for,” McCoy said. “They’ve collected so much financial aid that they’re not eligible for much more, so when they have to start all over that eligibility is a challenge.”

The Department of Education has put in place place programs to assist students affected by these closures, including a program with certain lenders that allows limited loan forgiveness. But in testimony given to Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the department revealed data that show just 11 percent of students eligible for loan forgiveness have actually sought relief. That testimony also showed just 4 percent of students who attended one of either ECA, Vatterott or DCEH have gone on to complete their degree. 

For Margo Martin, CSN’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, that’s where existing not-for-profit colleges step in. 

“If we’ve got to meet a student after they have had an experience with a for-profit institution, we’re going to try to do our best to meet them where they are, and try and help them find the resources that they might need,” Martin said. “We aren’t a panacea, we may not be able to ameliorate all challenges, but we can certainly provide an open door and provide pathways toward potential solutions.”

CSN, among other Nevada community colleges like Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, has largely been left to fill in the gaps following the not-infrequent closures of for-profit institutions. That includes the high-profile closure of ITT Technical Institute in 2016 — which saw CSN and others offer olive branches to more than 800 students in Southern Nevada alone. 

That outreach can take many forms, from town-hall-style information sessions to digital outreach, but Martin says that CSN, as “the community’s college,” is “responsible to all potential students in Southern Nevada” — including those students left high-and-dry by for-profit institutions. 

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