For-profit schools shut doors on short notice to students

Officials of the for-profit Sawyer School have given its estimated 1,200 students, and the state, just a few days’ notice that they are closing their post-secondary programs in Bridgeport, Hartford and Hamden.

“I regret to inform you that the School’s board has directed that the Sawyer Schools and Butler Business School suspend operations. Classes scheduled to begin in January have been cancelled,” the Dec. 30 notice from a school official reads.

According to its website, Sawyer also has schools in Providence and Pawtucket, R.I. Information was unavailable Monday on whether these facilities, in addition to the three in Connecticut, are closing.

“This is obviously extraordinarily upsetting to the students,” said Jane Ciarleglio, executive director of the Office of Higher Education.

State law requires any for-profit higher education entity to give a 60-day notice before closing.

Ciarleglio said this grace period is required so her office can help students transition to other programs, recover student records and possibly recover the tuition they paid.

“We want to make sure that owners don’t walk off with money that belongs to Connecticut students,” she said in an interview.

Instead, students who were expecting to graduate in a few weeks are left questioning their future and how they are going to pay back their student loans.

Tuition is $22,000 for a medical assistant or office information system certificate. A phlebotomy certificate costs $1,450.

Sawyer’s emailed closing notice came Sunday afternoon — one day before it was to report its finances to the state, a requirement meant to ensure the stability of post-secondary programs in the state.

The closing of the schools — for which students are receiving federal financial aid — has caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

“I am demanding a reassurance that they will provide reimbursements or an alternative program at no cost to the student, which they have an obligation to do… A legal and a moral obligation in my view,” Blumenthal said Monday evening.

He also wrote a letter to the school seeking assurances. He has not yet heard back from any of school’s leaders.

“I am very troubled by the sudden closing… and your company’s silence to date as to how the schools will address your current student’s needs,” Blumenthal wrote.

Ciarleglio and the Mirror’s attempts to contact the school’s leaders were also unsuccessful.

Sawyer and other for-profit higher education programs have come under fire in recent months nationwide for their weak graduation rates and for their students’ high default rates on loans. Despite these dismal performance benchmarks, enrollment at degree-granting programs in Connecticut has almost doubled over the last decade.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate’s education committee released an unflattering report investigating three nonprofits with a presence in the state. (See those reports herehere and here.)

Blumenthal said this sudden closure just validates the need for further investigation into the practices of nonprofits, including Sawyer.

“It illustrates a reason again of why for-profit schools are problematic,” he said.

The affected students are asked to contact the Office of Higher Education here. These alternative programs are required to pay a fee each year to the OHE to help students when emergency situations such as this happen.

“It’s a student protection fund,” Ciarleglio said.