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Corinthian school closings leave instructors with many questions, few answers

Heald College instructors take one last photo together on their last day of work. (Photo/Sophira Zu)

When embattled Corinthian Colleges announced it would be shuttering its remaining 28 campuses in April, students weren’t the only ones left feeling shell shocked. 

Roughly 4,000 instructors and staff found themselves out of work and facing a shrinking job market in their field. The closure impacted workers at 13 Everest and WyoTech campuses, as well as the entirety of Heald College, a 150-year-old institution with 11 campuses in California and Hawaii. Corinthian filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early May and it was recently announced that an official committee will be formed to represent the interests of former students. Meanwhile, former instructors who worked at Corinthian-owned schools told Yahoo Finance they were left with many questions and even fewer answers.

“It was was obvious that they were under attack, we all knew about [the government investigation],” said Edgar de Sola, who was an adjunct instructor in the medical assistant program at both Heald and Everest Institute in San Francisco. “But when they let us start the new quarter in April, I thought we were going to at least go to the end of the quarter.”

The Monday after de Sola and his colleagues were informed, by email, of the school’s closure, they returned to campus one last time to pack up their belongings. Someone snapped a photo (above) of their group, some of whom still donned Heald College staff badges.

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“They were nice, truly dedicated teachers. That’s why it’s so sad,” de Sola said. “All these teachers were so dedicated with really low pay, in my opinion, and we had done the work diligently.”

Forty-five minutes south of San Francisco, Melody Valente taught at Heald’s Hayward, Calif., campus for two years in the pharmacy tech department. She said that even when it became clear that Corinthian was having trouble finding a buyer for Heald’s campuses — Corinthian only managed to successfully sell about half of its 100 campuses — she and her colleagues were encouraged to stay the course. Heald President Eeva Deshon, who did not respond to a request for comment, went so far as to launch an online petition to drum up support from the public. In the end, it became more than apparent why buyers weren’t interested —  two weeks before Corinthian shut them down, federal regulators fined Heald College $30 million for allegedly falsifying job placement rates for years. On top of that, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office filed a complaint against Corinthian first in October 2013, would have required any potential buyer to assume liability for loans taking out by  former students.

“Even that last Wednesday I taught, I was reassuring our students that it would be OK, Heald was not going anywhere and we would have a great quarter,” Valente says. “I feel as if we let the students down somehow.”

Facing an unfriendly job market

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Most instructors at for-profit institutions are hired on a contract basis and don’t enjoy the same benefits as full-time employees when they are let go, says Kevin Kisner, an expert on for-profit higher education and an associate professor at the State University of New York in Albany. That means no severance packages or career transition services. Unions are almost nonexistent. “Students at least have the ability to have some debt forgiven and their transferability [to other schools] is supposed to be guaranteed,” Kisner says.

De Sola wasn’t even sure who to contact when he tried to deposit his final paycheck at Heald College (for $708) and was told that it had bounced. An officer from the school’s academic affairs department told de Sola he would try to sort things out, but that he was only working for one more week. (Yahoo Finance contacted the officer by email but did not receive a response.) 

De Sola, who is in his early 60s, was earning $25 an hour as an instructor at Everest and Heald, netting him about $50,000 a year if his contract was renewed every four quarters. If not for his wife’s income and health benefits, he would be unable to afford their San Francisco apartment.

Like any contractor freshly out of work, he says he has been leaning on colleagues for support and applying to as many jobs as possible. But after working at Corinthian-owned campuses for more than a decade, he’s concerned the school’s reputation could hinder his chances at breaking out of the for-profit sector

“I have resigned myself to work with a similar organization, if I ever get hired,” he says. “I don’t have anything against for-profits. I’m not embarrassed to have worked for for-profits. But if I go to Stanford or [the University of San Francisco], I don’t think they would give me the time of day.”

The growing stigma around for-profit institutions isn’t all that instructors like De Sola have to worry about, Kisner says. The for-profit industry itself just isn’t what it used to be.

“The market for that type of instructor may be diminishing,” he says. “Those people who are getting laid off, there aren’t that many new positions available that they can step into as readily.”

One reason is declining enrollment, which has stymied growth at many for-profit institutions, even Apollo Group (APOL), which owns the largest for-profit chain in the U.S., the University of Phoenix. Once boasting nearly half a million students, enrollment is now at 214,000. Heightened awareness about the cost of college could be to blame; for-profits target low-income students, but they also tend to be very expensive, charging an average annual tuition of $15,130, twice the cost of public four-year institutions.  

Fewer students means fewer instructors. Also posing a challenge to out-of-work career college instructors like De Sola is the fact that they can’t easily transition to a nonprofit institution. For-profit instructors are usually hired based on past job experience and professional certifications rather than academic credentials. And they aren’t allowed to design their own course curriculum the way college professors are, instead following a syllabus created by the school.  

“The for-profit model was much more about the facilitation of instruction designed by subject matter experts,” Kisner says.

Like some for-profit students who complain that their education didn’t prepare them for the particular demands of the working world, instructors from troubled institutions may find themselves ill-equipped to meet the needs of today’s classrooms.

“I think that’s part of the untold story,” Kisner says. “A lot of people just think for-profits are monolithic entities and everyone is out to take advantage of students… but many faculty really have the best interest of students at heart and they were trying to do right by them.”

Are you a former instructor, student or staff member from Heald College? E-mail me at mandiw@yahoo-inc.com or send me a message on Facebook

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