Nursing student Brittanee Jackson planned to graduate in February from Brightwood College in Indianapolis.
Instead, the 30-year-old mother of three is one of thousands of students who were told this week that their colleges are closing abruptly.
“We are hurt, disappointed,” she said. “And this isn’t my first time going through this. I went through this with ITT Tech,” a for-profit college that closed 130 campuses in 2016.
The announcement this week that more than 70 campuses operated by Education Corporation of America are closing — including all its Brightwood College and Virginia College locations — seemed abrupt to the thousands of students who attend. They wondered what credit they will receive for their coursework and whether they will get tuition refunds.
But plenty of warning signs showed the schools were on shaky ground.
Here are the factors that led to the largest closure of for-profit institutions since ITT Tech in 2016 — and information for students who are wondering what’s next:
How it happened: Falling enrollment, financial trouble
The company based in Birmingham, Alabama, has been around since 1999, when it purchased Virginia College in Roanoke.
More campuses opened over the next few years along with Culinard, a culinary school. Online classes were added later, as well as branches in several states. In 2006, the company added another chain of schools to its portfolio, the San Diego Golf Academy.
ECA specializes in career programs for older students or those going back to school. The schools offer programs in cosmetology, massage, culinary arts, information technology and health, among others.
The company appeared to be on the upswing as recently as 2015, when it acquired 38 colleges operated by the for-profit Kaplan College Campuses. Stu Reed, ECA’s chief executive officer, described the acquisition as an exciting opportunity that would be a great fit.
The 2015 sale came when the for-profit industry was struggling after more federal regulation and scrutiny. The Obama administration took a tougher stance on for-profit career schools, cracking down on colleges where students took out huge loans and struggled to find jobs with the new degrees.
By 2018, however, ECA had failed to turn itself around. In a 2018 federal court filing, company officials disclosed “enrollment in many of ECA’s campuses has been falling for several years.”
They blamed the decline on the U.S. Department of Education’s decision in 2016 to remove federal recognition of the school’s accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
That group, the nation’s largest accreditor of for-profit schools, wasn’t an effective watchdog for student finances and taxpayers’ money, the government contended.