Federal lawmakers in three states are seeking help for thousands of students in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York state who were left with hefty loans when Star Career Academy abruptly closed.
The Cherry Hill-based for-profit school shut down Nov. 15, citing financial problems. Some students were days or weeks from graduating.
Star had campuses in Brick, Clifton, and Egg Harbor, N.J., Philadelphia, and New York City. It also operated the Culinary Academy of Long Island in Syosset and ServFast Computers in Toms River, N.J.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) is leading a push that calls on the U.S. Department of Education to help bail out students left in the lurch.
"Students should not have to suffer for the mistakes made by their school, and the department must work to ensure impacted students have access to high-quality and affordable options to continue their education," Menendez wrote this week to Education Secretary John King.
The lawmakers asked the department to quickly notify students if their federal loans will be forgiven. They also want the government to extend benefits to veterans who enrolled in the school using the GI Bill.
The letter was also signed by fellow Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
The appeal was welcome news for students and parents, who have scrambled to obtain transcripts and seek admission to new programs to continue their education. They are hoping to be reimbursed for tuition, which cost $20,000 for some programs.
"The way they went about it was definitely wrong," said Martha Arce, an immigration lawyer on Long Island, whose son Daniel, 19, attended the culinary academy. "It's just unforgivable what they did. How do you do that and to so many families?"
A Star spokesman declined to comment.
Star is appealing a $9 million award by a Camden County jury in October 2015 in a class-action lawsuit.
After a five-week trial, the jury found that the school violated the state's Consumer Fraud Act for failing to disclose that its surgical technology program lacked the specialized accreditation required by changes in New Jersey state law in 2011.
In their Nov. 29 letter, the lawmakers asked the Department of Education to extend its loan forgiveness eligibility to all students who withdrew from Star after the jury finding. The lawsuit, they argued, "constitutes extraordinary circumstances."
Kristin Nelson, 34, of Penns Grove, N.J., enrolled in the surgical program in April but is not part of the lawsuit. The mother of two, a medical assistant, took out a $22,000 loan, hoping to provide a better life for her family.
Nelson said she had been searching for a school where she can complete her degree, but said she may have to choose a program that offers night classes.
"Everything just got pulled out from underneath me," Nelson said. "You're left with nothing now. It's a shame."
Star operated for 37 years, and had more than 1,000 students and about 225 full- and part-time faculty and administrators when it closed, according to a spokesman.
The academy provided training classes for medical technology, business administration, and culinary jobs.
Pennsylvania Institute of Technology, a not-for-profit school that offers some similar programs, has received inquiries from former Star students, said Matt Myers, director of admissions. It has campuses in Center City and Media.
At least one former Star student who attended the Northeast Philadelphia campus has enrolled at PIT, Myers said. Others must await a decision on their status, he said.
"Many students are in an educational purgatory, as they don't want to potentially incur more debt while waiting to find out if their prior debt will be forgiven," Myers said.
Arce said her son, an aspiring chef, enrolled in the Long Island program in August. Students were scheduled to begin cooking classes and had even left meat marinating in the refrigerator when Star closed, she said.
Arce said she had set up a college fund for her son and paid the $19,000 tuition in full. Unless she can get some of her money returned, the mother of four said, she will likely have to get a loan for Daniel to resume his education, possibly at a culinary school in Manhattan.
"I'll do whatever it takes, even if I have to work on Saturdays," Arce said Thursday. "He's looking forward to picking up again."