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Deceived students still struggling with fallen Star Career Academy issues

YO, SANDI Gibson. I have a question for you. How do you sleep at night? How do you manage to nod off in your $582,000 Mount Laurel home - the one with the lifesize Santa in the front yard and the inground pool out back?

Latoya Cobb, in front of the now-shuttered Star Career Academy in Northeast Philadelphia.
Latoya Cobb, in front of the now-shuttered Star Career Academy in Northeast Philadelphia.Read more

YO, SANDI Gibson. I have a question for you.

How do you sleep at night?

How do you manage to nod off in your $582,000 Mount Laurel home - the one with the lifesize Santa in the front yard and the inground pool out back?

Decent people would toss and turn in your position. You're CEO of Star Career Academy, the for-profit education company that shut down without warning on Nov. 15. Many of your 1,000 students are left with nothing but debt to show for the time and money they wasted at Star.

Latoya Cobb, 32, is one of those you hosed. When she enrolled last April in the 10-month medical-assistant program at Star's Northeast Philly campus on Welsh Road, she was feeling so hopeful about the future.

She'd dropped out of Olney High School at 17, had a baby, worked in fast food, then became a home-health aide. But she wanted more for herself, Sandi.

She married a great guy, got her diploma and then got into training for a career she hoped would give her family a sliver of the comfort you enjoy in your lovely housing development.

"I was ready to take a chance on myself. I was motivated," says Cobb. She borrowed money - $8,000 in federal education loans; $10,000 on her own credit card - to pay Star's $17,900 tuition. "Those loans were the first thing I ever signed for."

She loved Star's teachers.

"They were amazing," says Cobb, recalling the thrill of dissecting a pig. "I learned so much."

She was two months from finishing her classroom training. Then she'd need to log 180 hours in an externship, after which she'd graduate and sit for a certification exam.

But on Nov. 15, Sandi, you sucker-punched Cobb and 999 other students who attended Star campuses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. They'd been enrolled in allied health, culinary arts, cosmetology and other programs.

That morning, they received a text saying that Star had ceased operations. That's how you let students know their lives had been upended, Sandi - in a text?

Some raced to their campuses, only to find a letter taped to the locked doors: Star closed as a "result of the negative financial impact of a continued declining student population while operating in the challenging for-profit post-secondary school industry."

But, Sandi, do you expect anyone to believe you didn't know, until Nov. 15, that Star was in free-fall?

In 2014, when Star was slapped with a class-action lawsuit alleging fraudulent claims about its surgical-tech program, your company tried to stop the suit, citing the company's wobbly finances.

If things were that bad, why didn't you start winding down the business right then and there? That's what Le Cordon Bleu did when the international culinary academy decided last year to close its 16 U.S. schools. Cordon Bleu stopped accepting new enrollments but allowed its current students to finish training.

"The beginning and end of the story is that Star Career Academy is a for-profit school, period. So everything that Star did, does and will do is motivated by and driven by profit, period," says attorney Thomas More Marrone, of MOREMARRONE LLC, who helped win that class-action suit. (Star is appealing the jury's $9.2 million judgment.)

"These schools can have all the glossy catalogs, ads and websites they want. But in the end, they're about profits, not students."

And they're clueless. Case in point: Star's website notes that the school "has been in touch with a number of educational institutions that have invited students to complete their studies at these other schools."

For what, Sandi - another $18,000? Half these places don't have the same curriculum as Star had, so students' credits won't transfer. And it's not as if you're refunding any money.

Star is only the latest for-profit school to go under. In the last two years alone, at least 14 of them have closed, leaving students in debt. At least the federal government didn't stand by. The Department of Education forgave about $171 million in federal student-loan debt to students of shuttered Corinthian Colleges, for example. The department is also looking to forgive about $500 million in loans held by students who attended 136 campuses of ITT Technical Institute, which went belly up in September.

You do know that taxpayers will foot that bill, right? Oh, wait - of course you do. Before taking the helm at Star, you worked at the for-profit American Career Institute and Anthem Education Group, national companies that closed multistate campuses as abruptly as Star did.

The feds worked to wipe out their students' loans, also.

Last week, Sens. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), Cory Booker (D., N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) and Bob Casey (D., Pa.) asked the Department of Education to forgive Star loans.

"We're also concerned that students' transcripts indicate that they've 'withdrawn' from Star, rather than that the school closed," says Menendez. "We don't want that to make students ineligible for loan forgiveness."

But what about people like Cobb, who put $10,000 on her credit card?

They're screwed, says Lance Haver, civic engagement director for City Council and the city's former consumer advocate.

"These students invest their money, credit and loans in training they believe will get them a job that will allow them to pay back what they owe. When their school closes, there's no way to do that, so their credit scores take a huge hit," says Haver. "The credit card companies will eventually sue them for the bad debt, so then there are judgments against them. They won't be able to rent an apartment or finance a car or go to a new school unless something is done to help them."

Haver thinks community colleges are the answer.

"Every community college in our region should set up a program to help students who have been swindled, offering free tuition to replace what has been stolen from them. That would at least allow the students to get what they thought they were paying for without having to go deeper into debt."

More taxpayer money to the rescue. Awesome.

I wanted to ask you about all of this, Sandi. But you've stayed hidden behind a New York PR flak who wouldn't answer all the questions I asked. You didn't return my call for comment, and you didn't respond to a note I left in your front door, either.

Hey, you don't owe me anything. But you owe it to your students to look them in their worried eyes while they tell you how you've messed up their lives.

Thanks to Star, they're not sleeping well at all these days.

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly