The abrupt closing of Star Career Academy, a for-profit training school, has left thousands of students in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York state in a lurch, some just shy of completing their courses.
Citing financial troubles, the Cherry Hill-based company notified students and faculty Tuesday that it was ceasing operations immediately. Tuesday was a staff-training day, so no classes were scheduled. Employees were notified by telephone or in person. Students were informed by text messages, email, and social media.
A spokesman declined comment Wednesday. The school's website only has information about the closing. Its Facebook page cover photo shows a blue graduation cap with a gold tassel and asks, "Will you be our next success story?"
"Star Career Academy's closing is the result of the negative financial impact of a continued declining student population while operating in the challenging for-profit postsecondary school industry," the school said in a statement. "Star Career Academy has done everything in its power to prevent closure after operating for 37 years and providing a supportive educational environment for thousands of students."
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.
The school's culinary and health campus in Northeast Philadelphia was closed Wednesday and the parking lot was deserted. Copies of the news release announcing the closure were taped to the building's front doors.
A Star Career Academy employee packed belongings into his car outside the building on Welsh Road. He declined to comment, but said that the president of the academy was inside.
Carmen Lopez, 35, a student pursuing a certificate in medical assistance at the Northeast Philadelphia campus, said she received a text message from the school Tuesday night informing her that "effective immediately the school is closing." She went to the closed campus Wednesday to demand answers.
"I'm researching now to see what I do with my education. What now?" said Lopez, of Northeast Philadelphia, who said she was just 10 days away from completing her coursework.
Lopez, who works at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in the call center, said she hoped to enhance her employment opportunities by obtaining a health certificate at Star. She enrolled in February and was taking night classes Monday through Thursday. The tuition was $20,000, she said.
She was trying to figure out how to get her transcripts and whether any of her tuition fees would be refunded.
"I have no idea what to do," Lopez said. "Basically, I might have to start my curriculum all over again. It was a waste of time."
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) said the sudden closing in the middle of the school year was "very troubling." Menendez said he was checking to see what the U.S. Department of Education could do.
In a statement, Menendez told students that he was "fighting for them" and acknowledged that many had "taken out thousands of dollars in loans and have nothing to show for it."
"What's happened to you is outrageous," Menendez said. "No student should have to pay for their school's mistakes. And every student should be able to complete the studies they started."
The academy provided training classes for medical tech, business administration, and culinary jobs. According to the school's website, students may be able to apply to have their federal student loans forgiven or enroll in another school to complete their degree.
There was little activity at the Star office on Allison Drive in Cherry Hill Wednesday afternoon. A security guard and an administrator were the only ones at the dimly-lit and empty office space. The administrator, who did not identify herself, refused to comment on the school's closure.
After a five-week trial, a jury in Camden County returned a verdict against Star in October 2015 and ordered the school to pay more than $9 million in a class-action lawsuit brought by students enrolled in its surgical technology program, said their attorney, Patricia Pierce.
According to the lawsuit, students were not advised that the program lacked the specialized accreditation required by changes in New Jersey state law in 2011. Star appealed the verdict; the case is pending.
About 1,000 students were enrolled in the one-year surgical technology program, according to Pierce. Annual tuition was between $15,000 and $20,000, depending on the campus, she said.
Star may have insurance but it may not be enough to cover the judgment, she said.
Pierce said she was unsure how the school's closing would affect the case or whether the verdict forced the closing. "We're just going to have wait and see how it all sorts out."
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Staff writer Luis Ferré Sadurní contributed to this article.