The embattled for-profit Stratford University, challenged by years of accreditation issues and reported cybersecurity breaches in the past few months, will close for good at the end of the week. Stratford operates three campuses for around 2,000 students in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area as well as numerous online programs.
Stratford officials held a meeting with concerned students on Monday and have another planned for Wednesday to discuss potential transfer possibilities with other for-profits. Students, who received an email from their president last Friday informing them of the decision, have expressed concern over whether they will be able to switch institutions and have their credits honored.
Stratford currently operates five programs–business administration, nursing, computer science/IT, health science and culinary arts–for at least 800 full-time students, including some who will not be making it to completion this year. As part of the fallout, Stratford’s 150 employees also are expected to lose their jobs.
Stratford President Richard Shurtz said stringent measures recently enacted by the Department of Education led to its demise. That included the forced termination of its licensing agency–the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools–which put a stronger burden on Stratford and others to prove they are serving students well in order to receive critical Title IV funding. ED has demanded they switch accreditors, halt all programs and admissions, and be monitored closely until they find new accreditation.
For Stratford, the asks were just too great.
“We worked hard to save the school, leaving no stone unturned,” Shurtz said in an email to students last week. “We almost had an investor from Silicon Valley, but the actions of the Department made the deal impossible.”
But myriad challenges have plagued Stratford that predate the COVID-19 pandemic. Stratford previously shuttered three of its campuses in Virginia in 2019–Glen Allen, Newport News, and Virginia Beach–because it claimed they weren’t profitable enough. And in February of 2020, it was asked by ACICS to stop admitting new students and applying for new accreditation after it was reported that they attempted to open a campus in Iraq without its knowledge.
“Given the seriousness of the allegations against Stratford University, the Council took the unprecedented step of requiring an immediate halt of all new enrollments and the submission of fully executed teach out agreements,” ACICS said then to Stratford leaders.
Compounding its financial challenges, several cybersecurity groups indicated that Stratford has been hit by at least two, and possibly three, online attacks this year. Databreaches.net, which reports on attacks across businesses and education, noted the three potential hacks in detail on its site two weeks ago.
The downfall of ACICS, Stratford
Although ACICS was terminated by the Department of Education in August (it had been revived by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in 2018 but at its close had only 27 schools and 5,000 students under its watch), ED allowed institutions like Stratford an 18-month grace period to prove they could get accredited elsewhere. It sent licensure provisional program participation agreements (PPAs) to each of them, and they had 10 days to agree to those conditions.
However, as part of the compliance terms, for-profits could not offer new programs with federal aid or admit new students until they received new accreditation. ED also put a number of other stringent policies in place that forced institutions to:
- Release teach-out plans that show that institutions can get students through to completion in case they close
- Enact plans that show both “monthly student rosters and a record retention plan.”
- Inform students they might lose financial aid eligibility while the process is ongoing.
- Keep a letter of credit on file, in case they do terminate operations, that ensures they won’t put the burden of losses on taxpayers.
In March, head of Federal Student Aid Richard Cordray noted the importance of compliance and the determination of ED to ensure it is protecting students and American citizens. “Too often the Department has seen those who reap the rewards of colleges’ actions when things go well leave us holding the bag when things go badly,” he said. “We will be vigilant in our oversight and enforcement of this new policy.”
Student loan borrowers who have been duped by noncompliant for-profits have received a windfall of more the $3 billion relief from ED since the pandemic began. That includes the many students who were victimized by ITT and Corinthian Colleges. Depending on outcomes this week, could there be another bailout coming for those who attend Stratford?