For-Profit Colleges Close All The Time In California, But You Usually Only Hear About The Scandals

A-Technical College students (L-R) Courtney Green, Amelia Lucas, and Yarixa Sanchez. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

There's a for-profit college in Huntington Park that's going to shut down soon.

Was it defrauding students? Did it lose its accreditation? Was it some other scandal that makes for big splashy headlines?

None of the above. It's for reasons that happen all the time but don't often draw media attention. It's the story of a small, independent, immigrant-owned business with deep roots in Los Angeles that was praised by students but couldn't keep up with changing market forces.

A-Technical College, which is scheduled to close on Aug. 15, will add to the list of 46 for-profit colleges in California that have closed so far this year, the 118 that closed last year, and the 145 that closed the year before, according to the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education.

The college's one-year programs train people to become medical assistants, administrative assistants, and massage therapists. It attracts students like Yarixa Sanchez and Amelia Lucas, who stood together outside the college's massage therapy classrooms when the school's shutdown was announced.

"You do grow like a bond, it's pretty much like family. And knowing that we have to separate, it is pretty sad," Sanchez said.

A-Technical College plans to close August 15, 2019. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

THE HISTORY OF A-TECHNICAL

A-Technical College began 40 years ago as the Virginia Sewing Machine & School Center. It was founded by Sara Cristi, an immigrant from Chile who moved to Los Angeles and joined her brother selling industrial sewing machines.

"But the people [started] asking me how I sew a zipper, how I can attach a collar. I didn't know, so I hire an instructor," Cristi said in an interview in her office shortly after the school shutdown was announced. "I said thank you very much, brother, but I will open my own school."

For decades the school grew, until apparel manufacturing in L.A. shrunk to an asterisk. About five years ago Cristi, who's also the college's chief executive officer, shifted instruction.

"We started with medical assistant, with professional administrative assistant [to] prepare people for working in an office... so we were growing, growing, growing," she said.

Then another storm hit — this time, it was the tightening regulations that held for-profit colleges accountable for their students' job placement rate, along with the bad publicity that resulted from the fraudulent practices of colleges like the Corinthian chain.

"For many years, the for-profit college industry in California and nationally was growing quickly," said Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a Bay Area group that advocates for college affordability. "But it was growing quickly in part because of very aggressive recruiting practices that weren't necessarily leaving students well served."

Cristi has long relied more on word-of-mouth than aggressive recruiting — which Cochrane said can sometimes work for independent schools. "I think that for-profit colleges, and particularly small ones that have really made a solid name and reputation for themselves in a local community... can rely on that reputation," she said.

But it wasn't enough for A-Technical. Cristi said the decision to close was clear when enrollment shrank by half in the last several years to just 80 students.

"I think we didn't do the right publicity, we didn't do the marketing," she said.

Sara Cristi is the CEO of A-Technical College in Huntington Park. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

AT FOR-PROFITS, ECONOMIC BOOM CAN BE A BUST

Paradoxically, the improving economy didn't help, either. Cochrane said for-profit colleges tend to benefit in a weak economy because people who can't find work often turn to schools focused on job training to find a new career.

Today, with the nation at practically full employment, students aren't willing to incur significant loan debt only to end up in low-paying careers. According to the school's disclosure forms, more than a third of A-Technical's graduates in 2017 didn't end up working in the field they studied, and those that did said they found work that pays between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.

The school's one-year programs cost $14,000, but most students take a year and a half to finish. Many graduate with federal loan debt averaging about $8,000.

Now that the school is closing, current students will be eligible to have their remaining federal loan debt wiped out under state and federal regulations.

A-Technical College is located in Huntington Park. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

WHAT'S NEXT FOR STUDENTS?

The closing of A-Technical leaves leaves students like Amelia Lucas with an uncertain future.

"I was worried [about] what was going to happen to me and my classmates as well," she said when the school announced that it was closing. "I was pretty shocked."

Lucas said she was attracted to A-Technical because she got both career training and practical business advice that wasn't taught in high school.

"[High school] taught us how to be employees, but they never taught us how to lead and own our own business," Lucas said.

It was a core value at A-Technical, said massage therapy instructor Pete Casas. "They learn how to communicate, and they know how to negotiate and know how to debate, they know how not to be taken advantage of in the real world when it comes to business," he said. "And that's what's being taught here."

In the last month, representatives of the state's Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education have visited A-Technical to provide students information about their options, such as whether to transfer to another for-profit college or have their federal loans wiped clean and start a new program somewhere else. The school is also doing outreach and trying to help place students in similar programs at nearby colleges.

"That is my reward," Cristi said, pointing to a photograph of last year's graduates. "When they are working, having a better life, I feel paid," she said.