‘How could I get nothing?’ Vatterott students devastated by school’s abrupt closing

Josh Jones received the text message from a Vatterott College instructor on Monday evening.

“Call me,” it read, “it’s an emergency.”

How odd, Jones thought. Just that morning he had attended mechanics classes at the trade school on North Corrington Avenue, and then returned home for a nap. He wondered if the call was about equipment or a mistake he made in the classroom.

On the phone, his teacher’s voice was teary and Jones learned heartbreaking news.

As of 4 p.m. on Monday, Vatterott College had shut down its campuses. Though Jones had expected to graduate this January, the program he had taken since October 2017 to earn certifications to work at a garage had been permanently halted.

“I’m very confused,” the 27-year-old told The Star. “I feel lost. I feel like I’m dreaming right now and I need someone to slap me.”

Jones is one of hundreds of students at Vatterott Education Centers schools who learned that the St. Louis-based corporation would shutter its for-profit trade schools, including a Kansas City campus and a L’Ecole Culinaire location on Country Club Plaza.

The news left roughly 900 people unemployed just before the holiday break and was a blow to students, who were left with little information about how to access their student records, transfer credits or retain equipment and materials.

Employees were told that their benefits would end as of Monday and were required to collect their belongings and return access keys to a campus director. The company said employees would be paid through Dec. 17.

The closings also included the company’s L’Ecole Culinaire campus in St. Louis. The company did not return multiple calls from The Star.

Jones also said he’d been unable to reach Vatterott administrators or executives for more information. The tools he received as part of his program? Locked away in the school building.

In a letter sent to students, Vatterott blamed the U.S. Department of Education for the closing. The department had restricted the school’s participation in federal financial aid programs, the letter said, and scared off a buyer who planned to take over the company after Vatterott entered into Missouri state receivership this year.

“The Department imposed these restrictions despite the presence of an interested buyer and our clear communication that such restrictions would result in the school’s closure,” the Vatterott letter said.

The institution, which has campuses in Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Iowa, had long been struggling.

In 2013, a Jackson County jury found Vatterott Educational Centers Inc. to be in violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act after a former Kansas City-based student filed a lawsuit against the corporation.

The student said Vatterott deceived her when it enrolled her in what she thought was a medical assistant’s program. The student later learned she’d spent more than a year in a “worthless” preliminary program for which she’d taken out $27,000 in loans.

Vatterott was ordered to pay $27,676 in actual damages and $13 million in punitive damages. A judge later dropped the $13 million to $2 million to comply with a state damage cap.

In January 2018, Vatterott closed five of its campuses and announced it would sell its remaining campuses to another for-profit education company, the Education Corporation of America.

Around the same time, the Vatterott campuses for sale were placed on probation for failing to comply with accreditation standards, according to the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.

But the sale was never completed, and in September, the Education Corporation of America announced it would close 26 campuses in by 2020. The company, which also oversaw schools that struggled with accreditation issues, cited decreasing enrollment as reason for the closings.

In November, the ACCSC revoked Vatterott College’s accreditation for failing to “demonstrate compliance in the areas of student achievement and continuity of management,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Robert Norrington of St. Louis told The Star he is a U.S. Army veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD and had found structure and solace in automotive technology classes. He shared an email he said he sent to Vatterott after learning about its closing.

“So where do I go from here?” the letter read. “I was told I can’t even transfer my credits, time and hard work. I just want to finish school and provide for my family. Can someone help me?”

He has yet to receive a reply.

According to the Missouri Department of Higher Education, some students may be able to discharge their federal student loans or be legally obligated to receive security deposits as restitution. It asked students who were enrolled as of Dec. 17 to send copies of their enrollment agreements to the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

Jones said he wasn’t sure what options he had. For now, he’s mourning a dream to one day to start his own business and be a role model for his 1-year-old son.

“I don’t understand,” Jones said. “I don’t understand ... how could I get nothing, or how I deserve that?”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.