What's Next? Help for Students After Tech School Closes Abruptly

Students are asking “what’s next” after Ridley-Lowell Business and Technical Institute closed Wednesday without warning, just weeks before some students were set to graduate.

Students at the New London location, who said they were blindsided by the email announcement that evening, are now weighing whether it’s worth transferring and finishing their coursework – if that’s even possible – or finding a way to get their money back.

“I don’t have time. I was able to take eight months out so I didn’t have to work. My boyfriend taking care of our daughter, paying the bills. But we can’t afford to take another eight months to start all over,” student Grace Leonardi said, who was studying to become a dental assistant.

It’s a concern the New London resident shares with several of her former Ridley-Lowell classmates.

The State of Connecticut Office of Higher Education (OHE) is stepping in to help. On its website, it’s outlining options for students to transfer to a different occupational school. But previous course credit isn’t guaranteed. Plus students would be responsible for previous loans and might have to take on more. Staff also provided a list of alternate approved private occupational schools.

OHE additionally outlined options for students to have their federal loans discharged, if they don’t choose a transfer option, due to the sudden closure of a school. It also explains how the Connecticut Student Protection Fund will assist students who paid out-of-pocket or have taken out personal loans.

“I worked so hard. A whole year of my life went into this school and now I’m standing here with nothing,” student Shannon Ozkan said.

Ozkan was studying medical assisting and was just five weeks from graduating.

She said she contacted Brandford Hall to possibly transfer but was told it could take a few months.

A Branford Hall representative told NBC Connecticut that they have been in touch with some Ridley-Lowell students but have no concrete agreement with the state to take in those students. At some point, they hope to be able to, but the details need to be hammered out with state officials.

Ridley-Lowell has locations in New London and Danbury, as well as Rhode Island and New York.

Ozkan said students demanded answers from Ridley-Lowell’s director this morning in New London.

“She hid behind glass said ‘no other information for us at this time’…. But we’re still left with a $20,000 debt,” Ozkan said.

Some staff was in and out of the building, packing up belongings. But the doors remained locked. One teacher told NBC Connecticut off camera that she too was blindsided by the news.

Students who spoke with staff said they were gut-wrenched to learn of the closure. But some said they were not surprised.

NBC Connecticut reached out to Ridley-Lowell administration multiple times via email, Facebook, phone and in person, but did not hear back.

Now students who were looking to better their families are in a crunch.

“I’m going to try to get hired at my externship office. They like me a lot. They said they’re going to do what they can for me. But other than that it’s putting out job applications and listing the experience I have gained, I guess,” Leonardi said.

NBC Connecticut obtained a copy of the email Ridley-Lowell’s Vice President of Operations, Andréa Weymouth, sent to OHE at 3:25 on Wednesday. The letter says, in part, “Ridley-Lowell is insolvent. Since our national accreditor, ACICS, was eliminated, owners have poured personal financing into Ridley-Lowell to carry two accreditor costs over the 18-month bridge and pay for 2 campus teach-outs and programmatic teach-outs for programs that did not meet new accreditor metrics.”

State Department of Education spokesperson Peter Yazbak said Ridley-Lowell is a for-profit business, so what happened is not necessarily illegal. It’s too early to tell if an investigation would be launched.

Rep. Joe Courtney sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Thursday asking her to quickly provide resources and debt relief to Ridley-Lowell students.

“Many of the students used federal student loans and grant programs to pay tuition, and it is imperative that the Dept. of Ed exercises its statutory authority to protect both taxpayers and the students who put their faith in this school’s promise of a certificate that would provide gainful employment,” the letter reads in part.

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