Katherine Rolek said she’ll never forget the day her instructors announced her school would close by the end of the week.
The 26-year-old from Blaine was just eight weeks away from graduating from Argosy University with an associate degree from the dental hygiene program. But when the school shut down abruptly earlier this year, it left Rolek and more than 1,000 other students scrambling to figure out how to complete their degrees.
The for-profit university’s Eagan campus and dozens of affiliated institutions across the country specializing in career training were shuttered in March after its parent company was cut off from federal funding and went into receivership, a kind of bankruptcy.
Three months later, hundreds of Argosy students have found relief thanks to Minnesota colleges and universities that took them in as transfer students or devised “teach-out” programs allowing those near graduation to complete their requirements.
Others, however, remain in a sort of limbo — unsure how they will continue their education or whether they will recover thousands of dollars spent on tuition for a semester they couldn’t complete.
Argosy’s parent company, Dream Center Education Holdings, announced the closings after the U.S. Department of Education stopped providing financial aid to its institutions when it learned the organization had used grant and loan money owed to students to cover its own operating expenses. The university owed more than $1.3 million to Minnesota students, according to the state Office of Higher Education.
There were warning signs before the Eagan campus shut down, said Kami Burgess, who was a full-time faculty member in Argosy’s dental hygiene program. The admissions team was let go in January. Faculty took out the trash for two weeks in March because staff who usually handled that work had been fired.
Still, the announcement that Argosy would close its doors midsemester surprised many. Though they were only a few weeks away from final exams, students could not receive credit for spring semester courses because they did not finish them.
“It still feels like I’m in a bad dream and I’m going to wake up one day,” Burgess said.
Rolek considers herself one of the lucky ones. Argosy faculty worked extra hours ahead of the school’s closing to fast-track courses for 35 second-year dental hygiene students. By the time the university shut its doors, students only had to complete their clinical rotations to be eligible for degrees.
Other institutions stepped up to help. Century College, a two-year community and technical college in White Bear Lake, teamed up with Community Dental Care in Maplewood to allow Rolek’s class to complete their clinical hours. The Century College Foundation provided a scholarship to cover the remaining costs for the 35 students.
After weeks of waiting to find out if the arrangements would be approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, students finally were allowed to start working with patients in the Maplewood clinic last month.
Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington absorbed five Argosy programs, allowing 200 students and a handful of faculty members to continue their work. Dakota County Technical College’s veterinary technician program plans to take in about 90 former Argosy students.
For others, the future remains unclear.
Lindsay Johnson was just a few credits short of earning a doctorate in clinical psychology from Argosy when the school closed. After weeks of uncertainty, Johnson received news that the Chicago School of Professional Psychology would accept her Argosy credits and let her take her remaining class online.
But she said others in the program who weren’t as far along have moved to Chicago or commute to the city for classes because they weren’t offered transfer opportunities in Minnesota.
“They were just kind of left in the dirt,” said Johnson, a 32-year-old mother from Champlin.
Sara Lozano, 41, started Argosy’s dental hygiene program last fall. Many in her class are struggling to find a transfer or teach-out program, and other colleges and universities are reluctant to accept the credits received from Argosy in the fall.
“I basically have to start all over,” said Lozano, a single mother of five who set out to become a dental hygienist so she could provide more for her family. “I literally have to take my $43,000 debt from Argosy with me to the next school. I have no choice.”
The U.S. Department of Education waived the students’ federal financial aid debts for the unfinished semester. Gov. Tim Walz in May signed a law authorizing the state to disburse financial aid owed to Argosy students and forgive Minnesota SELF loans they took out in the spring. Dennis Olson, commissioner of the state’s Office of Higher Education, said students should see checks in their mailboxes in the next two weeks.
Those who paid tuition out of pocket are, for now, out the amount they paid for their spring courses. Mark Dottore, the court-appointed receiver overseeing all the parent company’s assets, said he is working to find money to reimburse those students — and to pay instructors like Burgess who never received their final paychecks.
Argosy is the latest in a string of for-profit colleges in Minnesota to close in recent years due to financial mismanagement or legal troubles, including Globe University/Minnesota School of Business, ITT Technical Institute and the McNally Smith College of Music.
Olson said the Legislature is looking to address the issue, perhaps by introducing regulations that would notify the state earlier if a school is in distress. Former Argosy students said the stress and uncertainty of the past few months could have been mitigated if the situation were handled differently.
“I’m stuck dealing with the aftermath of what happened to the business, essentially,” said Nicole Knutson, 31, who enrolled in online classes at Minneapolis’ Herzing University after taking dental hygiene courses at Argosy that she now considers to be a waste. “The students are really suffering. We became victims of all of this.”