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Blairsville location among WyoTech campuses for sale

Bruce Siskawicz | The Dispatch
A vehicle passes in front of the automotive technology building of the Blairsville WyoTech campus Monday in Burrell Township.

Thursday, July 10, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
 

Corinthian Colleges is hoping to sell its WyoTech career college division, including the Blairsville campus, as a unit to a new owner under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education.

On July 3, the department and Santa Ana, Calif.-based Corinthian announced they have agreed on an operating plan for the company to divest itself of its for-profit schools in the wake of financial woes and increased scrutiny of the company's marketing practices and reporting of student job placements.

The plan calls for Corinthian to work toward selling or closing its various campuses across the country in the next six months. Corinthian indicated it is putting up for sale 85 of its schools, including four WyoTech locations — the main campus in Laramie, Wyo.; the Blairsville branch campus, located at the Corporate Campus industrial park in Burrell Township; and other sites in Fremont, Calif., and Daytona Beach, Fla.

A dozen other Corinthian campuses gradually will be phased out through a “teach-out” process, with existing students finishing programs but no new students being enrolled.

Following the Fourth of July holiday weekend, details began to emerge concerning Corinthian's plans for WyoTech — which offers programs in automotive, HVAC, electrician and plumbing fields — and its other schools.

Art Herman, president of the Blairsville WyoTech campus, said Tuesday that Corinthian Chairman and CEO Jack Massimino, in a conference call with officials at various campuses, indicated “his vision is to sell each division as a whole.” Herman added that the Blairsville campus is “definitely on the list of schools to go up for sale.”

In addition to WyoTech, other divisions under the Corinthian umbrella include Everest and Heald colleges.

Herman noted that a buyer for WyoTech would have to be mutually agreeable to Corinthian's board of directors and to the Department of Education.

While it's been agreed that Corinthian will “make a bona fide effort to find a buyer within six months,” Herman said, he noted that Massimino indicated the company intends to continue providing instruction to students if that target date isn't met: “Corinthian is still committed to serving what he feels is an underserved student population.”

Corinthian's new agreement with the Department of Education follows an earlier June 22 memorandum of understanding between the parties that included the release of $16 million in Title IV federal student aid funds to ease Corinthian's cash flow problems.

Under the July 3 agreement, which became effective on Tuesday, federal education officials announced an additional release, of $35 million in student aid, to ensure that Corinthian can continue to provide classes for current students. The use of the funds is subject to department approval, and Corinthian also has agreed to hire an independent monitor to provide oversight of finances as well as sales or teach-out plans for the various campuses.

“That has kind of solved the cash crisis issue. It's put us on a much firmer financial footing,” Herman said of the funding release.

While the Department of Education has agreed to advance the $35 million, Corinthian colleges otherwise will remain subject to a 21-day waiting period for drawing down student aid dollars. The department imposed that waiting period on June 12 because it indicated Corinthian had failed to provide required records concerning enrollment and job placement and had “failed to fully address concerns about its practices, including faulty job placement data used in marketing claims to prospective students and allegations of altered grades and attendance.”

Despite the allegations, Herman said that the WyoTech staff adheres to a policy of transparency. “There's nothing shady going on,” he said.

Corinthian has indicated by July 15 it will complete the turnover of documents relating to 175,000 of its graduates in order to comply with the department's request for data.

The Blairsville campus staff have been involved in that data collection task, Herman noted: “For the better part of a week and a half, we were full pedal to the metal — working from 6:30 or 7 in the morning to 9 at night to make sure the Department of Education got the information they needed.”

Under the operational plan, Herman said, Blairsville WyoTech and other campuses not slated for the teach-out process were free to resume enrolling students on Wednesday with the stipulation that they provide “a disclosure to new students to explain the current situation.”

Herman acknowledged the enrollment situation at WyoTech is not an ideal one — with student numbers at the Blairsville campus having declined to about 610, compared to an average of 1,200 since the location opened in 2002. The student population has dropped from about 850 in May.

But, he said, “Every challenge is an opportunity.”

According to Herman, summer is typically a slow period for enrollment at the Blairsville school.

“Our big start is at the end of September,” he said. “We have students who are still used to taking the summer off.”

Students at the Blairsville campus enroll for a minimum of nine months in an array of three programs — automotive, diesel or collision and refinishing technology. While total student numbers are down, Herman said the proportion signed up for each program hasn't changed — about 20 percent in collision and 40 percent in each of the other programs.

Employment at the Blairsville campus also is down — to a staff of 114, following layoffs of 28 employees in the past year.

Veteran Burrell Township Supervisor Tony Distefano said Tuesday the economic impact of the pending transition at the local WyoTech campus remains to be seen.

But the impact the school has had on the community over the past decade has been multi-faceted and unmistakable.

Two of the buildings on the school campus will remain exempt from local property taxes until 2018, under a version of the state's Keystone Opportunity Zone program, Distefano said. But he noted the township collects a $42 emergency services tax for each employee working there – a total of $4,788 based on the current staffing.

Those jobs mean more for the community than just a source of tax revenue. “When you're looking at about 100 jobs. that's certainly important,” Distefano said. “Those are jobs with a family-sustaining wage, and those are few and far between.”

With the school up for sale, he said, “We would hope another employer would come in and create that many or more jobs.”

The students and staff at the school have helped support growth of local retail and restaurant establishments, as well as student rental properties.

Referring to the students, Distefano noted, “The benefits of WyoTech were very tangible — an expanded economy and an artificial population of predominantly males between the ages of 18 to 25, along with everything those people buy and use and consume.”

He reasoned that the economic sectors that benefited from WyoTech's arrival now could lose some ground as a result of the school's decline in enrollment.

“That's 600 people who aren't buying gas or groceries,” Distefano said, adding, “I think the people that were in the property boom have been feeling the squeeze for a couple years now. It's just going to spill over to retail.”

Along with economic growth, the influx of WyoTech students contributed to traffic congestion and complaints in the vicinity of the school, Distefano noted.

But the school and its students also have become known for local community service contributions.

“Our students are very good about outreach,” Herman said, noting they have pitched in for local community cleanup efforts and have assisted the Habitat for Humanity organization. The Blairsville campus also was recognized by the American Red Cross for being a top site for donated pints in blood drives regularly held at the school.

Regardless of what the future brings for the Blairsville school, Herman said, “The faculty and staff are focused on our students and giving them the education they paid for.

“We feel very confident that the education we provide leads toward gainful employment.”

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or jhimler@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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