Ecotech, Aurora’s bright-spot renewable energy school, abruptly goes dark

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AURORA | Brian Dyk, academic dean of renewable energy college Ecotech Institute, hugged students goodbye Thursday and referred them to other technical colleges across the state.

Dyk said his team of educators at Ecotech Institute were given only hours notice that parent company Education Corporation of America, one of the largest for-profit college networks in the country, would abruptly close the school this week after the network lost accreditation, which was suspended.

Some students said they were one test away from receiving a degree or diploma.

“We were the gold standard for renewable energy education in the state,” Dyk said of Ecotech.”Everybody – literally, around the world – shopped at Ecotech for graduates.”

He walked through the school’s sleek lobby and surveyed classrooms chock-full of expensive, technical equipment.

“It is a gorgeous space, but it was one of the reasons we sank,” Dyk said.

According to Dyk, ECA paid $125,000 a month to rent the high-tech space, which was built in 2010 inside a defunct Target store in a big-box strip center. The corporate leadership intentionally built too many classrooms expecting enrollment to grow, he said, but the space was never filled.

Dyk said ECA was failing to pay rent and other costs, blaming these decisions and “colossal mismanagement” for ECA’s collapse.

The Birmingham, Alabama-based ECA said Wednesday it was closing schools operating as Virginia College, Brightwood College, Brightwood Career Institute, Ecotech Institute and Golf Academy of America in more than 70 locations in 21 states. The company said in October that it had more than 20,000 students, although more recent documents indicate the number may be closer to 15,000.

ECA informed Ecotech staff about the closure just a day before students would take final tests for associates degrees and diplomas in operating wind or solar energy technology.

Solar energy instructor Dan Fink said some students were very close to becoming certified renewable energy technicians and entering the workforce.

Some students also finished their programs Thursday and will receive their diploma or degree, Fink said.

Mike Bergman, 35, was a student with four months of coursework for an associates degree in solar energy technology. He was disappointed by the closure.

“This place was awesome,” Bergman said, who is an Army veteran. He said he enrolled expecting to secure a good job in Colorado’s green energy sector.

“It’s going to be different,” he said of his future.

Bergman’s student loans will be paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Dyk said about half of the students are veterans and will not have outstanding debt, but a few students will.

A two-year associate’s degree cost about $17,500 per year for tuition, Dyk said.

Dyk said he will be helping students apply for forgiven loans through the federal Department of Education. He’s also launching a Facebook page called “Ecotech Refugees” to help his students finish their education elsewhere.

Student Camden Nickell, 22, was studying for a diploma program in solar energy technology.

“You would think the government would have saved this place, or someone with deep pockets,” Nickell said.

He plans to intern with an instructor in the solar energy field and continue his education at Colorado Mountain College’s solar energy program in Lakewood.

Ecotech was one of a handful of renewable energy-focused technical schools sprinkled throughout the state. Dyk said he is working with other schools to ensure academic credits from Ecotech will transfer to ensure students continue their educations.

“We can’t in good conscience abandon our students,” Dyk said.

Ecotech staff will be unemployed as of tomorrow, Dyk said. ECA is not providing severance packages, and health insurance plans were terminated. Staff should be eligible for unemployment, according to Diane Worthington, former ECA spokesperson.

Worthington is now unemployed as well.

In September, ECA announced that Ecotech would not accept new students but stay open through 2019 to ensure all but two students finished their coursework.

Dyk said he is unsure what will become of the building or the technical equipment.

ECA, backed by investors including private equity firm Willis Stein & Partners of Chicago, is the latest in a series of for-profit colleges to close after allegations that they were loading students up with debt while not providing them with marketable skills.

In October, the company sued the U.S. Education Department seeking to maintain its federal funding, which was in jeopardy over its dire financial situation. A judge later dismissed the suit.

Court documents filed by the company said its lagging revenue left it unable to make payments on its debt or rental fees, and that it faced eviction at several campuses. ECA estimated it owed $66 million at the time. Even before then, ECA was planning to shutter 26 campuses to cut costs. Another federal judge in Georgia later granted a bankruptcy-like receivership meant to protect the company from creditors.

ECA largely blamed falling enrollment on an upswing in the economy, which left fewer adults heading to school for job skills, and on increased federal regulation of the for-profit college industry.

The sudden closure drew criticism from the U.S. Education Department, which said it had been working with the company to arrange a shut-down that gave students time to transfer.

“Instead of taking the next few months to close in an orderly fashion, ECA took the easy way out and left 19,000 students scrambling to find a way to finish the education program they started,” Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Like the recently shuttered Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute chains, Education Corporation of America was overseen by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, one of the watchdog groups the federal government appoints to ensure colleges offer a quality education.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY.