WECT Investigates: Students involuntarily withdrawn from college training program, not offered refunds

Updated: Sep. 10, 2020 at 3:22 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It’s been a rough year for all of us. But for some students at Miller-Motte Technical College in Wilmington, 2020 just took another difficult turn.

They say they are being involuntarily withdrawn from their training program, effectively losing credit for all of their studies up to this point, and still being required to pay for that coursework.

“[We] are being forced to withdraw by the administration. Back in March they placed us on LOA (leave of absence) due to the pandemic and everything being shut down. We never received word of a return date until late May. We were told that our date of return would be Aug. 10. They never sent word to us and when they did it was to tell us that they were withdrawing every student in the Esthetics program on the morning we were supposed to return to campus,” student Shawna Baker explained.

The emailed notice sent to students from Miller-Motte’s Director of Education Kurt Tressler said, “[W]e have determined that for the foreseeable future, we will be unable to return students in our Esthetics Technology programs to the classroom in a way that is safe and in keeping with federal and state health and safety guidelines.... Because we believe that we will be unable to return you to the classroom within the next 30-60 days, we will be required to withdraw you from your program.”

Tressler continued that the U.S. Department of Education does not allow colleges to extend of Leave of Absence beyond 180 days within any 12-month period. What remains unclear is under these incredibly unusual circumstances if it was necessary to place students on Leave of Absence status in the first place. They say they are willing and able to return to the classroom, but are not being given that opportunity.

“We’re in a pandemic. It’s something that is 100% beyond our control. It was not an option for us to take a leave of absence. It was mandatory that we took it. So I feel like because it was mandatory, they need to be a little more flexible and a little more lenient with it,” Baker said.

Cosmetology students at nearby Cape Fear Community College of Wilmington have been able to return for in-person training. CFCC students in the Esthetics Program are practicing on mannequins to alleviate health concerns. WECT asked Miller-Motte to explain why similar accommodations had not been made for students in their Esthetics Program.

“[W]e must take into account the existing guidelines outlined by our approval agencies (like the North Carolina Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners) and the U.S. Department of Education. This is an unprecedented time and we are working diligently to ensure all expectations are met from a regulatory standpoint while keeping everyone safe,” a spokesperson answered.

“In order to meet the clock hour requirements for classes of the Beauty and Wellness programs students are often scheduled to be in class Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. In our judgement, health and safety would be put at risk with the extended amount of time these classes, students, staff, and clients would need to be on campus to meet the clock hour requirements.”

Adding to the Miller-Motte students' frustration, students enrolled in their school’s medical and dental program have been allowed to return for hands-on training. The school said they made that exception because students in those programs were training to be essential workers, but much of the dental and medical coursework is still being provided online.

Miller-Motte Esthetics students were given the option to transfer to other programs being offered by the college, but the students WECT spoke to did not think it was fair to ask them to change career paths.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous," student Julia Espurvoa told WECT. "If I wanted to go to school to be a dental student I would’ve joined the dental program. If I wanted to go to school for criminal justice, I would’ve joined the criminal justice program. I chose esthetics.”

The letter notifying students that they were being withdrawn from the program reminded them that they may be required to begin making payments soon for Direct Loan funds borrowed prior to the pandemic.

“We’re leaving without a license to be able to practice what we were going to school for. So some of us, we’re just like, living paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet," Baker said. She’s been working as an Uber driver while her classes have been on hiatus to try to generate some income for her family.

Baker said she was about two months into the seven-month course when classes were cancelled. She’s spent about $2,500 for her coursework so far, but said other esthetics students who were just 5 weeks shy of graduating had invested closer to $11,000.

“We are more than capable of maintaining the mandates of social distancing, less than 10 people for ’gatherings’, wearing masks, and the main thing we learned the very first day of this course was sanitation is key. We just feel as though we are being ripped off and cheated by this institution. Due to Miller-Motte being a private college, we are unable to transfer our credit hours to a different college in the area. So we will be made to start over and lose all the time and money that we have put into getting our licenses,” Baker said.

Miller-Motte insists that the training provided so far still has value, despite students current difficulties trying to transfer to other institutions.

“Each student can request and receive a copy of their transcript as well as state board paperwork showing their hours completed to date. Acceptance of hours earned/completed at MMC for transfer is determined solely by the receiving institution. MMC is also engaged in active, ongoing discussions with other institutions to facilitate a transition for those students who choose not to apply their tuition paid to date toward another program that Miller-Motte continues to offer virtually/online,” MMC spokeswoman Maureen Wiegert added.

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