Like many of his fellow international students, Edwin Rodriguez, 30, came to New York from Colombia to attend college with nothing but ambitious dreams for his future. But after nearly two and a half years studying at the long-troubled for-profit ASA College, which abruptly shut its doors last week, he says he’s been left with thousands of dollars in debt, no degree, and ASA holding his student transcripts ransom.
“I feel I lost two years of my life,” said Rodriguez, who enrolled with ASA College in 2020.
After he received an email two weeks ago informing him of ASA’s imminent closing, Rodriguez said he contacted the college, demanding a tuition refund of $1,800 for the past semester and for his transcripts. Instead of refunding him, he claims ASA administrators said he would have to pay the college $5,000, the remainder of his outstanding tuition balance, in cash or money in order to receive his transcripts.
“I said no,” Rodriguez said. “I do not want to pay one dollar more for this school because the certifications they gave didn’t work, and the second thing is I don’t want to spend any more money at this college.”
In November, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) withdrew ASA’s accreditation because the school failed to adhere to its accreditation standards. And although ASA’s accreditation expired on March 1, the college, with campuses in Brooklyn and Manhattan, closed without the approval of the MSCHE.
Since MSCHE announced the college’s loss of accreditation in November, Jessica Ranucci, the coordinating attorney of the Special Litigation Unit with the New York Legal Assistance Group, says over 100 ASA students have contacted them for help, with many of them being international students. Like Rodriguez, they have recounted similar experiences with ASA withholding their transcripts in exchange for cash payments.
“Among the international students, we have heard from a number of students who have reported that they have had real problems getting ASA to sign their withdrawal paperwork,” she said.
Ranucci adds that international students are particularly vulnerable because their immigration status is completely reliant on their status as a student. Federal regulations require undergraduate students with F-1 and J-1 visas to take 12 credits each semester. Anything less can cause their visa to be revoked. If a situation occurs, such as their school abruptly closing, international students must have their transcripts transferred to their new school as soon as possible to stay in the country lawfully. Any delay can risk their status.
As most international students don’t qualify for federal student loans, Rodriguez has already paid the school $30,000 in tuition out of his own pocket since 2020. After hearing the news, he had a panic attack, he said. “I have anxiety problems so I had to go to the hospital for a week because I was thinking about how I was going to fix my life.”
The closure of ASA is the culmination of years of turmoil that go back as early as 2006.
On Feb. 10, MSCHE found ASA failed to communicate with students about the closure, to provide students with financial aid counseling, to release student transcripts, and to help place students at new schools.
Last October, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) forced ASA to pay $112,500 in civil penalties for a series of deceptive ads targeting international students. Many of the ads promised to help students stay in the country and provide them with $4,000-$8,000 “gifts” upon graduation.
The school has also faced several lawsuits, including lawsuits by at least 10 women claiming that ASA’s founder and owner Alex Shchegol raped and sexually harassed female international students. The school paid more than $2 million in out-of-court settlements.
ASA was also taken to court in a 2014 lawsuit for taking advantage of low-income international students, which was eventually dismissed in 2015 but was refiled and the case was settled in 2016.
ASA administrators did not respond to Documented’s request for comment.
Given the time and money Rodriguez invested in his ASA education, he refuses to return to Colombia empty-handed. He wants his story to be told and is seeking legal help.
“We come to this country with different dreams,” he said. “You pay for the school because you want to change your life but when you realize you don’t have anything after two years, you feel lost.”
The New York Legal Assistance Group is operating a free hotline for ASA students at 212-659-6166 or ASAHotline@nylag.org