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'We're just stuck and lost.' As Art Institute faces closure, students worry about their future.

The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham is based out of the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham.
The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham is based out of the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham. The News & Observer

The sign at the door of the Art Institute in downtown Durham this week welcomed students back, telling them to pick up their class schedules for the new academic session.

But Ladazah Bell, 19, an interior design major from Durham, didn't bother. She withdrew from the school about a week after learning that the Art Institute campus was no longer accepting new students and would likely close at the end of the year. When she asked for her transcript, she was told she owed more than $2,000, even though her last statement said she owed $600.

Bell had applied and been approved for a loan for the new term, and she has no idea what will happen now to that money or to her future.

"It's sad," she said. "We're just stuck and lost."

Her mother, Tamara Peak, has been on the phone trying to get answers. She estimates they've borrowed $40,000 so far for Bell's education. "Here she's working to try to become something, and she can't," Peak said.

Dream Center Education Holdings announced that it would stop enrolling new students at 30 campuses around the nation, including Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham, Art Institute of Charlotte and South University in High Point. The campuses are expected to close by the end of the year. The for-profit schools were supposed to become nonprofits, but Dream Center said it would close campuses because of declining enrollment and increased demand for online programs.

A spokeswoman for the company, Anne Dean, said in an email that the school staffs are meeting with students in groups and individually to determine the best path forward to complete their education. "We will be working with students to decide their next course of action on a case-by-case basis, as soon as possible," Dean wrote.

Dean said release of students' transcripts to requesting institutions won't be held up for financial reasons.

Schools are reaching out to "partner schools" in each market in the coming weeks and months to find other opportunities for students, Dean said. In the meantime, the company is offering several options for students, including:

Finishing their studies at the campus, if they can complete a degree by the end of the year. Tuition will be reduced by 50 percent.

Finishing their degrees online at another Dream Center campus. Tuition will be reduced by 50 percent for the remainder of the program.

Transfer to another Dream Center campus for face-to-face instruction in the same major. Tuition will be reduced by 50 percent for the remainder of the program.

Transfer to a partner university that is not part of Dream Center. Students who take this option are eligible for a $5,000 tuition grant.

It's unclear what the partner universities are for the North Carolina campuses.

Jordan Comer, 21, of Winston-Salem asked for a list of partner universities but hasn't received it. Comer had transferred to the Art Institute because she wanted to study interior design.

Now she needs to plan her next move, but there probably isn't time to enroll elsewhere for the fall. "Even if I wanted to get in school right now, it is definitely a struggle, because they legit start class in a month," she said. "Why didn't anybody give us a fair warning?"

Comer won't apply for the online option, she said.

"It's hard for interior design for all of your classes to be online, you know what I'm saying? You've got to do hands-on work. You have to draw," she said. "I don't want to take online classes."

On Monday morning, Comer was weighing whether to attend her 1 p.m. class.

"I don't want to start this session and then I'll be looking stupid, because nothing's transferring and I just wasted my time and my money attending these classes," Comer said.

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The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham takes up several floors in the main building at the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham. Zachery Eanes The News & Observer

She walked through the Durham campus, at the American Tobacco complex downtown, and described the classes as "slim to none." Only a few students were attending.

Comer is concerned that faculty and staff will soon leave their jobs and students won't be able to get help making a transition. She said she liked her classes and her professors, and she feels badly for them, too.

An internal email asked staff to remain solely focused on students. "Staffing changes will be made gradually between now and the end of the year," said the email, which was obtained by The News & Observer. "Some employees will exit in the near-term, others will be asked to stay for a longer period, including through the transition to ensure that we meet the needs of our continuing students."

Comer isn't giving up on her dream. She wants to design homes, apartments, hotels and dorms, but she doesn't know whether or where she'll be in school a year from now. She has a part-time job at a shoe store.

Peak won't give up on her daughter's future either. Even as the debt accumulates, she said, "I really want my child to continue her education."

Bell said she found out from news organizations that her school would close.

"I just feel hurt," she said. "You set your mind thinking you're going to finish it out here and this is going to be your school. And they hit you, like, oh, no."

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill
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