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Schools close, but students still pay

June 13, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Trade schools and vocational schools provide a wonderful service for students who find traditional colleges are not for them. But what happens when the school you attend goes bankrupt and has to close? You may be left with a huge bill that still has to be paid off.Many of these schools require you to pay up front, and often the money comes from a loan from a private finance company who expects you to pay them back no matter what happens to the school.

When they're in the air, professional helicopter pilots can feel like they're on top of the world. It's a rewarding job that requires months of training to master. Christian Shaffer of Oro Grande thought he had the right stuff. Shaffer signed up for instruction with Silver State Helicopters Flight Academy and thought he was on his way to becoming a chopper pilot.

"They promised me a long-term career with Silver State themselves, promised me good pay, and a lot of credentials that would help me to further my career," said Shaffer.

A North Las Vegas company, Silver State thought there were no limits and had operations in 28 locations across the country, including Long Beach and Chino. In handout video, Silver State makes the 18-month-long training program look very exciting.

But as with all students, it was going to cost Shaffer plenty. Silver State got the aspiring pilot a loan through an outside private lender to pay the tuition.

"The first $24,000 was taken out before I even started class," said Shaffer.

Six months later, Christian was even deeper in debt and far from living his dream.

"I was already $48,000 in debt, owed $48,000, with only four hours of flight time logged," said Shaffer.

Helistream in Orange County is a helicopter school that's been around for over 20 years. According to Helistream's Director of Operations, Rod Anderson, Silver State's requirement of students to pay so much up front was unusual for the industry.

At Anderson's chopper school there is a three-to-one teacher/student ratio, with plenty of hands-on training. Silver State emphasized more classroom instruction and a large student class-to-teacher ratio. But remember, Shaffer was told he would have a job once he graduated from Silver State.

The only thing is, Silver State declared bankruptcy well before Shaffer finished his training, and after he had paid nearly $70,000 to attend the school.

"It was pretty devastating to the family -- very. I can't explain it enough, how it really put a damper to our life and our future," said Shaffer.

With the school closed and Silver State with his money, Christian's only choice now is to hire an attorney and attempt to get Silver State's president and CEO, Jerry Airola, to give him his money back.

"We're certainly going to investigate all the avenues of recourse against the lenders. If there's been fraud or collusion by the lenders, we hope to use this to wipe out these student loans," said attorney Michael Berger.

"They will have lost time, they will have lost their hopes, but at least maybe they won't have a huge burden on them," said attorney Gail Higgins.

At this point, Christian's only hope is with a lawsuit. But before you enter into a contract with a trade school or vocational school, make sure you know your rights and know how to protect yourself.

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