LARAMIE — For WyoTech, 2015 has been a year of change.
The for-profit technical college was purchased by Zenith Education Group after its former owner, Corinthian Colleges, collapsed amid a cash shortage and fraud allegations. Since then, a significant number of employees have been laid off and enrollment has plummeted.
But as students lined up in caps and gowns, director of education Caleb Perriton was still happy as he reflected on what the graduates accomplished to reach Friday's commencement ceremony.
"This is a very gratifying day for us because this is when they actually start their careers," Perriton said. "From the campus president to the custodial crew, all have the same job: to get these students a career. We do very well at that, and today is where it all starts."
The small graduating class, with about 140 students, was indicative of the overall student population, Perriton said. During the school's peak of enrollment, in 2008, there were about 1,800 students on campus. Today, there are 265.
In February, former WyoTech students were offered debt forgiveness after Corinthian was accused of falsifying job placement data in advertisements for its 97 campuses and altering grades and student attendance records.
Students who borrowed through Corinthian’s now-defunct Genesis loan program saw a 40 percent reduction in the principal balances. About $480 million in loans were forgiven.
When the next session begins, the student body should increase to about 320.
"It's small for what we're accustomed to," Perriton said. "This is certainly an anomaly in WyoTech's history right now, with such a low student population."
Perriton said the drop in enrollment is largely the result of residual effects of the sale, which severely affected recruitment efforts.
"Our primary source of students is high school graduates," Perriton said. "We weren't effectively able to recruit the 2015 graduating class like we have in past years because we didn't have recruiters in every state like we've traditionally had. I hate to say it, but our student population dip is a self-inflicted wound from the Corinthian days. I would say that's primarily because they laid off a lot of admissions representatives."
Zenith laid off an additional 42 WyoTech employees in May, about three months after buying the school from Corinthian. The cuts represented about 30 percent of the staff.
Perriton said he expects enrollment to begin bouncing back with the arrival of 2016 high school graduates in the summer.
Zenith has been "aggressive" in hiring new admissions representatives and changing the marketing strategy in an effort to attract students, Perriton said.
Even with low numbers, there is no shortage of jobs for vocational careers, nor a surplus of training schools, Perriton said.
"The job market is as strong as ever; more technicians are needed than we have graduates," Perriton said. "There are not many places you can go and get a specialized automotive or diesel education."
"Who owns us is not as important as the future of these students, who all have careers," Perriton said. "And these are not simple jobs; these are mortgage-paying careers."
For Chris Wiegers of Cheyenne — who was recognized as one of nine outstanding graduates this session — graduation marked the culmination of a goal of his since 2006 when he visited the campus with a high school auto body course.
"I can't imagine not having gone here," Wiegers said. "I've learned a heck of a lot. It's sad to leave, but it's time to move on."