SAN JOSE--Hundreds of National Hispanic University students woke up Thursday to the news that their school would close in summer 2015. For one of them, Alejandra Valladarez, the news greeted her on her 26th birthday.
"Thank you for my present," the junior from San Jose said with a hard smile. "I'm greeting this with anger and a heavy heart."
On a brilliant first day of spring, she and several other students at the East Side campus said the announcement by the school's board of directors did not come as a surprise. NHU had stopped enrolling new students several weeks ago, less than four years after it was purchased in 2010 by Laureate Education Inc., a for-profit college chain with dozens of campuses around the world but few in the United States.
News of NHU's closing unleashed a well-spring of complex reactions from longtime supporters who believed the idealistic school had sold its soul to others who believed there was no other way to survive. Established in 1981 in Oakland, NHU moved to San Jose in 1985 with ambitions of becoming the country's leading institution for Latino education.
Adrian Vargas, who teaches visual arts there, was a supporter from the beginning. While he opposed the sale, he said more support from the Latino community and philanthropists could have pulled the school out of its financial difficulties.
"Its a shame it wasn't supported by the community enough to keep it from going to a corporate interest," Vargas said in the courtyard entrance.
His assessment was shared by Edward Alvarez, an NHU director, who later in the afternoon told the Mercury News editorial board that he had spent two years wooing Latino philanthropists with little success before putting the school up for sale.
"To all those who would second-guess," Alvarez said, "I spent two years trying to find somebody."
He and Jonathan Kaplan, chairman of the NHU board and CEO of Laureate's online education division, defended the decision to close the school after less than four years at the helm. As they had before, they pointed to federal regulatory decisions after the purchase that curbed financial aide to liberal arts students -- who made up 25 percent of NHU's enrollment -- and stopped the university from launching new online education programs.
Kaplan said NHU was suffering "significant losses" and that the likelihood of gaining financial stability and standing on its own was questionable.
But on Thursday, the 500 or so students left on campus were forced to look immediately into their own near and uncertain futures.
Should they stay and graduate from a university that will eventually disappear? What would that degree be worth in the eyes of future employers or graduate programs? Or should they cut their losses and transfer to another college? Several feared that the academic credits already earned at NHU would not be accepted by other schools and that they would have to start over at a heavy cost in time and money.
"I love NHU but I have to put my education first," said Banessa Felix, a 21-year-old business student from Hayward who plans on transferring to another school. "I'm not sure who's fault it is for this, but you begin to feel it's your own fault."
Some students who wanted a traditional, classroom approach to education said they felt abandoned by Laureate after NHU's drive to enroll thousands of new students in Internet classes did not produce the desired results.
"We tried so hard to get into a four-year university and we did," said Denise Herrera, a 19-year-old freshman. "Now our faith in them has hit rock bottom."
Herrera said she chose to attend NHU mainly for its small classes, a curriculum filled with courses that cover relevant Latino issues and trends, professors and administrators who are happy to meet with students, and a campus environment that prized multiculturalism.
NHU President Gladys Ato spent much of the morning meeting with students and trying to assure them that Laureate and the university would help each of them graduate on time or achieve "seamless" transfers to other schools.
Valladarez, who emerged as a main student spokeswoman, wasn't buying that promise at face value.
"I asked them for a specific plan for every student, and for them to put it in writing," Valladarez said. She estimated that half would choose to stay and half would leave for other schools.
Raymond Gonzales, a graduate student, plans on staying but harbors some reluctance.
"It does make me wonder if my degree will be devalued by other colleges and universities when I plan to continue and pursue more graduate education," he wrote in an email. "More importantly, I have never been prepared to answer prospective employers and institutions of higher education on why my college closed. I feel that indicating 'financial instability' will leave a bad view on my education that I worked hard to obtain."
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.