Dispatches from the ITT Tech Closing: Students Suffer Consequences

Posted By Derek Johnson on September 16, 2016 at 9:35 am
Dispatches from the ITT Tech Closing: Students Suffer Consequences

Going into the Labor Day weekend, Amy Lawson could see a bright future almost within her grasp. The Wichita, KN, resident was but a few months away from a college degree and certification as a registered nurse. She had sacrificed for nearly three years, and it was nearly time to capitalize on her effort. The big prize: She and her family planned to buy a home. But then things fell apart.

The day after Labor Day, the parent of ITT Technical Institutes abruptly closed its campuses, affecting about 40,000 students – including Lawson. For-profit education critics applauded the ITT Tech closing, saying the U.S. Department of Education sanctions that led to the action protected students from predatory practices that would land them in deep debt for an education that might not improve their circumstances. For students such as Lawson, the outcome isn’t so clear-cut.

Certainly she’s angry at the school. Already $72,000 in debt, ($60,000 of which went to the for-profit school) Lawson says that figure might have eventually reached as high as $90,000 had she continued at ITT Tech.

She feels as though the college scammed her, but she’s also mad at the federal government. “The reason I am incredibly angry with the Department of Education is because they have been investigating ITT Tech for several years and they still allowed students to enroll, knowing there were concerns about accreditation, knowing about how student aid was being handled,” Lawson says. “I would have appreciated them stepping in and protecting students [earlier].”

Though current students are eligible to have their loans discharged, it comes with consequences: They must acknowledge that their credits are worthless and pay taxes on the loans, which are treated as income. If they continue their degree at another college, they must start from scratch as incoming freshmen. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” Lawson says. “I was six months away from my graduation date, and I am maxed out on federal aid. So if I want my loans forgiven from ITT, I have to start all the way over.”

Starting over isn’t without its own personal challenges. Lawson quit her job of six years as a certified nursing assistant at the behest of school officials, who told her college is a full-time endeavor. A wife and mother, Lawson says the move to a one-income household forced her family to delay buying a home. The higher income she expected as a registered nurse was supposed to put the family on more solid financial footing. “I kept telling my family ‘Guys, we just have to wait six more months and then we can move,’ and now I have to tell them ‘it’s going to be three more years.’ I can’t afford three more years of being in this situation,” she says.

Caught off guard

Lawson’s not alone in her feelings. Though the possibility of a shutdown had been high ever since news broke that the Department of Education planned to cut the school off from access to future financial aid, students say school officials downplayed or denied this possibility right up until they went public with the ITT Tech closing announcement.

“They didn’t communicate to us at all. We didn’t learn the school was closing until the day the school closed,” says Donna Price, a student of the school’s nursing program in Ohio. “We had no idea – no idea. We were under the impression that we were going to be going to class. We were assured by the dean that nothing that was going on would affect us.”

Price started at ITT Tech in 2014 after a career as an EMT and was in her eighth semester. Weeks ago, she heard rumors from fellow students that the school might close and took those concerns to school officials. The dean assured her, she says, that the dispute with the Department of Education applied only to future students and that nothing would affect the ability of current students to graduate. Now, with $40,000 in student loan debt, Price is desperately searching for another school to will accept her credits and allow her to finish her degree.

The stakes are high: She says her 12-year-old son with autism and an elderly disabled mother depend on her. “This was going to help me afford a better life. I’m nervous, I’m very emotional, I feel like I have been through a traumatic event. I have a lot of people depending on me, and I depended on ITT to help me achieve my goals, and they took my money and gave me nothing.”

The ITT Tech closing response

For the thousands enrolled when the school shuttered, recent days have served up a cocktail of stress, confusion, anger, and despair. Support groups have been started on Facebook and a Change.org petition asking the federal government to forgive the loans of students and graduates is inching toward the 1,000-signature threshold needed to trigger a reply from the White House. Meanwhile, more than 100 former students have declared they will refuse to make their student loan payments to protest what they term lax oversight on the part of the government.

Some students, including Information Technology student Brandon Watkins in Memphis, TN, are scrambling to transfer to another school but finding that most colleges won’t accept ITT credits. “The six months I was there, I’m glad I got the education and knowledge, but that’s six months that I’ll never see again,” he says.

Students report only sparse communication from ITT officials in the months leading up to the school’s closure and complete radio silence afterwards. Those interviewed say school officials have not answered phone calls or returned emails since sending a mass email Sept. 6 announcing the ITT Tech closing. “Before this whole situation went down, they used to contact me, teachers would call me if I missed a day in class,” Watkins says. “After the [shutdown], I received no emails, no calls, no nothing after the September 6 email.”

Since the school closed, the Department of Education and Federal Student Aid have put up several resources for current and former students to evaluate their options. As for the school itself, nothing. All contact information has been scrubbed from the ITT Tech website, and all phone numbers and email addresses went silent. A notice on the school’s website urges students to contact the Department of Education, Federal Student Aid or Department of Veterans Affairs with any questions. Multiple calls and emails to ITT Tech officials requesting were not returned.

The ‘lucky’ ones

Jeffery Snow of Minnesota was one of the lucky ones. He finished his second associate’s degree a week before the ITT Tech closing. But even he spoke of frantically trying to track down school officials to get a copy of his degree and find out whether his graduation ceremony was still happening. He ultimately wound up holding a small private ceremony with friends and family at a lake. Now he wonders how his degree will be perceived by others.

“The information and education happened, it’s not like it was a waste of time, but yeah that question of the credibility [of your degree] sits in the back of your mind. I’m embarrassed when I talk to my coworkers about where I went,” Snow says.

Meanwhile, Watkins continues searching for a transfer school and says, despite the ITT Tech closing debacle, he would consider attending another for-profit university. But Lawson and Snow say their experiences have soured them on the industry.

“I don’t know if any of my credits would transfer but probably not,” Snow says. “I’m probably in the column of ‘no.’ I’m seeing all these [for-profit] schools get investigated and stuff and I just think, ‘No, no thanks.’”

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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