The news that for-profit university chain ITT Tech would shutter 137 campuses across the country this week amidst a federal investigation into predatory lending, recruiting practices left thousands of students’ futures uncertain. They have big choices to make and, in many cases, few options.
Roughly 35,000 of the school’s 45,000 students are eligible to have their federal student loans discharged, which could total as much as a half billion dollars alone, according to the Department of Education. But if students decide to continue their education at a different school, they may disqualify themselves from loan forgiveness altogether.
“We may be underestimating the potential impact of this and students filing for forgiveness of loans,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy for Cappex.com, a college and scholarship comparison site. “This isn’t the last we’ll see of this situation.”
Students who were still enrolled when the campuses closed — or withdrew in the last 120 days — can apply for a federal loan discharge. Those who graduated or withdrew several months ago or have private student loans, however, are likely still on the hook for their debt. Their only recourse is to file a borrower’s defense claim, a difficult process that would require them to prove they were defrauded by ITT Tech in some way.
“In a properly regulated environment, we don’t have 45,000 students left holding the bag and 8,000 staff members becoming unemployed,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “If there’s any silver lining, it’s that this operation won’t be able to pull in any new victims.”
ITT Tech officials were unavailable for comment; however, the company pushed back against regulators’ allegations in a statement this week.
“We had no intention prior to the receipt of the most recent sanctions of closing down despite the challenging regulatory environment that now threatens all proprietary higher education,” the statement says.
MagnifyMoney reached out to ITT Tech students to find out how they are moving forward in the wake of the school closure.
Like many people who enroll at for-profit universities, for Kevin Jackson, age 34, it all started with a commercial.
When Jackson, who studied computing at ITT Tech’s Newtown, Va., campus between 2003 and 2007, saw the iconic ITT Tech commercial, the timing was perfect. He was looking for a nontraditional college experience and a program that would prime students for jobs in their field. The first three semesters went smoothly. The administrators seemed to care, and teachers even called to check on him when he had the flu and missed class.
By the fourth semester, however, he noticed teachers were leaving, and eventually the campus dean departed. New teachers didn’t seem to know the class material, he said. One particularly troubling incident occurred in 2003, halfway through his program. He was called to the financial aid office and thought his paperwork was incomplete. Instead, the financial aid counselor asked him to cosign a student loan for someone in his class. He balked.
Tyler McCormick, age 34, graduated from ITT Tech’s Bessemer, Ala., campus in June 2015. He’s considering filing bankruptcy to relieve part of his $70,000 in federal and private student debt.
“I knew I would have problems paying my own loans, and I wasn’t going to put his education in my hands,” Jackson said. “They spent 45 minutes trying to twist my arm but finally dropped it and asked another student. When I said ‘no,’ that’s when they began to treat me differently.”
Jackson enrolled with ambitions of working in IT support. He graduated with $40,000 worth of federal and private student loans and no offers of employment. In job interviews, employers would question his decision to attend ITT Tech, he said. He took administrative jobs over the next decade until he finally landed a job in 2014 with Xerox. He processes applications for new Medicaid enrollees.
“[The loans] are constantly weighing on me now,” he said. “They’ll allow you to pile forbearance on top of forbearance, but that interest builds up.”
About 100 miles away in Norfolk, 31-year-old Michael Ragsdale says he has little to show for the $20,000 in student loans that piled up during his years at ITT Tech.
Ragsdale enrolled in ITT Tech in 2005 when he attended a recruitment fair at a mall near campus. What drew him in was a sign that offered a free laptop. His computer had recently died, and he couldn’t afford a new one. He signed up to visit the campus that day.
“[The laptop] wasn’t free, of course. That cost is rolled into your student loans,” he said. “They suckered me in then, and it’s tough to relive it all now.”
Ragsdale, who uses a wheelchair, applied for the game design program but was put into network design classes, which he stuck with at the time. After a year, Ragsdale withdrew from the program and decided to attend a local community college. He later transferred to a four-year college. He now works for the college’s Residence Hall Association.
Professionally, he tries to pretend like ITT Tech never happened. “Like many ITT students, I now only put my community college and four-year college on my resume,” he said. “I don’t work in my field of study, but I’m happy where I am.”
Ragsdale hopes to help others like him find a good career despite ITT Tech.
“You can turn your life around,” he said. “The world doesn’t end with the collapse of ITT.”
Waiting for answers
Brandon VanVorst, age 30, signed up for computer networking classes at ITT Tech’s Albany, N.Y., campus in 2009 because it offered him the option to continue working his full-time job in the restaurant industry and take both day and night classes. For the first few semesters, the arrangement worked. His employers knew he was taking classes, and his guidance counselors helped him find the best classes to fit his schedule.
After six months, however, staffing dropped, and the campus cut back on class offerings. The available classes didn’t fit VanVorst’s work schedule, but the guidance counselor signed him up anyway. To continue qualifying for federal financial aid, he had to take at least three classes. He failed several due to poor attendance, racking up $40,000 in student loan debt in the process.
“They would sign me up for classes that I couldn’t take and wouldn’t work with me on flexibility,” he said. “The selling point of ITT is that adults can better their careers, but in reality, it doesn’t work for those who have real jobs.”
VanVorst put his federal loans in forbearance two months ago and filed a defense to repayment application in hopes that he can receive loan forgiveness. He’d like to be reimbursed for the classes that he couldn’t attend based on the scheduling, which shows up on his transcript as failures due to attendance.
“I do have a job in the IT world, and I’ve climbed the company chain because of my work ethic,” he said. “So many people have said they believe their degree is worthless, but to me, the person holding the piece of paper makes it worth it.”
Tyler McCormick, age 34, graduated from ITT Tech’s Bessemer, Ala., campus in June 2015. His $70,000 in federal and private student loans were in deferment through the end of August. Just days before ITT Tech announced its closing, McCormick received a bill for the entire amount of his loan. Now he’s seeing loan consolidation ads online for ITT Tech students.
“The vultures are trying to swoop in and take advantage of students,” he said. “I’m trying to take a breath and pause for a second.”
McCormick is contacting lawyers in his area for professional advice before making decisions and considering Chapter 7 bankruptcy as an option. He’s heard through several ITT Tech student groups on social media that lawyers have been reluctant to take cases because everything is still up in the air.
“I learned about computers, not bankruptcy,” he said. “I think we all need to step back and see what professional student loan experts say.”
Finding a way forward
Kandi Canales, age 46, was shocked when she opened her email to find news about ITT Tech’s closing last Tuesday. Canales completed her first year in the nursing program at the Norfolk, Va., campus and planned to start the next quarter on Sept. 12. Instead, she no longer had a school to attend.
“I got sick to my stomach because I’ve worked very hard to get where I am,” she said. “I started crying and even threw up. It took me back to how I felt in 2011 when my 20-year marriage ended.”
She heard rumors about trouble at ITT Tech but hadn’t paid much attention to the media coverage. It was her psychology instructor who told her about the new student ban in late August.
“None of us thought anything about it, just that we wouldn’t have new students coming to the school,” she said. “But on Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., an email went out that ITT closed, effective immediately. That’s the only notice we received.”
Canales is one of many nursing students across the country struggling to figure out the next step. In the ITT Tech Warriors group on Facebook, several students are turning to their state nursing boards for permission to complete programs at other schools or sit for licensing exams. Canales scheduled an appointment to visit her local community college on Friday, take a placement exam, apply for new financial aid, and start again next semester.
“At my age, there is no option to sit back and say, ‘Woe is me.’ I have to keep moving forward,” Canales said. “I have to start from scratch all over again, but I’m going to get this degree.”
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