The sudden closure of ITT Technical Institute in September interrupted the lives of tens of thousands of students who were promised a path to a more secure future. Some had just started their higher education with the for-profit school and others were just a few classes away from earning a degree. All are finding themselves in the difficult position of having to start over or try to transfer credits from a school marred by allegations of fraud.
One group of 82 students who were in the nursing program at ITT Tech’s Salem, Va., campus are a prime example of the predicaments facing the 35,000 people the shutdown displaced. Though all of the colleges offering registered nursing in the region say they want to help, none will accept credits from ITT Tech’s nursing courses, leaving students with little hope of completing their degrees.
The federal government cut off student aid to ITT Tech after the school’s accreditor threatened expulsion in the face of mounting investigations, lawsuits and enforcement actions for lying about job placement rates and steering students into predatory loans.
None of the cases centered on the quality of education at ITT Tech, but some schools are questioning the rigor of its programs. Other institutions are discovering that there is no seamless way to transfer credits from a for-profit school to a nonprofit college.
“What the Department of Education has done benefits no one,” said Steve Gunderson, president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a for-profit trade group. “This is really a question of when the Department will stop its incredible assault on career schools — one that puts thousands of students on the streets with debt and no degree.”
Alongside the federal Education Department, state higher education councils have been organizing transfer fairs and information sessions to connect ITT Tech students to other schools. But states, including Virginia, are having trouble accessing student transcripts from the court-appointed trustee overseeing ITT Tech’s bankruptcy proceedings, creating another hurdle for transferring.
“We have never had a situation like this when a school closes,” said Sylvia Rosa-Casanova of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. “We usually have no trouble working with a school to get records. This is unusual, but there are colleges still trying to work with these students.”
Dozens of vocational schools and community colleges near ITT Tech campuses around the country are welcoming displaced students. Schools like Florida State College at Jacksonville and Harcum College in Pennsylvania are making exceptions to accept credits. Columbus State Community College in Ohio is even offering scholarships to displaced students. But many schools will only accept general-education classes because their academic standards differ.
At an open house for ITT Tech students at Virginia Western Community College, Amber Janney, 37, said she was told there was no way the school would count the core courses from ITT Tech’s nursing program, and she was encouraged to apply for the nursing program in the fall. That would mean taking a total of five years to complete her associate degree, which Janney says is not worth her time.
Janney quit her full-time job in March 2015 and sent her then-6-year old daughter to stay with her parents, as early-morning classes and far-flung clinical rotations proved too demanding on her schedule. There aren’t many colleges with registered nursing programs in Roanoke, and ITT Tech gave her a $25,000 scholarship that cut the cost of the two-year nursing degree in half.
“It’s just me and my little girl, and it’s a struggle to put food on the table. I did this for me and her, but I’ve had to sacrifice so much,” said Janney, 37, who had worked in health care for 15 years as a medical assistant and lab technician. “I went the past few summers without seeing her. My dad taught her to ride a bike and I missed it.”
With 24 weeks until graduation, Janney received an email saying ITT Tech, after 50 years in business, had discontinued operations at all campuses. All the late nights studying and time away from her daughter would be for nothing if Janney couldn’t find somewhere to finish her degree.
“Because we knew there would be so much competition between all of us nursing students — my class, the class behind us and the one behind them — we tried to get a spot somewhere,” she said. “But everywhere we turn we’re getting shot down.”
Administrators at Virginia Western say their nursing program is far more selective than ITT Tech. And while they are trying to make allowances to help all of the displaced students, the school must maintain academic integrity.
“Nursing is particularly difficult,” said Elizabeth Wilmer, vice president of academic and student affairs at Virginia Western. “The curriculum is so different between colleges and they don’t necessarily align, especially since ITT was on a quarter system and we’re on a semester system.”
Wilmer said at least 73 former ITT Tech students have contacted the school, 48 of them from the nursing program. Each case is under consideration, but Wilmer would not definitively say whether anything could be done to help the nursing students nearing completion.
“These students are coming to us in a difficult situation,” she said. “They want immediate results. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to give them immediate results. We need to evaluate each one individually, look at where they are in their program and look at how those courses align with our courses.”
Other than Virginia Western, the next best bet for the ITT Tech nursing students is East Coast Polytechnic Institute University (ECPI), a for-profit chain with a location in Roanoke. The school just started its nursing program and cannot accept transfers during its provisional period, said Barbara Larar, senior vice president at ECPI.
“There’s no getting around the board of nursing regulation,” she said. “We’re working with nursing students at our other locations, but unfortunately our situation in Roanoke is unique.”
Larar said ECPI is offering a free 10-week trial period for former ITT Tech students who pass the entrance exam. Hundreds have taken the school up on the offer, she said. But as enticing as it might be, Janney said she can’t imagine spending another two years taking classes she’s already passed.
“I don’t know if I physically have it in me to do this all over again,” Janney said. “I had 20-page care plans due each week, driving an hour back and forth for clinicals . . . the effort it took to do this program to have it just wiped clean is very disheartening.”
Janney has $21,000 in student loans from ITT, which are eligible for forgiveness under what is known as a closed-school discharge. Transferring her credits to complete the nursing degree, however, will rob her of that option. Janney can still apply to have the debt erased through the government’s borrower defense to repayment program for victims of fraud, but few people have successfully appealed their cases.
Rosa-Casanova of Virginia’s Higher Education Council said the ITT nursing students are having the most difficulty transferring. She has contacted each of the 82 students to go over their cases, advising those who had just entered the nursing program to start over. But she’s not sure how to help students like Janney who were about to graduate.
“This is a good example of a worst-case scenario,” Rosa-Casanova said. “You have students who are almost done, cannot get a placement to complete the little bit that’s left, and they have debt. What’s in place to help them? We need to think long and hard about what we can do to provide help in the future.”