September 15 — 3:35 pm, 2016

ITT students unsure of future after tech school closes

Community College of Philadelphia is reaching out to them. But most can't transfer credits, and they may be saddled with debt.

phillip1cropped Greg Windle

At the end of the summer semester at ITT Technical Institute, Phillip T. (who did not want to give his full name) was studying for his final exams when he got the news that the for-profit school would be closing all campuses nationwide. He had finalized his course schedule for the fall semester just a week before he found out there would be no fall semester.

Like many ITT students, Phillip took classes while working and parenting. He graduated from Germantown High School “a few years ago” and enrolled in ITT’s Architecture and Design program for the summer semester while working full time in the plumbing and heating trades.

“I kind of shot the dice and crapped out with the school selection,” Phillip said. “I’m trying not to get caught in the crossfire, but we’re all kind of caught in the crossfire.”

On Tuesday, Phillip went to Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) for an event called "Fast Track to Enrollment for ITT Students," which gave the former students an opportunity to meet with CCP admissions and financial aid staff and get help enrolling for an upcoming semester. Phillip said he was thankful for CCP’s help, but he found out that none of his credits are transferable.

“It took a lot of energy – a lot of discipline,” Phillip said. “I’m trying not to let it stop me, but I feel like it was just wasted. Considering my trade, there were other things I could have done with that time.”

Although ITT closed its doors to roughly 35,000 students at 130 campuses in early September, it had been subject to financial and operational oversight from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) since August 2014. That same year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued the school, accusing it of leading students into expensive private loans that would likely end in default.

In 2015 the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged ITT and the company’s top two executives with fraud, on the grounds that the company hid poor performance and the impending financial implosion of two private student loan programs that it guaranteed. Other for-profit universities face similar predicaments: DeVry University has been sued by the Federal Trade Commission, Corinthian Colleges closed, and the FTC is investigating the University of Phoenix.

In August, the Department of Education announced that ITT would not be allowed to enroll new students who used federal financial aid unless the school complied with outstanding requests from the DOE. In early September, the school announced it was closing all campuses, effective immediately.

Phillip said he had heard rumors earlier in the summer that ITT might have to close, “but you figure a school of that large magnitude, with so many campuses and such a reach – I thought it was unlikely.”

“But now that I’ve read about everything that’s happened, I mean they knew it was in the works since January or February of this year,” Phillip said. “They knew it was eventually going to go down. It wasn’t a matter of them closing, it was just a matter of when they were going to close.”

The biggest problems that former ITT students face is credit transfers and loan forgiveness.

After Corinthian Colleges closed, the Department of Education agreed to forgive $171 million in loans to former students. But ITT students will only receive loan forgiveness on their federal loans, and only if they agree to relinquish all of their credits. If they want any of their credits to transfer, they will have to pay all outstanding loans – even if most of their credits aren’t transferable.

For Phillip, the decision was easy because none of his credits were transferable.

“I’m striving to embrace it. I had my fall semester classes all ready to go – I was supposed to start yesterday,” Phillip said. “Now I’m shifting gears into another set of unknowns. It can be agitating – are there gonna be any seats available for the curriculum that I want?”

Phillip is “definitely” going to pursue loan forgiveness. “ITT is not a cheap school.” The annual tuition in Philadelphia is more than $18,000.

“I’m grateful I only wasted one semester, but then you’ve got those who were only one semester away from graduating,” Phillip said. “I feel for them. What do they do? It just isn’t right.”

Like most of the former ITT students who showed up for the Fast Track day, Phillip hopes to enroll for the next CCP semester, starting Oct. 4, but there’s no guarantee and he may have to wait until January.

“The event that we’re having today helps students understand their options and what it will take to enroll here,” said Samuel Hirsch, CCP’s vice president for academic and student success. “We want to offer students from ITT an opportunity to talk to experts here and develop a plan.”

Hirsch said that students have questions about financial aid, academic requirements, programs of study offered, and the steps required to enroll. Students worked directly with CCP staff from admissions and financial aid. In several hours, some students were helped through the entire enrollment process.

First they filled out an online application with the help of an admissions staffer. Then the school determined whether they would need to take any placement tests and offered them the opportunity to take the tests that day. Then the students sat down with financial aid representatives, and finally they were able to meet with an academic counselor to review their ITT coursework and pick their program of study at CCP, which is a nonprofit institution.

“While this could be a time of discouragement, a time of frustration and a time of confusion, there are a group of people who really want to help these students and reach out to them,” Hirsch said.

Phillip said that, being someone who had never pursued college before, finishing a semester felt like “a moral victory.”

"But sometimes you get tired of moral victories. In this society, it’s about what can you prove – you know, where’s the paper? Where’s the degree? We live in a degree-driven society. I want to live vibrant, not just survive in today’s economy. I don’t want to just exist, I want to try to create a life for myself and to have it be sustainable.”

Miriam Farrar had already taken her finals after she heard on the news that ITT would be closing.

“What are we supposed to do?” Farrar said to herself, having just finished her first semester. “My heart goes out to the people who were in their fifth or sixth semester.”

Farrar went to Olney High School and graduated from Penn State in 1982. She didn’t like teaching, so she found a job assisting X-ray technicians at Albert Einstein Hospital.

Farrar said she loved the job more than she anticipated. “It’s not just pushing a button, there’s real science to radiologic technology.”

So she went back to school for a two-year degree in the field. She worked as an X-ray technician from 1987 to 2011. Since then, she’s been living off her fixed income from disability.

“Nobody’s hiring 55-year-old X-ray techs anymore,” Farrar said, “so I thought maybe I should change careers.”

After seeing commercials for ITT Technical Institute, she decided to go back to school for Computer and Network Systems. She went to ITT’s Center City campus, filled out her financial aid and loan paperwork, and was told immediately that “your classes start on Monday.”

She went back full time, taking 12 credits during the summer semester. She said she enjoyed it.

“It was an intense course, but my GPA was above a 3.5.” She wants to work in troubleshooting, helping customers solve their computer or networking problems.

“I’m just grateful for the opportunity Community College is offering us now so we can get started again,” Farrar said. “I was here about 30 years ago because I had to take an accelerated chemistry class to get into X-ray school.” When she showed up for the Fast Track Enrollment day, she found out that CCP still has her old student ID number.

She plans on trying to enroll at CCP for the fall semester.

“I was really interested in learning something new,” Farrar said.“I just kept telling myself I gotta get back to school. I can’t sit at home watching game shows, eating sunflower seeds all day. It’s just not gonna work for me.”

Phillip said his biggest fear was going back to work without being able to pursue his degree at the same time.

“Life happens. Sometimes you put things back on the shelf. For me, I already took my education off the shelf and now I’m striving to not let it get back on that shelf.”

He’s grateful that CCP opened its doors, although he’s still willing to consider other schools.

“CCP has a good tradition. I think they’ve been around over 50 years. They’re not going anywhere. But this is a very school-rich town. A lot of other places don’t have that.”

Farrar seems pretty set on CCP. Her biggest fear was having to enroll in online courses, although that seems unlikely.

“I like to be around people. I want to go to the instructor face to face if I’m having an issue. I don’t want to talk to some virtual person. I want to be in a classroom. I want to go full time.”

“I like this college’s atmosphere – there’s a lot of diversity,” Farrar said. “You don’t have all young people or all old people. You get people from all walks of life, all different cultures. I like that. I might be here until they put me out.”

Phillip’s outlook was a bit more cynical. “I don’t fault the school for taking advantage of the opportunity. I mean, we live in capitalist world so they’re definitely going to capitalize on it. It’s all part of the game.

“At the end of the day it’s about the dollar.”


the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism