Looking back, Ronnie Wyche said it’s easy to spot the red flags: Recruiters dodged his questions, rushed him through enrollment paperwork and brushed aside concerns about being about to keep up in an engineering program after more than 30 years without taking a math class.
“I graduated high school in 1982,” said Wyche, a Coast Guard veteran from Tampa. “So all this stuff about college I’m just finding out now.”
Earlier this month, Wyche was among the more than 40,000 students of ITT Technical Institute who learned abruptly that their school had closed, just days before the start of the semester. “It feels like dreams that just vanished,” Wyche said of the year of coursework he had completed there. “I’m 52 years old, so when I make a career dream, it’s got to be set in concrete.”
Wyche, who served in the Coast Guard in the 1980s, worked as a diesel mechanic until doctors at the VA told him his high blood pressure put him at risk of a stroke. The VA sent him back to school as part of a vocational rehabilitation program for veterans with disabilities, and his counselor arranged a meeting at ITT Tech.
“I might have picked a different college, but by me meeting her there, it just gave me a false impression of what the school was—I just thought they would be at least a stable company,” Wyche said.
ITT made a point of recruiting veterans, who have access to generous federal loans and grants. In 2015, even as its stock price plunged amid allegations the school misled students and aggressively pushed high-interest loans, the school’s parent company collected more than half a billion dollars in federal funds for students, roughly four out of every five dollars the company took in.
“The United States was forking out $12,000 for Ronnie to attend the school,” Wyche said. “I did three quarters, so that’s 36 grand, just for me, and I’m not even halfway through.”
Over the past year, the Department of Education repeatedly stepped up requirements for ITT to keep extra cash on hand in case students defaulted on their loans. Finally regulators announced in August that ITT could no longer use federal funds to enroll new students, leading the school’s parent company, ITT Educational Services Inc., to close more than 100 campuses overnight.
But Wyche was eager to point out that his instructors were not to blame. “My math instructor was getting ready to get his doctorate at USF [University of South Florida],” Wyche said. “This was a corporate mistake.”
“There was a lot of great work going on there, said Francisco Abreu, of the Hialeah campus where he was in an ITT Tech program similar to Wyche’s. Mario Costa, who worked as an adjunct professor at the school’s Fort Lauderdale campus, said he had never worked at a school where his teaching was so closely monitored. “I had a coursebook that was 150 pages long,” he recalled. “They wanted to know where you were in your lesson every 15 or 20 minutes.”
Some of that oversight fell to Wendy Weiss-Hancock, who spent nearly seven years as an associate dean overseeing curriculum at the Fort Lauderdale campus. Hancock said the campus’ academic staff prided themselves on being “highly compliant,” in spite of the fact that the school’s accreditor made only one site visit in the last five years.
For months, Hancock followed news of growing federal scrutiny of ITT online as she watched her own school’s enrollment dwindle to a few hundred students.
An early hint of the school’s demise came over Labor Day weekend in an email from ITT’s CEO. “It stated that we were not only having Labor Day off, but he was giving us a comp day to be with our families,” Hancock said. “Alarm bells just went off in my head,” she recalled.
It turned out that that ‘comp day’ was the day the school officially closed. “My first concern was, ‘Oh my god, they told us not to come in—I am absolutely going in, and I’m going to face my students, I’m going to be there.”
All week, Hancock and a handful of colleagues came in as volunteers even after losing their jobs. The registrar printed out transcripts while nursing staff sent off certificates so students who had finished their coursework could still take their boards.
Other students were just months from graduation. “It was heartbreaking. It was just surreal,” Hancock said. And even though she’d loved working at ITT, that’s where Hancock says she started to feel angry.
“If I had a magic wand, I would have said, 'If you’re closing, you teach them out, [show] that there’s a plan in place to teach out anyone who’s currently enrolled and that you don’t just shut the doors, you don’t just do that to people. And that’s where most of my anger comes from.”
It now falls to other colleges to help former ITT students pick up the pieces. “We don’t want students to feel alone, to feel that they don’t have other options,” said Michelle Howard-Vital, provost of Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens, which has waived application fees and set up a dedicated phone line for incoming students. “This is a real interruption, and when it comes to graduation rates, one thing we know is, the fewer interruptions the better.”
Broward College, a community college with locations near two ITT campuses, has already heard from more than 60 former students. “I’ve always wanted to become a registered nurse since I was a little girl,” read one email sent to the school through a webpage set up for ITT students. “I was one year in pursuing my goal to become a registered nurse when ITT Tech closed down suddenly. I would like to continue my education without having to start all over from the beginning.”
“First and foremost, they want those credits accepted, because in most cases, they’re still interested in pursuing that path,” said Janice Stubbs, who manages enrollment at Broward College. Stubbs said the school is in the process of reviewing course outlines and transcripts from ITT Tech to determine which credits are eligible for transfer.”
Miami Dade College has produced a “crosswalk” for staff to compare ITT Tech programs with their own degree programs, sketching out which courses pass muster and which do not.
The catch is that students who transfer even a handful of credits from ITT Tech to another school are no longer eligible to apply for loan forgiveness, and debt from private lenders—at the center of much of the criticism of ITT Tech—may not be forgiven at all.
“Some students are saying they’re close to graduation,” Stubbs said, “That’s a concern because, depending on how many credits are awarded, are they still close to graduation?”
Students can either scrap their credits from ITT Tech and apply for loan forgiveness from the federal government or they can transfer their credits and bring their debt with them. In other words, they might end up with some of their credits and all of their debt or some of their debt but none of their credits.
“And that’s something students need to weigh themselves, in all honesty,” Stubbs said. The emphasis at Broward is simply making sure ITT students are well-informed. “That’s about all we can do.”
More Information on how former ITT students can transfer their credits or apply for loan forgiveness is available at the Department of Education's dedicated ITT Tech Announcements page.