ITT Tech students deserve not just sympathy, but also debt relief, plus a chance to earn degrees without retracing all of their steps.
For ITT Technical Institute, the day of reckoning was long overdue. But the collapse of the for-profit-college chain this month came suddenly, and it was ugly — a blow to lots of people who were just trying to improve their lives.
“I’ve got a wife and kids,” former ITT Tech student Terrance Vasquez, 46, told me. “I’m the only income coming into my household.” He has a job as an electronics technician. Hoping to advance, he’d enrolled in a computer-technology program at ITT’s Norwood campus in 2014. Until the entire for-profit chain abruptly folded this month, stranding thousands of students, Vasquez expected to graduate this December.
What happens now? He’s still figuring that out. “I can’t afford to take another two years to start over,” Vasquez said.
He and other ITT Tech students deserve not just sympathy, but also debt relief, plus a chance to earn degrees without retracing all of their steps.
In the meantime, the federal government has plenty to learn from these students’ woes. It needs to stop propping up marginal colleges — for-profit and otherwise — through an endless flow of ill-supervised loans.
Under the guise of furthering the American dream, Washington, D.C., has been showering money upon too many schools and with too little regard for the well-being of students, the quality of the teaching or the scruples of the people in charge. Every so often, earnest bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Education propose new ways of steering money and students away from bad colleges, but the higher-ed industry fights off those reforms.
You don’t have to look far outside the ranks of the richest traditional universities with the most generous financial aid to find institutions whose students are taking on alarming levels of debt. As the Globe Magazine reported in May, lots of tuition-dependent private schools aren’t leveling with high-school seniors about how hard it’ll be to repay their student debt. The Wall Street Journal found last year that hundreds of public and private nonprofit four-year colleges had worse graduation or loan-default rates than institutions that had lost their accreditation.
For-profit schools have been especially plagued by concerns about their performance and marketing practices. In June, the now-defunct chain American Career Institute admitted, in a consent agreement with the Massachusetts attorney general, that it had lied to students to get them to enroll.
Yet the chain was still recruiting students on social media as recently as Aug. 25, the very day the U.S. Department of Education cut off ITT Tech from any new federal student loans. The agency also demanded that the chain post a larger reserve fund to hedge against future student defaults. Instead, ITT Tech just shut down.
In its news release, the chain indignantly cited a Wall Street Journal editorial that described the government’s actions as a lawless execution — an example of “how to kill a company without proving a single allegation.” For-profit chains with garish marketing budgets do make fatter targets than a nonprofit college. Still, no school or for-profit company should assume, once it builds a business model on the availability of easy government money, it has a right to that largesse in perpetuity.
While the for-profit sector is now contracting under heightened regulatory pressure, chains might have grown more slowly if federal money had more strings attached.
Brenda De La Cruz was lucky in one way: Her husband’s GI Bill benefits were paying for her bachelor’s-degree program at ITT Tech’s Wilmington campus in Boston. But while other institutions are happy to take on former ITT students, few think enough of the chain, or the dodgy accreditation agency it used, to grant credit for the courses it offered.
“I’m getting phone calls and emails from other schools that say they’re willing to help,” De La Cruz said in an interview. “But then they tell you they won’t take your credits. If they’re not taking your credits, that’s not helping.”
Some schools are making arrangements: Southern New Hampshire University announced Wednesday it would take over the ITT programs in Nashua, N.H. But from the outset, it was a terrible idea for the federal government to send so much money to schools whose courses mostly aren’t recognized by other institutions.
The risks are still greater for anyone with a less traditional background and fewer resources.
That’s all the more reason to treat the fall of ITT Tech as a teachable moment, and not just for the for-profit sector. The longer taxpayers indulge schools with lousy records, the harder to correct course — and the more students will end up getting hurt.