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Spokane students left hanging after ITT Tech closure

Jessi Rasmussen and her husband, Tony, both attended ITT Technical Institute. Jessi was one-quarter semester away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree. Now that the school has closed they are both wondering, “What’s next?” COLIN MULVANY (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Jessi Rasmussen and her husband, Tony, both attended ITT Technical Institute. Jessi was one-quarter semester away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree. Now that the school has closed they are both wondering, “What’s next?” COLIN MULVANY (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It was a Tuesday evening and they had nowhere to go. Normally the four would be headed to class at ITT Technical Institute, but as of a week ago, their school doesn’t exist.

Instead, they were sitting around a table at a Spokane Valley McDonald’s restaurant, trying to figure out what was next.

“Part of the problem is we don’t have a whole lot of information,” said Kip Murray.

The former classmates attended ITT Technical Institute in Spokane Valley, up until Sept. 6, when they woke up to the news that the school had closed following a U.S. Department of Education investigation. The options presented to the group – apply for a “closed school loan discharge” or transfer to a different school – leave them with little room to maneuver.

Ray Hinkle was the quietest of the four. The Lewiston native said he moved to Spokane hoping to get an education and avoid working in the paper mill. When he recounted the moment he found out the school closed, he spoke up.

“I almost threw up my lunch,” he said. “I lost my appetite till Friday.”

Hinkle is one of 685 Washington students left adrift following the for-profit college’s closure. Although local colleges have reached out to the students, and the Department of Education has promised them various resources, it is hardly clear how or if the students will be able to move forward with their education.

“I’m just frustrated because I was supposed to be done in December,” said Jessi Rasmussen, a 4.0 GPA student who was one quarter away from earning a bachelor’s degree. “I was doing great all the way up to that point. Then this, it’s like, ‘Now what?’ ”

A long time coming

ITT Technical Institute is no stranger to federal scrutiny. In 2004, several campuses temporarily shut down after federal agents raided on suspicion of fraud related to recruitment, grades, loans, enrollment, reported job placement and salaries. That investigation was dropped, but problems followed the school.

Starting in 2014 the DOE started investigating the school, focusing especially on its finances and operations, according to a DOE news release. On Aug. 25 the Department of Education banned ITT Tech from enrolling new students using federal financial aid.

In 2015 the school reported about $850 million in revenue, roughly $580 million of which was coming from federal aid. The DOE alleges, among other things, that ITT Tech used aggressive and predatory tactics to enroll students, disregarding their ability to pay back the loans.

ITT Tech announced it was closing on Sept. 6, a week before classes were supposed to begin for the fall quarter. In an email sent to ITT Tech students the school said, “Please know we worked diligently to identify alternatives that would have allowed you to start or continue your education … but the Department of Education’s actions have forced us to cease operation at the ITT Technical Institutes.”

Murray laughed at this.

“It’s not like the DOE didn’t give them options over, like, the last 10-15 years,” he said.

Murray enrolled at ITT Tech two years ago after “seeing one of those advertisements on TV.”

At the time, he had been unemployed for years. He had friends who attended ITT Tech, though the school didn’t have the best reputation.

Still, he visited the school and spoke to the teachers and they assuaged his fears. Plus, he said the school’s flexible hours and the quality of the teachers attracted him. And, he was eligible for loans. He remembers the financial aid intake process being smooth and quick. Currently his monthly loan payment is $800.

Tony Rasmussen understood why the Department of Education sanctioned the company. What bothered him was the lack of options the department provided students.

“They gave us two choices, either seek loan forgiveness and start over, or transfer your credits,” Rasmussen said. “But being as most credits don’t transfer anyways they essentially gave us one option.”

Plenty of debt,

but not many options

Jessi Rasmussen and her husband, Tony, were both ITT Tech students. Tony also worked at the school.

“I woke up at quarter to six in the morning and she is just bawling her eyes out,” Tony said of the morning the school closed. “She wasted two years because a lot of her credits won’t transfer to any other school.”

Tony earned his AA from ITT Tech last year, which cost him $52,000. He’d just completed his first quarter of a bachelor’s degree when the school closed.

Jessi owes $27,000 in debt from her AA degree, which she earned at Everest College, another for-profit school investigated and subsequently closed by the Department of Education. She hasn’t looked at her bachelor’s loan total from ITT Tech, but it’s in the $50,000 range. The couple have two teenage daughters. ITT Tech’s tuition cost on average between $45,000 and $85,000, according to the school’s 2014/15 fee schedule. Tuition at Spokane Community College is roughly $8,000 for two years. Spokane Falls Community College is slightly more expensive.

“They were looking forward to Mom and Dad being done with school,” she said, but not like this.

They’ve looked into canceling their debt, but committing to never work in their respective fields is too much for them. Tony hopes to transfer many of his credits in Information Systems and Cybersecurity to Spokane Falls Community College, which offers a comparable bachelor’s program. As for Jessi’s near-degree in project management, almost no schools offer equivalent programs.

Colleges respond

Since ITT Tech closed, both Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College have assigned staff members to help former ITT Tech students enroll.

“We want to keep our integrity but we want to help these students as well,” said Sally Tedrow, the SCC staff person coordinating outreach.

She said the schools are evaluating each individual on a case-by-case basis. Between SCC and SFCC there are between 20 and 25 students trying to transfer, according to CCS spokeswoman Annie Gannon. She added that the colleges expect students to start in the winter quarter.

Western Governors University Washington, an online career focused university, has also offered assistance to former ITT Tech students, waiving a number of application fees and establishing a scholarship. One benefit of the WGU Washington model, said chancellor Jean Floten, is that they focus on competency. Students can test into nearly every course.

“Our model takes care of what are pretty thorny transfer issues for students,” she said. “Honestly, we don’t care where you learned it as long as you demonstrated to us that you know.”

Although Murray and the other students appreciate the help, they still find the process confusing and destabilizing.

“This is not going to be an easy thing for us to just pick up from here and move on,” Murray said.

Hope for relief

On Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray sent an open letter to the Department of Education encouraging them to expand the debt relief available to former ITT Tech students.

“These students will never get back the time and energy they have devoted to a college that left them locked outside the door, and deserve every penny back that they put into their education,” she said in a news release.

For the moment, though, these four former ITT Tech students are left wondering what’s next. Lori Morsman was a general education instructor at ITT Tech for eight years. She learned from her next-door neighbor that the school was closing. It’s been tough, she said, but ultimately she thinks it’s hardest on the students.

“You know it’s hard to lose your job,” Morsman said. “It’s really hard. But nobody really thinks that their college is going to close down.”

The original story incorrectly labeled Western Governors University Washington. The mistake has been corrected.

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