Published Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016 | 2 p.m.
Brandon Lang realized something was wrong when one of his professors at ITT Tech told him they had been paid a week early.
Turns out, something was very wrong for the future of his college.
Late last month, after years of investigations, the U.S. Department of Education forbade the for-profit chain ITT Tech from enrolling new students with federal financial aid.
With an estimated 70 percent of its revenue coming from students with federal aid, the college faced an insurmountable financial struggle. So, on Sept. 6, the chain announced it would close, with plans to shutter 130 campuses nationwide and put 8,000 people out of work. There were around 800 students split between ITT Tech’s two campuses in Southern Nevada.
To education insiders, the news was seen as inevitable. But to local ITT electrical engineering students Scott Sunderlin and Lang, both 27, the news came as a surprise in their email inbox.
“We have made the very difficult decision to discontinue our operations effective immediately …” read the message addressed to students of ITT’s Henderson campus, “We are truly sorry to have to make this decision but wanted to communicate it to you as soon as possible so that you can begin deciding the next steps to take that are best for you.”
It didn’t sink in for Sunderlin until he drove to campus a day after the ruling and found the parking lot empty and the doors locked. Another ITT Tech campus in North Las Vegas was also closed.
Sunderlin, who works on batteries for a local energy company, was only four classes away from graduation. Lang, who works on slot machine technology, was only 12 weeks from getting his degree.
“We all kind of got duped,” Lang said.
The school had long been considered out of compliance by its controversial private accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a fact the ACICS told the department in an Aug. 17 letter probably wouldn’t change.
Hundreds of the college’s programs and dozens of its campuses were under scrutiny for misleading students about job prospects, overcharging them for degrees and leaving them saddled with debt.
The majority of those students were, like Lang and Sunderlin, students who didn’t go to college right away. Many have families. Sunderlin and his wife, Lynette, have two kids and live in Henderson.
As one ITT faculty member recently told Gizmodo about the college’s business practices, “They sought out people who thought that this was their only option.”
A significant portion of ITT’s students were military veterans like Lang. In the Navy he was an aviation electronic technician who worked on the expensive, complicated avionics systems of the F/A-18 Hornet.
But when he got out of the service in 2012 and got a small job helping a startup company design power supplies for LED lights, he realized he needed an actual degree if he ever wanted to work in the field long term.
He holds up two fingers to show the thickness of his portfolio of electrical schematics, letters of recommendation, awards and military evaluations.
“That piece of paper trumps all that,” he said.
He chose ITT Tech because it offered a fast-track to a job in the field. He knew the school had a troubled history, and described its efforts to recruit veterans as “predatory” and “creepy.”
Now the two, like the more than 35,000 students nationwide stranded by the school’s closure, are looking for an alternative. The problem is that credits from for-profit colleges are rarely accepted by public and private colleges because they aren’t regionally accredited.
UNLV refuses to accept the credits, and Nevada State College has said it would decide on a case-by-case basis.
“I’ve called and talked to registrars,” Sunderlin said. “UNLV was just a straight 'no.'”
The College of Southern Nevada will accept qualifying students through a specialized transcript review process — a spokesman said the college has received a “high level of interest.” And Great Basin College, whose main campus is in Elko, is allowing former ITT students to transfer up to 45 credits toward select online degree programs, Associate Vice President Lisa Frazier said.
Outside of that, local ITT Tech students have been left with no other options besides transferring to another for-profit college or applying for a loan discharge.
But a loan discharge is not what Sunderlin wants. Unlike Lang, he was satisfied with his education at ITT Tech and said he didn’t want to transfer to another for-profit school. If anything, he criticizes the federal government for failing to provide an alternative for students affected by its sweeping decision.
“They should have had more of a game plan,” he said. “A place for students to go of equal educational value instead of just saying ‘here’s some loan forgiveness, sorry for wasting a year or two of your life.’”
For veterans like Lang, however, it’s a much tougher situation. Lang was paying for his degree through the G.I. Bill, which can’t be refunded. Once the money is spent, Lang can’t get it back.
“We worked hard for our G.I. Bills and we deserve to get it to its full effect,” said Lang. “We paid for something that we didn’t get.”
So far, the Department of Veterans Affairs has said it doesn’t have the legal authority to restore G.I. Bill benefits to veterans hurt by the school’s closure.
It has even become a topic on the campaign trail, with Indiana governor and Donald Trump’s vice president pick Mike Pence calling on the government to refund the benefits.
Right now, former ITT Tech students who are looking to complete their degrees are limited to a small handful of for-profit schools currently operating in the area, some of which, like Devry University, are being investigated for the same offenses as ITT Tech.
Sunderlin said he was looking to transfer his credits to the University of Phoenix, which doesn’t have an electrical engineering program but would let him pursue a business management degree without having to retake a lot of core classes.
It’s not a perfect solution, but he said it could let him keep his electrical engineering credits on his transcript.
“It’s pretty much what we’re stuck with in Nevada,” he said.