Education Department beefs up effort to help ITT Tech students

by Danielle Douglas-Gabriel
The Washington Post

  The Department of Education announced new online resources Monday for students affected by the abrupt closure of ITT Technical Institutes, amid criticism that the government is not doing enough to help the tens of thousands of people left in the lurch by the for-profit chain.

Education officials are partnering with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and Beyond 12, which helps first-generation, low-income college students, to match students with financial aid and academic counselors for free through an online platform known as Staffers on the website will field questions from students by email, phone and text messages about the various academic, financial aid and federal loan discharge options available.

"We're grateful to Beyond 12 and the NASFAA team for their leadership, their creativity and their commitment to aiding affected students," Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell said during a call with reporters Monday. "We've been working around the clock to make sure ITT students remain inspired to pursue the promise of a higher education. "

In the two weeks since ITT Tech shut its doors, the federal education agency has hosted a series of webinars, teamed with states to hold fairs and reached out to the roughly 35,000 ITT students to inform them about their options. It has also joined with the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor to raise awareness. Staff at the department have had nearly 22,000 interactions with students impacted by the closure, according to Mitchell.

None of the options available to students are simple and each comes with its own drawbacks. Anyone enrolled in ITT or who withdrew from the school in the past 120 days is eligible for federal student loan forgiveness under what's known as a closed-school discharge. Transferring credits to complete the same degree at another institution, however, makes students ineligible for this form of loan forgiveness.

Students can apply to have their federal loans discharged if they can prove a school used illegal or deceptive tactics in violation of state law to persuade them to borrow money for college, a process known as a "borrower defense to repayment." This option would give people who choose to transfer their ITT credits a path to loan forgiveness, but it is a long and arduous process with no guarantees.

"Students at this stage are understandably confused. They're demoralized and dispirited by these closures," said Alexandra Bernadotte, chief executive at Beyond 12, which also helped students displaced by the closure of for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges. "Students on the margins especially need better guidance so they don't end up in situations and at colleges that are going to let them down."

Nearly two dozen Senate Democrats are urging the Department of Education to ensure that ITT Tech students have access to high-quality, affordable options and are not lured by other for-profit colleges facing state and federal investigations and lawsuits.

ITT struck agreements with trade schools and career colleges to make it easier for students to transfer their credits, but some of those schools are facing government sanctions. Ashford University, for instance, must refund and discharge millions of dollars in debt tied to an in-house loan program the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau considers deceptive. Mitchell said the department is encouraged by the growing number of community colleges welcoming ITT Tech students.

In a joint letter sent to Education Secretary John B. King Jr., lawmakers praised the guidance the department is providing students, but insisted it could do more. They want the department to extend the window for the closed-school discharge from 120 days to on or after March 1, 2014, around the time when state and federal investigations and lawsuits against ITT started mounting. The group also asked King to make it easier for former ITT Tech students to have their loans forgiven.

Debbie Cochrane, vice president at the Institute for College Access and Success, said the department is correct in "focusing its immediate attention on the students harmed by the closure . . . the next step should be looking at the findings and investigations related to ITT Tech to see whether an expedited loan relief process might be warranted."

After Corinthian collapsed, education officials expedited the forgiveness process for groups of students based on findings that the school lied about the number of graduates who landed jobs. Although Mitchell said the circumstances surrounding ITT Tech are different, he said the department would entertain information provided through state attorneys general investigations. Mitchell said the department currently does not have the kind of findings that would make it possible to do expedited relief.

On the call, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who leads a multi-state task force investigating for-profit colleges, said there are ongoing "discussions among the states to ascertain" whether evidence in their probes could be used to support an easier path to forgiveness.

Former students at ITT Technical Institutes are refusing to repay their federal student loans in a protest designed to pressure the government into canceling the debt of everyone who alleges they were defrauded by the now-defunct for-profit chain. Organizers of the debt strike say they have no interest in seeing ITT Tech students jump through the hoops Corinthian students have, especially when the Department of Education has the authority to grant widespread debt relief.

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