The school year was about to begin a few weeks ago, then it abruptly ended for scores of students at ITT Technical Institute. The for-profit college system announced it was closing its campuses nation-wide, including two in Wisconsin, after numerous states accused ITT of fraud.
Now it’s up to the students to figure out their next step.
When ITT announced it would close, Mai McCarthy felt for the displaced students. She had a bad experience with the school years ago.
“It was just so up in the air with that place, that I can’t believe I even survived a year and a half!” she exclaims.
McCarthy, now 29, first learned about ITT Tech when she was in high school. She was pregnant and a self-described poor student, and had been placed in an alternative program at Greenfield High School. McCarthy says, looking back, she feels like the for-profit operation targeted her class.
“We were all poor kids, kids who were misbehaving, a lot of the kids were minorities,” she describes. “ITT kept coming in to say, ‘hey, you guys are going to be needing the help, and a job and money right away.’ You didn’t see that anywhere else. You didn’t see the ITT Tech recruiters sitting in the cafeteria when you walked through. The recruiters came specifically to our room.”
That kind of recruitment is what got ITT Tech into trouble with the feds.
States complained about ITT misleading students about job prospects, and defrauding them into paying for their degrees.
The U.S. Department of Education responded by cutting off financial aid to ITT students. So, the school closed its doors, just weeks into the semester, leaving students with unfinished degrees and piles of debt, in some cases.
When Milwaukee Area Technical College heard the news, it set up an emergency phone number and email address, specifically for displaced ITT students.
And the school hosted an open house at its Oak Creek campus, located just a few miles from the now-vacant ITT campus in Greenfield.
Dozens of students, of all ages, wandered the booths, asking questions about MATC programs and financial aid. Staff hand out pamphlets and forms, while wearing smiles.
MATC associate provost Barbara Cannell is among them. At the end of one conversation with a student, she reassures him: “We’ll take good care of you.”
“We’re trying to accommodate them in any way we possibly can, by looking at what they bring to us and how we can help them either matriculate into MATC, or potentially go to [UW-Milwaukee], or wherever else they need to go,” Cannell says. “We’re just trying to be a helping person.”
Nineteen-year-old Isaac Stefanski had just started his second year at the ITT campus in Greenfield when he heard it closed.
Isaac attended the MATC event with his mom. He says it calmed some of his nerves about where he’ll go next. And he’s optimistic about his options.
“They answered a lot of my questions,” he says. “It is possible for me to transfer my credits here. I don’t have to spend the whole two years over again, which is really, really nice.”
And, he adds, other schools are stepping up to the plate, too.
“[Waukesha County Technical College] was going to be doing something kind of like this, I saw that Cardinal Stritch was added to the list of places that would take ITT credit, I’ve heard a lot about Herzing,” Stefanski lists. “Hopefully everything works out. If I can start this year, great. If I have to wait until early next year, that’s fine too. But the sooner the better.”
Mai McCarthy, the former ITT student who came from Greenfield High School, knows a change of course is possible. After she left ITT Tech, she restarted her academic career at MATC, and later transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Parkside. That’s where she’s studying to be a teacher.
But, it hasn’t been an easy road. McCarthy left ITT Tech with piles of student loan bills, and none of her credits transferred – she had to start from scratch.
Her advice to students in transition: stick with it.
LISTEN: Extended interview with Mai McCarthy
“Move forward with your education, even if you’re stuck, or you’re in the middle, keep pushing,” she says. “Go in and talk to an advisor, because they’re there to support you. Take it a step at a time, but do your research.”
“The longer you wait, the longer it’s going to be for you to graduate, and to get to the point where you want to be.”
McCarthy is still practicing perseverance. After all these years, she’s a sophomore at UW-Parkside, so it will be a few more years before she’s finally be able to say she’s earned her degree.