When one of the country’s largest for-profit college chains closed last month, it caught more than 500 students in Massachusetts off guard and left many of them with piles of debt, no degree, and few options for how to proceed.
Among them was William McNeil, a 57-year-old laid-off Sears worker just a few courses shy of an associate’s degree in applied computer science from ITT Technical Institute. His classmate, Dwayne Davis, 38, had just one semester left to earn a degree that would help him become an electronic technician.
Both men made hard choices — and sacrifices — to attend the school. Davis quit his steady job at the US Postal Service, and McNeil worked two jobs, delivering newspapers overnight and auto parts during the day, so that he could attend class in the evening.
Now both students, and thousands like them, must figure out how to proceed.
“I got screwed,” Davis said. “But you know, I deal with it. I have to manage.”
ITT Educational Services, the Indiana company that operated the approximately 140 campuses nationwide, closed in early September after the federal government banned it from enrolling new students who use federal aid. The news came just a week before students were set to start the fall semester. A week later, the company filed for bankruptcy protection.
In Massachusetts, 563 students attended ITT campuses in Norwood and Wilmington, three-quarters of them low income and 101 of them veterans. Around the country, an estimated 35,000 students were left in the lurch.
For-profit colleges like ITT have faced scrutiny for preying on low-income students and profiting off of federal student loans by overcharging students and deceiving them about job prospects.
One of the largest for-profit college chains, Corinthian Colleges, went bankrupt in 2015 after running afoul of state and federal regulators.
Now that ITT has closed, McNeil has two options, neither of which he considers ideal. He can apply to have his approximately $23,000 in loans forgiven but lose the credits he earned, or he can try to transfer to a different school.
“Some of these students are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer outreach and compliance at American Student Assistance, a nonprofit organization that educates students about paying for college.
Specialists say that every student should research a college and its loan offers before enrolling.
“Schools have to be transparent,” she said.
The average ITT student has about $10,000 in debt. The net price for an associate’s degree program was around $23,300 after scholarships, according to the US Department of Education.
McNeil, who lives in Brockton, said he worked for Sears for 12 years. When he began to collect unemployment in 2014, ITT flooded him with advertisements, so he decided it would be smart to retrain himself as a computer specialist.
Rather than lose the ITT credits he earned, McNeil chose to enroll at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, one of many schools that have marketed to stranded students.
That school’s president, Anthony Benoit, said that it is difficult to match ITT courses with those at Benjamin Franklin, but that the school is finding a way.
Massachusetts community colleges have also reached out to former ITT students, said Dave Koffman, a spokesman for the colleges. So far 47 students have shown interest and 16 have enrolled or been accepted at MassBay, in Wellesley, and Middlesex, in Bedford, he said.
Davis, the 38-year-old student, applied to have his approximately $10,000 in loans forgiven after attending a workshop held by state Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.
Healey has targeted what she considers predatory for-profit colleges. She filed suit against ITT in April, alleging that it carried out unfair and harassing sales tactics and that it had misled students about the quality of its programs and students’ success in finding jobs. Along with several other state attorneys general, Healey also filed suit against Corinthian College and helped those students apply for loan forgiveness.
The workshops conducted by the attorney general’s office gave ITT students information about discharging loans, transferring credit, GI benefits, and income-driven loan repayment. Approximately 200 students attended, and so far 63 have filed to discharge their loans, an office spokeswoman said.
“This is the problem with this industry,” Healey said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It sets students up to fail. And we’re trying to pick up the pieces.”
Davis, who is from Dorchester, said he feels ITT took advantage of him. It was a hard decision to go back to school, because he had a part-time job at the West Roxbury Post Office, where he said he was close to being hired full time.
Instead, he chose to take a risk, quit his job, and study to become what he really wanted to be, an electronic technician and maybe one day, an engineer. Davis had attended ITT since March, and a week before he was to start his third semester, the school announced it would close.
The least the school could have done was give students advance notice it was closing, he said. He might have kept his mail carrier job.
“They could have just been honest with the students,” he said. “If you care about the students, give them a chance.”