Former ITT Tech students begin taking classes at PCC this month to finish the degrees that they started at the failed private school.
Michael Seelye has been in limbo since Sept. 6 of this year — not knowing if his career as a nurse was over before it began.
That was the day that ITT Technical Institutes announced its doors would not reopen for fall term, leaving 35,000 students like Seelye in shock across the nation.
"It was pretty much heart-stopping," said Seelye, a 38-year-old surgical technician with three kids, had been working long hours for two years toward his goal of being a registered nurse.
Seelye is two terms — about six months away from completing his degree, but his ability to do so hung on a decision by the Oregon Legislature's emergency funding board, which voted Dec. 14 to spend $1.4 million to make it possible for Portland Community College to teach-out the program for the students who were close to completion.
When ITT closed, the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission was able to find spots for many of the students at other institutes of higher education. But the 275 nursing students from Portland's ITT campus at Cascade Station posed a big challenge in an education field notorious for a tiny number of spots.
PCC Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs Elizabeth Lundy says the college could not just absorb that many students.
"The nursing program that we have is full to capacity," Lundy said. "That's true of pretty much all of the community colleges in Oregon."
So with a $50,000 grant from HECC, PCC got to work on trying to see if it was feasible to get students the few classes they needed to graduate. That meant working with the accrediting agency, HECC and the Oregon State Board of Nursing, as well as adopting ITT's curriculum. That last step, Lundy said, is very unusual.
"I'm not familiar with anyone adopting and trying to teach-out a program that is not their own," she says.
Students will start classes in January and will pay PCC tuition as PCC students. PCC will hire former ITT educators temporarily and may even house the program in the ITT building. After five quarters, and graduating the last of the ITT students, it will close again.
It's difficult to say how many will choose the program (145 have expressed interest) as students may have moved on in the months since — changing their career plans or trying to find work to support themselves.
"The students have decisions to make about their life," Lundy said.
The program is projected to cost about $2.1 to administrate. HECC will pay about $175,000, and tuitionfrom ITT students will provide about $500,000.
When the news came that ITT was closing, Ben Cannon, HECC's executive director, says his staff began to look for placements for the for-profit college's roughly 500 students. But there weren't any good options to offer the nursing students.
"It's had a huge impact on our staff," Cannon said, noting that the small office of private post-secondary education was deluged with calls from desperate, sometimes crying, students.
HECC is not legally obligated to help students find alternative placements; but they were the institute's regulators, who might have been able to give students more of a warning.
Cannon said moving forward, the commission will be flexing its muscles more to require private schools to let their students know when they are in trouble.
In 2015, HECC asked the Legislature to pass a new law that requiring private schools to be bonded. That was in effect when ITT closed, meaning students can ask the bond company to be reimbursed, Cannon said.
The technical institute was in a category of about 30 private
schools in Oregon, including major private universities like Willamette University and Lewis & Clark. There also is another category of private career schools — such as beauty schools or cooking schools, of which there are about 200 in Oregon —that are smaller and that open and close much more frequently.
Seelye's first student loan payment of $497 was due last month. After ITT's closure, the federal government gave students 120 days to ask for their loans to be forgiven or ask for their credits to be transferred.
Seelye is hoping that the PCC plan will work.
"If, for instance, this thing gets voted down, I'm going to have to move to Minneapolis, get a job in my field and basically start over." Seelye told Pamplin Media Group before the Legislature's approval last month. Seelye's family lives in Minneapolis; his wife moved there with their children for work. He is commuting every other week to see them while maintaining a grueling work schedule at Kaiser when he is here to help pay two mortgages.
Seelye says it isn't so much the money as the two years of working and going to school full time, sacrificing time with his young children, a 6-year-old and twin 3-year-olds.
"Then all of the sudden to have it pulled out from underneath you through no fault of your own, you really don't know what to do," he says.
Seelye, who is a veteran, says a lot of his classmates used their GI Bill on ITT — and they can only use it once. He also knows people who took out second mortgages on their house or performed other economic acrobatics to afford ITT.
"They defrauded a lot of people," he said. "The fallout from this has been tremendous."
Seelye believes the challenges this class of nursing students went through this fall could send many to a downward spiral. But, if PCC's plan comes through, it has the potential to make them more empathetic practitioners.
"If it works, the local area's going to have some phenomenal nurses," he said.
EDIT: This story clarifies that Willamette University and Lewis & Clark College are private schools, not "for-profit" schools.