TAMPA — A half-dozen students commiserated in the parking lot at ITT Technical Institute's Tampa campus Tuesday afternoon, having learned that morning that their school had been abruptly shut down.
"It's a shocker. I'm, like, pie-in-the-face," said Robert Muenzel of Palm Harbor, who is halfway through a two-year degree program for network administration. "My whole thought process right now is, 'Are you serious?' They're closed. They're done. We're all in shock."
The national for-profit chain ITT Educational Services notified students and faculty by email Tuesday morning that a series of conditions imposed on the schools by the U.S. Department of Education "made it impossible for the ITT Technical Institutes to continue to operate."
That left some students, among them Mitchell Patrick of Tampa, fuming. "I am very (expletive) upset," said Patrick, who had one semester's work left to complete a degree in electrical engineering.
Brian Flint started work on a degree in drafting and design in South Bend, Ind. When the ITT Technical Institute there was rumored to be in trouble, he moved to St. Petersburg in June to finish his degree here. He was to have graduated in March.
"I'm six classes short of my degree," he said. "All that effort and time and everything else. I'm disgusted."
The fall semester at ITT was to begin Monday. The campus, with about 470 students, is at 4809 Memorial Highway.
Those at the site Tuesday said half of the student body were members of the military or veterans.
According to its website, the school has eight other locations in Florida. They include campuses in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and West Palm Beach. Nationwide, the move affects 35,000 students at 137 campuses and about 8,000 employees.
The doors at the Tampa campus were locked Tuesday. Doug Strickland, director of career services, responded to a reporter's knocks and said he was the only administrator on site, "and I'm cleaning out my office."
He said he had not been advised on how students should follow up. "Seriously, I have no idea. I got an email today that we were closed and that I was fired," he said. "I wish I had something to tell them, but I don't. I don't know."
Strickland said personnel would be at the school Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and again from 3 to 5 p.m., and on Friday from 3 to 5 p.m.
Hillsborough Community College, meanwhile, has announced it has created a rapid response team to help ITT students transition into other programs at HCC.
ITT has increasingly been the subject of state and federal investigations, and there had been speculation, including by the Department of Education, that the chain might close.
On Aug. 25, the department required ITT to increase its cash reserves from $90 million to $250 million, saying the company had become a risk to students and taxpayers. The department also prohibited the schools from enrolling any new students who needed federal grants or loans to finance their education.
ITT called the requirements "unprecedented in the history of the Department of Education." In a conference call with reporters, ITT Educational Services chief executive Kevin Modany said the school was the victim of a "regulatory assault."
Days before those sanctions were announced, ITT's accreditor reported the chain had failed to meet several basic standards and was unlikely to comply in the future. It had also been investigated by state and federal authorities who accused ITT of pushing students into risky loans and of misleading students about the quality of programs.
Under President Barack Obama, the Education Department has led a crackdown on for-profit colleges that have misled students or failed to deliver the results they promise. The now-defunct Corinthian College chain agreed to sell or close more than 90 U.S. colleges in 2014, including four Everest University sites in Tampa, amid a fraud investigation over advertising practices.
ITT students in Tampa will likely either have to transfer their credits to another school, if that school accepts them, to complete their education, or attempt to have their federal student loans discharged. Those currently enrolled at ITT or who have withdrawn from the school within the past 120 days may be eligible to have their federal student loans erased through the Department of Education's closed school discharge program.
In a letter to U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr. on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Melbourne, urged the Department of Education "to work closely with the students enrolled at ITT Tech and keep them fully informed of the company's intentions to reimburse them and provide them access to their transcripts and records so that they can continue their education elsewhere."
Nelson added, "I also ask that your department fully inform all those affected of their option to refuse a planned teach-out and instead seek forgiveness of their outstanding federal student loans through the Closed School Discharge program."
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report. Contact Jerome R. Stockfisch at [email protected]