Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer highlighted the stories of two Iowans this week who were scammed by a for-profit educational institution, in hopes of codifying legislation to relieve them of their student loan debt.
Army veteran Jeff O’Brien of Cedar Rapids and Julie Rohret of Williamsburg attended a press conference with Finkenauer at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids to share their experiences with the now defunct ITT Technical Institute.
“ITT Technical Institute did nothing for me but take my time and money,” said O’Brien, who, after only four months on the ITT Tech campus in Cedar Rapids, was told his degree no longer existed.
The school, which at one time operated more than 130 campuses across the country, shuttered in 2016 and has been embroiled in lawsuits since as its former students struggle with debt.
“It’s about our values,” Finkenauer told Starting Line. “And how we treat people and making sure that we’re not taking advantage of our most vulnerable folks who are just trying to work hard and make a good living for their families.”
More than 600 people in the 1st District alone were defrauded by for-profit educational institutions, Finkenauer said.
The Iowa congresswoman recently introduced “The Relief for Defrauded Students Act of 2019” to help those scammed by ITT Tech and other educational institutions seek relief from their federal student loans.
According to Finkenauer’s office, the U.S. Department of Education has not enforced former President Barack Obama’s Borrower Defense rule, “ignoring” more than 158,000 claims of wrongdoing by educational institutions. Of those claims, her office said, 19,000 are from individuals who attended ITT Tech.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” Finkenauer said, of providing debt relief for the affected students. “To be honest with you, Washington would work a lot better if there were more people here just interested in doing the right thing.”
At the time of its closure, ITT Tech had an enrollment of more than 45,000 students.
“I was told that class size was limited, that I was just the student they were looking for, that their career and job placement was unmatched by any others in the industry, and that I would be getting the most affordable and cutting-edge education in the field,” said Rohret, an Iowa mother who attended ITT Tech in Cedar Rapids, in a statement. “I was wrongly promised the world, and, looking back now as a 32-year-old woman drowning in student loan debt, I just feel defeated.”
Finkenauer’s legislation was endorsed by the Iowa State Education Association, in addition to the support it has received from a bipartisan group of state attorneys general from across the country.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said that while the state has secured more than $11 million in debt relief for students defrauded by educational institutions, many are still waiting on forgiveness of their federal student loans.
“Only 17% of the Iowans who have applied for relief through borrower defense to repayment have received help,” said Miller, in a statement. “Legislation is needed because the U.S. Department of Education isn’t doing enough, and we’re pleased that Rep. Finkenauer has proposed a remedy.”
Dr. Lori Sundberg, president of Kirkwood Community College, said she supports “legislation that makes it easier for students to borrow and repay their loans, and we will continue to educate students on financial aid resources and money management with the goal of reducing loan indebtedness.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
Photo by Julie Fleming