Two years ago, William McNeil lost his retail job at Sears and was looking to improve his life. Around the same time, he got a bunch of emails promising a path to a new career from ITT Technical Institute, the for-profit college chain.
So, McNeil, who's 55, signed up online to get more information about the school and got several calls from an ITT recruiter. Desperate to get back on track, he decided it was worth the $20,000 in government-backed loans to pursue an associate's degree in networking technology at the school.
"I liked computers and I figured it was something that's going to be around a while, and only get more intense," he says.
At the campus in Norwood, Mass., outside of Boston, he earned a 3.5 grade point average and says he felt confident that, with a degree, he'd be able to find work.
"Everything was looking good and I was just about to start my final quarter," he says. "I would've graduated with my associate's degree in December and there went the rug out from under my feet."
That was last month, when ITT shut down all of its 137 locations. The federal government cut off student aid because the school's accreditor found it had lied about its graduation and job-placement figures.
Nearly 40,000 students, including McNeil, were left scrambling, wondering if their time and money spent at ITT Tech would pay off at all, anywhere.
Since then, community and nonprofit private schools across the country have been holding open houses to recruit former ITT students.
McNeil is trying to convince admissions officers at the Ben Franklin Institute of Technology, a nonprofit two-year college in Boston, to give him credit for coursework he's already done at ITT.
As McNeil, and thousands of other former ITT students can probably tell you, that's not easy.
"We're sitting down with each individual student, one-by-one, to make sure that they are ready because we don't want to put them in a class that they're not ready for," says Marvin Loiseau, Ben Franklin's admissions director.
He and McNeil go through each course, making a plan for the next year. "Why should they be penalized because their school closed down?" Loiseau asks. But many of McNeil's credits will not transfer.
This is an issue, and not just for former ITT Tech students; it can be difficult to transfer credits between two-year and four-year schools, for-profit and nonprofit colleges across the country. And, for many low-income students, the path to graduation isn't clear.
"They don't typically go to one institution and stay there on a residential campus for four years and graduate," Bill Moses of the Kresge Foundation says. "They take longer, they often go to more than one institution, they go to very different kinds of institutions."
So one idea, Moses says, is for colleges, states and accreditors to rethink how they measure and transfer credits.
"Could you have statewide, or at least metro-area wide, articulation agreements so it's easier for lower-income students — particularly the students who go to ITT and other for-profits — to transfer?"
Giving students credit for what they know, rather than time spent in the classroom, Moses says, would solve many of today's college credit problems.
The U.S. Education Department is backing that idea. For now, former ITT students who can't transfer their credits are eligible for debt relief, but that would mean starting from square one.