The ITT Technical Institute Debacle
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.
I learned with great sadness of the closing and subsequent bankruptcy of ITT Technical Institute in September. ITT, a for-profit training institute, was no small operation. It had been around for half a century eventually operating 130 campuses in 38 states. At the time it closed, ITT had about 40,000 students.
There doesn't seem to be much doubt about the reason for ITT's demise. For many years, the school has been the subject of a series of investigations and complaints. It charged top dollar for its programs the cost of which for many students proved to be debilitating, especially when they were unable to find promised jobs. At the time ITT closed, thousands of students were at varying stages of progress in pursuit of degrees and have been left in limbo. It is not clear their credits can be transferred to other institutions such as community colleges that offer similar curricula. The people who ran ITT into the ground after so many years have much to answer for.
But in a larger sense the tragedy of ITT Tech is a reflection of our continuing failure to provide a viable career path for the many millions of Americans who aspire to useful careers but do not have the time, finances or inclination to pursue traditional four-year degrees. ITT Tech was in fact created out of necessity to provide such career training in technical fields.
The great fraud of our society is thousands of four-year colleges and universities charging students an arm and a leg for degrees that offer scant prospect of useful employment in the workplace. Thousands of people with bachelor's degrees are driving taxis and tending bar. There is nothing wrong with driving taxis and tending bar, but that is not what they invested all that time and money in.
Not so long ago, the public schools offered vocational training in which students learned practical skills that helped prepare them for work in trades and manufacturing. But somehow all that got squeezed out in favor of college prep curricula. But there are millions of very bright young people out there who are not academically inclined. They want to work with their hands and take satisfaction from performance of useful functions. They turn to schools like ITT Tech in the hope of learning practical skills that prepare them for real world jobs.
To some extent, community colleges are filling this conspicuous gap. Some of them work with local community businesses to learn what skills are in demand and provide them to their students. But there is a wide diversity among community colleges, too many of which remain wedded to the traditional academic mentality, possibly because many community college instructors are themselves products of the four-year curriculum.
There is a critical need for a comprehensive rethinking of our whole approach to education with an eye to equipping more young people with practical skills that are needed in the real world. Such a new approach would be good for the students as well as our society and economy.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.