ARLINGTON, Va. -- Chants of "Students Over CEOs" and "ITT Is the Worst" echoed around the plaza near the hotel in this Washington, D.C., suburb Monday.
About 20 student advocates against student debt organized the protest held brightly colored signs advertising "#ITT Fail" not far from the nondescript concrete hotel where the company held its annual shareholders' meeting. Beads of sweat gathered on the protesters' foreheads as they stood in the early morning humidity, attracting honks from cars passing by and thumbs-up from tourists on a nearby Big Bus.
"We believe to tackle the student debt crisis we have to look at the drivers of the student debt crisis, and almost half of loan defaults come from students who attend for-profit institutions," said Maggie Thompson, campaign manager for Higher Ed Not Debt, a group of mostly progressive groups and unions, which is connected to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
Higher Ed Not Debt, the Service Employees International Union and Student Debt Action organized the protest, along with other events that have taken place on ITT campuses over the last week.
One of those protesters, Anthony Byrd, of Williamstown, N.J., attended the for-profit institution in September 2011 and left after a month and a half with $5,000 in student debt. He was the only former ITT student in attendance. (Note: This article has been changed from a previous version to correct erroneous information from the protest's organizers, who had said multiple former ITT students were in attendance.)
Byrd said he was unimpressed by the classes he was offered during his time at ITT and felt they wouldn't help him pursue his goal of achieving a computer science degree or eventually transferring to Drexel University. Those classes offered more "group work" instead of instruction, with students relying on one another for help to succeed, he said.
Some students choose to go to ITT Tech because they feel they can't afford another institution, Byrd said, and "they believe the dream ITT is trying to sell. They believe they're going to get a degree and profit off of it, and that's not the case."
ITT is facing lawsuits from state and federal agencies for allegedly guiding students to predatory loans and misleading investors about students' default rates on those loans. At times, the company has been compared to Corinthian Colleges.
Thompson said the organizations have also asked ITT Tech investors to pull out of the for-profit, and have solicited more than 1,300 students to sign an online petition demanding the institution give them a refund.
The company responded by saying the organizations promoting the protests were not providing accurate information to students or shareholders about ITT's success.
"Organizations with ideological biases are tainted by ulterior motives, and they frequently recruit people to stage protests," said Nicole Elam, an ITT spokeswoman, in an emailed statement. "We are helping students build better lives, secure employment and earn higher salaries. The targeted recruitment of former students as 'spokespeople' by these organizations also provides us no option to counter claims that may be false, without a student providing a signed release of their records."
Elam also highlighted ITT's successes, adding that the company has increased institutional scholarships and awarded more than $260 million in such grants in 2014.
Byrd, who has been giving interviews about his time and experience while an ITT student, didn't give the company a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act release to discuss his time there.
"A request from ITT to pressure a former student to release his academic records is a poorly concealed attempt from the company to try to discredit the student, as well as to distract from its failure to produce results for students and investors," said a spokesperson for the Higher Ed Not Debt campaign. "More than 1,300 students have signed Higher Ed Not Debt's petition asking ITT for a refund, while ITT executives continue to rake in millions of dollars in compensation. It's time for ITT to prioritize student success."
The protest took place during the shareholders' annual meeting, which received heightened interest after the former student loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sent a letter to ITT investors asking them to reform the institution. In that letter, Rohit Chopra, now a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, urged the shareholders to reconsider offering extended terms to a couple of board members.
Elam said the outcome of the meeting will be released later this week.
Although he considers his loss minor and now attends Camden County College, in New Jersey, Byrd said he wanted to warn other students to do their background research before signing up for thousands of dollars of debt.
"You can't take things at face value," he said. "You have to do your research."
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