LIVERPOOL, N.Y. - Robert Lemp was three classes and a capstone project away from graduating when he learned his school, ITT Technical Institute, was shutting its doors.
Lemp, 51, of Syracuse is one of tens of thousands of students across the country who are stranded by the sudden closure of the for-profit school.
Lemp must now decide whether to discharge his loans and start all over again - or continuing paying back more than $16, 000 in loans on an education that he now considers meaningless while finishing up his degree at whatever school will take most of his ITT credits.
"It's a catch 22. Every option I've been given comes with a but, a second side, " Lemp said. "I feel totally robbed now."
Lemp enrolled at ITT Tech two years ago. He was studying toward an associate's degree in network systems administration.
He was signed up to start two classes Monday in information security and communications.
Since, ITT has been investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the federal Department of Education. Investigators have said that ITT is not in compliance with the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which ensures schools meet certain education and operation standards.
Federal aid made up 70 percent of ITT's $850 million revenues last year, according to the education department.
Robert Lemp said he was recruited to transfer to ITT Tech in Liverpool while the for-profit college chain was under investigation.Provided Photo
When Lemp was first approached by ITT, he was taking online classes with Kaplan University, he said. He said he would get phone calls three times a week from ITT for months before he decided to transfer to the school.
What finally appealed to him was ITT's pitch that he could get more hands-on experience with professors who would be available in person, instead of only through email.
After a few months on campus, Lemp was disappointed.
"I wish I would have stayed where I was, " he said.
Lemp found that teachers could often only be reached via email. Administrators, he said, were unhelpful and unresponsive. Teachers varied in their abilities to engage students. The equipment and technology was sometimes out of date.
Most of all, "hands-on" learning - the thing he was looking forward to the most - meant working with "virtual machines, " or desktop computers that are used to connect to other operating systems. For example, virtual machines let you use a Mac operating system on a PC.
"It was not the real thing. Nowhere close to the real thing, " he said.
Lemp, a self-described hobbyist who said he loves to tinker with electronics, was especially disappointed that students did not physically open up a computer to work on the hardware for more than five months at the school.
Lemp said he was disappointed with the quality of education he received at the school. He attributes that in part to the school's lack of screening its students. He said that led to classes in which some students were technically advanced, and others couldn't find the computer's power button.
"Anybody who had the money - as long as you had your high school diploma - that was enough, " Lemp said. "They take your money and hand you a piece of paper. There are no entrance exams. They didn't test students to see if they had the aptitude to learn. Some I felt so bad for - they were being used."
Until last week when the for-profit school announced it would not open its campuses this semester, Lemp said he had not received any communication from ITT about federal sanctions or investigations.
Since, the school has only communicated with him through email. Lemp said he has called the Liverpool campus at least 5 times, as well another number for ITT. Each time, he was sent to an answering machines. He never heard back from the school.
According to Lemp, a staff directory within the ITT website's student portal has been wiped clean. He regularly used the directory to contact his teachers.
A message left by a reporter during business hours for Liverpool ITT Dean Paul Bakke was not returned. An email to Bakke bounced back, designated as "undeliverable."
Lemp said he finds what information ITT has provided - mostly on its now barren website - to be vague and sometimes misleading.
He's not sure how to feel about the federal education department's role in shutting down his school.
"On one hand I like what the government is trying to do in shutting these places down, but in the process of doing so they are going to hurt a lot of people."
Lemp viewed ITT Tech as a "foundation for the rest of his life, " the phrase heard around the country in the company's frequent commercials. "Education for the future" is ITT's tagline.
For Lemp, an associate's degree would be proof he could go on to more schooling. It also represented the possibility of career that he felt was well-suited for him.
Lemp has relied on disability benefits for about 10 years. He has back and knee problems that prevent him from driving. He also struggles with severe anxiety, which has prevented him from holding down jobs. Lemp's goal is to be self-employed as an information technology consultant, a job that would allow him to work for himself and avoid large group settings that trigger his anxiety.
While Lemp has managed to live on disability payments, he said he wants to do more with his life and technical skills.
He has not yet decided what he will do next, but is attending information sessions for ITT Tech students at Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College. He is also exploring whether Kaplan University will accept some of his credits and he can complete his degree online.
"I would like to continue my education, " he said. "I would like to pick up where I left off. I don't want to have to start all over again."
He would also like to pursue recourse against ITT. He would consider joining a class action lawsuit.
"I feel let down in every way, " he said. "I feel I did everything I could to get it right, to have it all thrown back in my face. It's messing with people's lives, their hopes and dreams and futures."