LIMA — After fives years of college and $100,000 paid out in loans, Army Veteran Tasha Berkhalter walked off her graduation stage with a useless criminal justice degree — a fact she learned after getting her first job.
“They hired me on the spot and called me the next day and said: ‘I’m sorry, we can’t hire you because your degree is not recognized by the Department of Education,’” Berkhalter said
Berkhalter earned her degree at ITT Technical Institute, the high-profile for-profit educational institute, back in 2010. Today, that same for-profit university is defunct, but she still has her debt, and she’s looking for the federal government to help.
A useless degree
The 37-year-old Lima native’s relationship with for-profit education institutions began back in 2005. Months after being medically discharged from her five-year-long service with the United States Army, Berkhalter began considering higher education. She eventually landed at ITT Technical Institute after a tour at their Fort Wayne, Indiana, location.
“What grabbed me was the commercials. Because I’m a hands-on type of learner. So I thought it was pretty dope that they had like, this huge lab. And all these like — what do they call it? — like mock trial type things that you can go and investigate and things like that. So I was really looking forward to that,” Berkhalter said. “When I got there, it was pretty much a building.”
Going into her sophomore year, Berkhalter started noticing some red flags. Trips that were promised ended up being downsized, and the experiential foundation of her education started to fall apart. A trip to a cadaver farm across states turned into a trip to the downtown morgue. Teachers and lecturers ended up being experienced in their fields but lacked in educational abilities.
Berkhalter began looking for a way out, but she reversed her decision junior year after her adviser reassured her about the university. Essentially, if she was to transfer, her credits wouldn’t, and she would have to start from the beginning. So she kept going to ITT Tech, and she kept paying.
At the same time, ITT Tech began running into legal troubles. In 2004, federal agents raided the company’s headquarters, and class action lawsuits by students began to pull apart the education chain.
By 2016 — long after Berkhalter graduated — the college system completely ceased operations. The organization blamed the closure on the Department of Education, which had undertaken a number of aggressive investigations into its operations after multiple attorneys and related lawsuits found evidence of grade inflation, predatory lending practices, high student loan default rates and deceptive marketing tactics.
But while ITT Tech’s story ended, Berkhalter’s continued. Today, with four kids, Berkhalter holds $100,000 in debt and is expected to pay over $700 a month to pay it back.
“There’s so many things that I don’t have access to as a veteran because of this debt hanging over my head, “ Berkhalter said.
The federal level
Some veterans affected by the college’s closure have already recouped their losses. Congress passed a bill to help restore GI benefits to roughly 7,000 defrauded veterans affected by ITT Tech’s closure, but due to Berkhalter attending outside the closure window, she’s had little to no help despite the federal government already having laws to deal with situations just like hers.
For that reason, Berkhalter was recently invited onto the political stage.
Two weeks ago, the Lima resident was flown out to Washington D.C. to partake in a press conference highlighting a change in borrower defense rules pushed forward by the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.
Essentially, the Department of Education under Devos leadership is trying to reverse Obama-era regulations that favor quick reimbursement to those like Berkhalter who have been defrauded by institutions like ITT Tech. In comparison, the updated Devos rules create hurdles by eliminating group payouts, creating stricter rules and allowing educational organizations that have complaints to rely on pre-dispute arbitration if they provide “a “clear, plain-text disclosure of each provision” to students.
Veterans groups have argued against the Devos change because predatory fraudulent universities often target veterans because of the tuition dollars provided by the GI Bill.
“We chose to put ourselves out there,” Berkhalter said. “We made that choice to serve and protect our country and fight and now I feel like we’re not being fought for, you know?”
Sen. Dick Durbin, a long-time veteran advocate, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer is looking to pass a joint resolution that would cancel the Devos rule change. Democrats argue Devos is protecting for-profit educational institutions, such as ITT Tech, Corinthian Colleges and the now-defunct Trump University, which has since paid out a $25 million settlement to its past students. Republicans argue that student borrowers deserve only partial relief and have changed funding formulas accordingly.
Berkhalter grabbed the spotlight at a D.C. podium after being introduced by Schumer during a Feb. 12 press conference.
“It was an amazing experience to even be at that platform. You know what I mean?” Berkhalter said. “Just to see the Senate and meet everybody and things like that and just to be in a room full of genuine people that care about you. Because you know, once you get out of the service, you kind of feel lost, you kind of feel like: ‘I’m not important anymore.’”
If the Senate fails to take up the Durbin-backed bill, the Devos rule change goes into effect July 1.
In a press release, Devos said the rules were changed because the “old rules just weren’t working.”
“We believe this final rule corrects the wrongs of the 2016 rule through common sense and carefully crafted reforms that hold colleges and universities accountable and treat students and taxpayers fairly,” Devos said.
More than 300,000 defrauded borrowers have pending claims with the Department of Education, Devos said during a December hearing. On the claims that Devos has signed off since taking office — the Obama administration had already approved a number of borrower defense claims prior to her taking office — she added “with extreme displeasure” under her signature.
In the meantime, Berkhalter is looking to gain momentum on the issue with a #Veteransmatter Gofundme, in which she hopes to give 50 veteran families $20,000 each to help those in similar situations.
“As a kid you have goals,” Berkhalter said. “My mom was a single mom. We weren’t the richest, you know, so I always wanted to be better than my environment. And I really wanted to provide that for my family. I wanted to give them a life that I didn’t have and just be a productive citizen.
“I just wanted to be all that I could be and really, it was devastating. And it’s been a struggle financially ever since I walked off that stage.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.