It was supposed to be his special day, a day he'd worked for on those long nights and weekends while supporting his family. It was so important that his siblings had come from across the country — from Hawaii, Idaho, Florida and Washington — to celebrate Jeffery Snow's graduation from ITT Technical Institute.
On Thursday morning, however, Snow sat at a restaurant in Belle Plaine, surrounded by family and friends. His cap and gown were on the table wrapped in plastic, his honor roll certificates spread before him. When he talked about how proud his father would have been about Snow finally getting a diploma at age 42, he lost it.
"All I wanted to do is walk across that stage and I know he would have been watching me," Snow said, fighting back tears. "My father died in March. He was my best friend."
Snow will never make that walk.
ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit college, closed abruptly last week after losing federal funding for financial aid, putting hundreds of Minnesotans and as many as 45,000 students like Snow in educational and financial limbo. The federal government has investigated the college in recent years for misleading job placement rates, predatory lending practices and credits that don't transfer to other schools. In 2015, the SEC charged top executives with fraud.
Now, hardworking guys like Snow are paying the price for the greed. Thousands of students had their careers derailed, veterans may have squandered their federal education money that can't be replaced. Our congressional delegation needs to know about people like Jeffery Snow, and do something for them.
Betsy Talbot, manager of registration and licensing for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, said the state obtained student records from both campuses this week and is working to get other institutions to accept more transferred credits than normal. She said ITT has kept one employee at each location and "does anticipate issuing diplomas next week."
But given the shutdown of ITT, do those degrees mean anything?
"That remains to be seen," said Talbot. In the computer science field, employers "have an appreciation of what you are worth, and the institutional history will go away eventually."
Snow may be luckier than most. He completed his final project and got credit for it in the school's final hours, and his courses helped him get a job in IT at a company that now knows him and appreciates his efforts to get a bachelor of science in project management.
Still, the inability to get his diploma was heartbreaking. When Snow heard about the school closing, he was too upset to go to work. He went to the school's location in Eden Prairie for information. Somebody simply told him that the school no longer existed.
Snow, who is more than $40,000 in debt for school loans, has had several starts and stops in his "mission" to get a diploma, but each time he got derailed by life.
He tried tech school and a travel school and was going to enroll in business school. Then he and his wife, Leticia, had twins. So instead, Snow worked in a call center to pay the bills for 13 years.
"It's not a job you would want for 13 years," he said. "There was roadblock after roadblock, but I saw [a degree] as means to an end."
Finally, he discovered his real interest was technology, and he enrolled at ITT Institute in an attempt to escape the call center and get a fulfilling job. He chose the college because it was close to work and fit his schedule.
"I knew this was going to be a four-year deal, and I said I was going to be the best I could be," Snow said. He made the dean's list every quarter and finished with a 3.92 GPA. "This [graduation] was for me, for my hard work for the past four years of my life."
"Everything he's done has been a battle," said friend Joe Fiedler. "You wouldn't believe how hard this guy worked."
"When my dad died, I was a zombie for two quarters," said Snow. "Joe pushed me and pushed me to keep going to school. I have to say, the staff was really good. It was not an easy curriculum. It was very difficult for me."
"This has been a really tough year," said Jessica Snow, Jeffery's sister, who flew in from Hawaii. "Every time we get together it seemed to be for a tragedy. This time we were getting together for something positive."
That celebration turned into a support group at the Belle Plaine restaurant Thursday. There would be no walk across the stage for Snow, but the family planned to go kayaking on Lake Calhoun instead. At least they were together.
"My brother told us this was not a big deal, and not to come to graduation," said another sister, Jules. "But it is a big deal. Jeff is the guy who changed our diapers, who taught us to ride a bike, to skateboard. It's a huge accomplishment. He kept going to school, brought up his children. He's an example you can do anything if you put your mind to it."
Jules looked down the table at her brother.
"You're my Superman," she said.
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