Jason Nyikos was working a high-paying, high-stress job at an Indiana machinery company when he decided to quit for what he thought would be a more laid back life as a college student, pursuing a degree that would eventually land him his dream job.
He researched dozens of schools, considering everything from class sizes and campus life to how schools processed GI Bill claims for veteran students like him. Within a month, he was sitting in class at ITT Technical Institute starting on his bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering.
None of Nyikos’ research prepared him for what would come a year later. After losing its eligibility to accept federal financial aid, the for-profit chain closed all of its campuses nationwide in September 2016, leaving Nyikos broke, with 65 straight-A credits that wouldn’t transfer, or — as he puts it — “down the crapper.”
“I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” the 35-year-old ex-sailor said in a recent interview, recalling the way he felt when he got the news. “I’m sitting here without a job, without a school, without a degree.”
Of the more than 40,000 ITT Tech students who were left in limbo when the school closed its doors, about 7,000 GI Bill users like Nyikos saw the GI Bill benefits they had used go to waste. Unlike their fellow classmates who used federal Pell Grants to pay for school, students using the GI Bill were not able to get those benefits restored.
Under a popular piece of legislation that’s quickly made its way through Congress, GI Bill users who lost their benefits to schools that have abruptly closed since 2015 would get their benefits restored for any credits that did not transfer to another institution.
The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017, or “Forever GI Bill,” has enjoyed strong bipartisan support and unanimous consent from lawmakers in both the House and Senate and is headed to the president’s desk to be signed into law.
In addition to retroactively restoring benefits to veterans in Nyikos’ situation, the legislation would provide a semester’s worth of reimbursement for GI Bill users affected by future school closures, as well as up to four months of a housing stipend. It would also eliminate the 15-year time limit to use benefits post-active duty, expand benefits for reservists, Purple Heart recipients and surviving dependents, and provide additional GI Bill funds for degrees in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields.
And while many laud the new bill for restoring benefits to victims of school closures — a provision initially proposed by Nyikos’ congressman, Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind. — some advocates feel the legislation doesn’t go far enough to protect veterans on the front end or those who have been defrauded by schools that don’t close.
“I think the Forever GI Bill does a lot of good things to expand the GI Bill, but more protections are still needed to ensure there’s not another ITT or Corinthian,” said Sean Marvin, legal director for the nonprofit Veterans Education Success, referring to Corinthian Colleges, another for-profit chain that closed in April 2015. “ITT is no longer around, but its business model is still viable, unfortunately.”
Marvin’s concerns were shared by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., at a July 17 hearing for the Forever GI Bill on Capitol Hill.
Calling the legislation “a major step forward,” Takano said it still does not solve the problem of “unethical schools preying upon veterans” and that there should still be more federal oversight to prevent this.
Will Hubbard, vice president of government affairs for Student Veterans of America, said the nonprofit has had ongoing conversations with staff at the Education Department, with every indication that the department would support the legislation.
“From our point of view, there’s probably never going to be a bill that passes that goes far enough,” said Hubbard, whose organization has more than 500,000 student veteran members and gets calls every day from veterans affected by school closures. “This is a great first step and it demonstrates Congress’ willingness and interest in getting this done and protecting students.”
Nyikos was thrilled to learn what the Forever GI Bill would mean for him.
“I’m very excited, very happy...mouth wide open that this is actually going down because I never thought that it would,” he said.
Now a student at Ivy Tech Community College in Lawrence, Indiana, Nyikos has switched to the medical field, paying for an associate degree in radiographic imaging with the 14 months of GI Bill benefits he has left.
Getting back the 22 months’ worth he lost would be “awesome,” he said, and it may mean he can once again try for a bachelor’s.
“I don’t have to be like everybody else out there and take on massive debt in education loans,” he said. “That’s the whole idea behind the GI Bill — that we don’t have to take any loans.”
“It’s hard to not feel like…hey, that’s owed to me, that’s mine,” he said. “But it is.”