When I look back on my childhood, I can hear my mother insisting: “Get your education. Study and get a good job so you don’t struggle like me.” I listened.
My mother worked very hard to support her five children, with little to no help. Looking back, we were always either in poverty, or teetering on the brink. Both of my divorced parents took higher education courses, but neither completed a program. Had my mother finished a degree, our situation might not have been as difficult.
It was imperative I use my talents to do better and pursue something greater.
In 2004, I left my hometown in central New York state to attend college at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh [AIP], a private, for-profit institution. My dream was to pursue photojournalism. Though I was told it may be wiser for me to attend a local community college first, the lure of a bigger city and the desire to break the chains of my parentage were too strong. A friend and I took a bus trip to the city for several days, and upon seeing the beauty and life of Pittsburgh, I was sold.
When I signed the master promissory note for AIP – a legal document through which student loan borrowers agree to pay back their loans, plus any interest and fees – I was 18 years old. I signed on to attend four courses, four quarterly terms per year, for an expected graduation in under four years, and with student loans estimated to total about $45,000.
The note included housing costs for only three school quarters, and I didn’t realize the remainder of my housing costs weren’t factored into the estimated total. Though I worked part-time for the majority of my schooling, it wasn’t enough to support me financially. I ended up taking on additional student loans to cover my living expenses over the five years it took me to finish.
I had loans “out the wazoo,” as my grandmother might have said.
As a youth, that dollar amount was entirely abstract. It was a concern for a date down the line, the distant future, and it was hard to conceptualize its true weight and meaning. That would be the price to pay for the escape from my hometown — and for the education that would bring my dreams to fruition.
College was no cake-walk. I faced some true challenges. My family lacked the generational knowledge of what it takes to get through a degree program. I now understand I have ADHD, which affected my focus. I was broke and depressed. Like many others, I changed majors. The initial course load was too great, the terms too short. I withdrew from and retook some classes. Each of these factors and mistakes added to my bill.
As I made progress through my program, working toward graduation, I watched as those I started with and met along the way began to drop out. For some, their loans were already too great, and they were unable to borrow more to finish. Others couldn’t manage to pass their classes.
For one reason or another, there were fewer and fewer familiar faces, and more and more young adults walked away from AIP with only debt to show for their efforts.
My peers and I were unaware when we were students that our college had low graduation rates compared to public and private nonprofit colleges. Even among full-time students who enrolled in four-year programs at AIP in 2011, only 29% graduated within six years. It has become an almost sarcastic joke that when former AIP students meet each other, the first question we often ask is: “Did you graduate?”
Fortunately, I did.
When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in digital media production in December 2009, I was very proud, and relieved. I was the first in my family to obtain a degree. For all the challenges I faced then and since, I value my education and what I accomplished. Having a bachelor’s degree has opened doors for me and taken me on some unexpected paths. It provided the tools to better comprehend the world around me, to understand humanity, even to better understand myself. I have often said college didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think.
Although it made me into the woman I am today, this education and accomplishment came at a far greater cost than I could have ever imagined.
AIP was part of a predatory for-profit college machine, the Education Management Corporation [EDMC], which former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said operated “essentially as a recruitment mill.”
EDMC, which owned AIP and other for-profit colleges, agreed to pay $95.5 million in 2015 to settle allegations that the company’s recruiting practices enrolled students in programs they lacked the skills to complete and left them burdened with “unsustainable” debt, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. EDMC did not acknowledge wrongdoing through the settlement.
When I graduated, the $25-per-hour jobs for entry-level graduates that my professors told me were probable didn’t materialize. I didn’t get the career assistance, job recommendations or advantaged connections to industry professionals that AIP promised. I was on my own, and the job market was still struggling to rebound from the Great Recession. I managed to land an administrative position at a local law firm, which wasn’t my dream job, but it was what I needed at the time. With loan payments due within six months, I suddenly had a dark cloud over my head to the tune of about $85,000.
In addition to Sallie Mae, I knew I should be making payments to AIP for some of my loans, but when I received no invoice in those first six months, I called the college to ask about the status. After several calls to various AIP departments, I was told I had no loans with them. It wasn’t until my mother opened mail from AIP she received at her address that I discovered those AIP loans were now in default. I consolidated them into a brand new federal loan, including collection fees of over $2,200. I even received a letter from AIP congratulating me on paying off my loan. I felt insulted.
I struggled over the past 11 years, but made monthly payments, while watching in horror as the interest caused the loan balance to balloon. I’ve made at least $40,000 in payments so far, but still owe nearly $118,000.
The interest rates of my loans have kept me in a perpetual state of unimaginable debt, as most of my payments have been for interest alone. Even now, my private loans range in interest from 7.75% to 11.75%. For years, I have considered these “ghost loans” – these monetary figures that will haunt me forever, that I will never truly face down, that I’ll continue dumping my hard-earned American dollars into without ever making progress.
This was the cost of following the American Dream. I didn’t own a car until I was 30. I have miniscule retirement savings and may never own a home. I’d love to go to graduate school to better compete in the job market and increase my salary. But why would I take on another $75,000 or more in debt?
EDMC agreed to forgive nearly $103 million in student loans issued to more than 80,000 former students in 2015. I was not impacted by this settlement, because automatic relief was given to students who were enrolled for 45 days or less, among other criteria.
The federal government is also canceling a collective $6 billion in federal loans for about 200,000 former students who attended one of the more than 150 schools listed in a class-action settlement, including EDMC’s Art Institutes. I should be eligible to benefit from this forgiveness and sincerely pray for this relief.
I’m also eligible to receive a whopping $500 through a settlement with Navient, a student loan servicer. The lawsuit alleged that the company originated subprime private loans to students attending for-profit colleges and pushed some borrowers into forbearance instead of relief programs. Navient has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and did not admit liability through the settlement.
I am grateful for my education, but I can’t help but ask: “How did this happen to me?” AIP knew my family’s financials, knew I was moving out of state and knew I didn’t have the support of college-educated parents. How could anyone — AIP and the other lenders — extend those lines to me in good conscience? All odds were against me.
Regardless of whether I ever graduated or found a career in my major, AIP stood to profit.
My mother, and America, told me I should go to college to better my life and that of my family and the nation. I was told I could be and do anything if I got an education. But millennials, my peers, have become a struggling generation — hard-working and educated, but drowning in debt. We’re excluded from the capital market because we don’t have capital. We don’t have purchasing power, which impacts the economy. We will be without retirement savings.
We won’t be able to put our own children through college.
Rachelle J. Quinn is a personal financial counselor, passionate about educating and guiding others through their financial lives. Despite this article’s title, she still hopes to earn a master’s degree someday. If you want to send a message to Rachelle, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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