Burned by a Career-Ed Program: Real and Raw Student Stories

The U.S. Department of Education plans to release its final "gainful employment" rule in October 2014. The draft rule, circulated by the department earlier this year, proposed cutting off access to federal financial aid for career-education programs (many of which are at for-profit colleges) whose graduates have high student loan default rates or high levels of student loan debt relative to their incomes. It is essential that the department adopt a final rule with strong protections for students.

During the month of May we asked students to submit their stories as public comments on the department’s draft “gainful employment” rule. Many of the student victims who have been exploited and defrauded by career-education programs offered compelling evidence of the need for stronger protections. Here’s what some of them had to say:

*Stories have been edited for grammar and clarity

James, Virginia
My story is like many others. I went to school looking for a better option and ended up getting suckered into ITT and being charged up to $50,000 in student loans just for a two-year associate degree. To make things worse, I didn't see any of my tuition money.

I went to school in 2005 and almost had to self-teach myself and others in class. One year later, I'm getting hounded by collectors (Sallie Mae) to pay my loans while I'm still in school.

I graduated in 2007. On TV people say they had job placements and help. My friends and I received zero help. It was pretty much you're on your own. Then I went in the Army in order to help pay off some of the private loans, in which I have no memory of signing for, since I was looking for grants most of the time. I paid off over more than half before getting out of the army due to injury.

In 2011, I had to defer my loans with collectors (Sallie Mae) due to the 14% interest rate I apparently signed for in the private loans back in 2006. In 2012, I lost the one job I had at the time and explained my situation to the collectors but ended up receiving threatening letters of being sued, due to delinquency, or lack of paying because the $300-$400 a month I was paying wasn't enough.

I have two jobs now, and I'm still paying off my loans. Recently I heard ITT was being sued, I hope I can testify.


Lara, California
I already had a B.S. degree in Computer Information Systems and worked in IT for 11 years. I got laid off from my job in 2007. A friend told me to go and enroll in Art Institute of California to learn Graphic Design, since I had an interest in Graphic Design.

When I went to the school, I asked them "How much it would cost?" They said it would be under $35,000. Next thing I knew, I was signing up papers. I went there to get some information, next thing I knew I was there for six hours.  I was scared and panicking. They told me not to worry "Do what you like and the money will come later". To make the long story short, I had no idea "What I was getting myself into". 

I witnessed them enrolling more and more students and the classes were full. They kept on promising that we would find jobs right after graduating. I witnessed more and more students quitting the college because they could not find a cosigner. 

I have $100,000 student loan debt at this point. I had to file for bankruptcy because I could not find any jobs. My anger is more toward Art Institute. They keep on taking in more students by misinforming them about the job market. 

Art Institute type of colleges should not be able to enroll students for $500 per credit by misinforming students that they will be able to find good jobs and be able to pay off their loans.


Donata, Indiana
I decided to finish my degree around 30 and decided to attend online since I was a single mother working secretarial jobs and knew I was better than this. I attended American Intercontinental University for Associates, Bachelors and Masters in Business. I believe I am now over $80k in debt which includes (I think) over $23 in private loans because for some reason I didn't have enough Federal Financial Aid to pay for my education. At times I had to pay out-of-pocket while only making $10/hour. Now after graduating in 2009 I was still making $10.50/hour and was expected to start paying back the private loans right away. I tried and failed and now my wages are being garnished for one of the student loans at a rate of almost $700/month. One of the private loans has gone from $13,500 to $41,000 and I get threatening phone calls every day trying to get this money. I currently get home with $1,800/month. I can't even afford health insurance at my job! After rent, food, and transportation I am almost tapped out. I work as an Admissions Advisor and believe education is the key, but some days it is hard to discuss education as an investment with this burden on my back. I cry often, but keep plugging away hoping one day I will be able to enjoy my life student-loan free. Now my daughter is attending DeVry University and I discuss her student loan debt with her frequently, but I see the same thing will probably happen to her with them charging her $678/per credit hour! Hopefully, something will change or my story will give caution to those thinking of finishing their education to be smarter than I.


Summer, Colorado
I hope this reaches someone that will listen. I was preyed upon and tricked into attending an environmental law program at Florida Coastal School of Law, who has since consistently ranked in the top 10 WORST law schools in America and is under class action lawsuits.

They bring on approx. 600 bright eyed lawyer hopefuls per SEMESTER. They have a mandatory fail policy in each class--meaning that in every single individual class a set percentage of the students MUST receive grades on a bell curve--setting a certain percentage of each class on a one way path to hell.

I currently work for an amazing non-profit where I am paid $30,000 per year. Not enough to even start paying off the enormous monstrosity that casts long, dark shadows over every corner of my life. At this rate, I will never be able to purchase a home due to my debt to income ratio. I have $0 in credit card or any other debt, but over $170,000 (and rising, with interest) in student loan debt that is strangling the very life from me.

Please. Please. Please. Consider how many hundreds of thousands of American citizens face a similar fate day in and day out. We need student loan reform desperately. I beg you to consider this plea, keeping in mind your future grandchildren, your neighbor's child, or your best friend's kid and imagine them in my shoes. With no way out but ending their lives and the weight that places on so many of us, and our families and loved ones Every. Single. Day. Thank you for your time. I trust you will make the right decision.


Kenneth, Massachusetts
Enrollment into my first college was more of a sales process than an enrollment. Turns out I was sold a bad product, for everything I was supposed to get was incrementally taken away. I purchased two years’ worth of poor teachings, hollow sales pitches, and broken promises. And, the school was shut down soon after I graduated.


Aurora, Oregon
When I started college as a working single mother with two children and two jobs - online college was the ONLY option I could do, and the ONLY school offering that was University of Phoenix. I had no other options for a college degree available. Because of that monopoly, U of P is able to charge outrageous prices, and required me to take out huge student loans to cover the cost.

Now that I am four classes away from finishing my Master's degree, I am receiving notices about how much I am going to have to pay each month when I graduate to pay back the student loans, and there's no way I can afford it!! My student loan payments will be almost $1000 a month, and I still have kids to feed and care for, and my degrees have not increased my income enough to cover the costs.

So while I went to college to improve my family's financial situation, so that I could have a good career as an accountant and make a decent salary, the costs of that education mean that after paying for the student loans my net disposable income isn't really an improvement. I am losing money I could be spending in the economy, saving for retirement, or sending my kids to college. The interest rates on my loans are higher than my car loan! It is ridiculous, and shameful.


Cristofe, New York
I took out student loans to attend DeVry University. Due to a family emergency and the birth of my daughter I was forced to take a hiatus. I completed FOUR out of FIVE trimesters. I was NOT told that if I did not return in a few months that DeVry would NOT honor my credits and all my hard work was wasted. I could not afford the time and more loans to start over. Nor could the credits I earned at Devry be transferred to ANY other school. This was many years ago.

With no degree and a family I was forced to take whatever menial jobs I could find. I could not afford to pay off my loans and keep food on the table. Things got so bad at one point that I was forced to file bankruptcy.

Unfortunately, the laws regarding discharge of student loan debt had JUST been changed and I missed the cut off by just a few month!! I am now 52 and nearly disabled with arthritis. As a result of my situation, the initial loans of about 20k have ballooned into nearly 100k due to interest charges. The burden is almost unbearable and I will never be able to escape the grip of Sallie Mae!!


I graduated ITT with an associate’s degree in multimedia with about $47,000 in debt. ITT did not educate the students or prepare them properly for the real-world working conditions. ITT provided low level skills and the professors lacked full knowledge in what they were teaching.

From a graduating class of about 10, only 2 found a job in the career related to their degree. Many other graduates are working low end jobs and barely making ends meet or living with their parents. So this is my first issue with the private colleges and their poor performance rates.

I was lucky because outside of school I worked on my skills. Any waking moment I was on my computer desiring to learn more and more. I ended up asking questions even my professor's couldn't answer.

There needs to be reform in the private schooling district and limitations to how much a school can charge. We really need to eliminate for-profit schooling because education should have ZERO business involved.
My Second issue with the student loan crisis is the extremely outrageous high interest rates on PRIVATE student loans. My current interest rates on my private student loans through Sallie Mae is 9-12%. I can't find any financial institution that will consolidate to an interest rate of 8% or lower. We need to limit how high these private lenders can charge with interest rates.

Now leading to my third complaint is the education and warnings and risks of going to college, yes I said risk. College is a risk nowadays, you may go and you may never find a job and end up with debt and a minimum wage job. This is because some careers are changing and some are not profitable anymore. Yet these schools still offer the programs and continue to hurt graduates. Another warning that should be in place is the interest rates and the salary information (various on location). The financial officer needs to show the math that shows projected salary and student loan costs adding in other living expenses. THIS is KEY. With numbers on paper, it may help a future student reconsider the school or even going to school for that matter.


Matt, Ohio
I couldn't afford to finish school and now I have $90,000.00 in debt with no education and no way to pay it off. Everyday costs me hundreds of dollars in interest. Taking advantage of people who are, by definition, uneducated should be criminalized.


Ami, Illinois
The school I went to was a private for-profit college that used deceptive practices to enroll students. They made it seem like I would have a great education and excellent alumni benefits. I was told we would be able to access the studios after graduation, which was false. I was told I would have help with job placement, but I had no assistance whatsoever with job placement. In fact, due to being pregnant during graduation, I was made to sign a release saying they wouldn’t help me find a job and I was "opting" out of it. I was tricked into this as it was during our portfolio show and I assumed it was general procedure paperwork and didn't really take the time to read it as the day was hectic. Also, our portfolio show where prospective employers were to come see students’ portfolios and resumes yielded no such prospects for photography.

I was also told that the school had excellent placement rates for jobs, but this turned out to be fact distortion as the rates were mostly due to the graphic design degree. The photography program was brand new which I didn’t find out until I was already enrolled and discussing it with other students. I also had teachers who wouldn’t show up to class consistently, teachers who just showed videos or internet tutorials, & teachers who did not teach, but rather called a class meeting at his friends restaurant a field trip while we were told to photograph the restaurant while he ate and drank with his friends.

This is the education I paid for. I received no education. I learned almost nothing, save for a few instructors. The bulk just didn’t care and there was a high level of turnover of instructors. It’s awful that I am in debt and now have to rely on food stamps and handouts from my family just to survive. I was trying to make a better life, but truthfully I was better off before attending college. Now I have a BFA and I can’t get any help to get a degree that is worth anything.


Jason, Florida
My story is simple. They lured me into the institution, telling me there is financial aid available blah, blah, blah! What they FAIL to mention is you won't have enough money left over at the end to finish your degree.

I am about 60K in the hole, and still do not have a degree because the government will not give me anymore money, due to a ceiling on the amount they will loan you for your undergraduate. Tuition goes up every single semester, and takes your money FAST!

I am completely screwed, now paying my loans back, and still have nothing to show for it. Absolutely ridiculous! I started asking close to the last year I was there, whether I would have enough to finish, and they kept telling me, "Yes, you will have enough." They tell you what you want to hear until it is too late, and you realize you won't finish. I am at a little over 90 credits and can't finish my degree. Absolutely ridiculous!


Jennifer, Pennsylvania
I am a single mom who needed to start a career after my husband left us. I entered the Graphic Design Bachelors program and did classwork every night after work. The classes were nothing but discussions and busy work. I had to learn the design software on my own. I could have saved myself 100k by spending 3k on amazon and getting books and software to learn on my own.  

This school was useless. But from my experience, no one would hire you without that piece of paper saying you spent a fortune for a school to tell you things you could learn on your own.  

Then halfway through my degree the banks decided to stop lending to me and I could not finish the degree. I am now saddled with unbelievable amounts of debt with no degree and no way to pay it back.  I made my life and my children's lives so much worse.

Elizabeth, Washington

I held up my end of the bargain, did my research, followed my dream...I finally was able to transfer to the Art Institute online and pursue the career and dream...I have always wanted to be in the design realm...specifically Interior Design so I decided to attend the Art Institute online. The market crashed when I was a year away from graduating...I knew that my degree would be useless for quite some time because it would take time for the market recover. I decided to switch design fields and use the skills that I had already been taught and go into web design and multimedia via Westwood College. At the time I had done my research and Westwood College was fully accredited I was here away from graduating they lost their accreditation where I live which is in Seattle they do not honor Westwood Colleges' degree(s) of any kind, so for me to say that I have a degree would be false. "Colleges" such as this one should never be allowed to do business call themselves a true college because they are nothing shy of criminals and they can get away with it because they have money, they have clout, and no one stops them and ultimately no one cares!


Institutions offering career-education programs promise students meaningful skills, and a degree or credential that will allow them to land a well-paying job once they graduate. Too often these programs fail to deliver on their promises, leaving students with heaps of students loan debt, little to no valuable workforce skills, and a worthless degree if any degree at all. We need strong federal “gainful employment” regulations to hold these institutions accountable.

Do these stories sound just like yours? We want to hear from you! Share your story here.