Student Loans – Not All Hope is Lost!

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There are SO MANY STORIES I could tell about AIS, but I’ll save them for some other time. The point to all of this is that I walked out of that school with almost a perfect GPA, which in most schools should mean that I had a portfolio good enough to land me a decent entry level job. At AIS it meant that I had shown up, stayed mostly sober throughout my classes, and (most importantly) had paid my tuition. That was all it took to get almost straight As.

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Disclaimer: I’m going to share a link to a resource I found that might help me finally get rid of my student loan debt. It’s called Borrower Defense, and it is through the U.S. Government Financial Aid department. I AM NOT SELLING ANYTHING HERE, PEOPLE. You should know by now that I’m not a bullshit artist. This is a legitimate group, run by the U.S. Government, and you can research before you read any further if it makes you more comfortable. I’m simply sharing it because I had never heard of the service before, and so I’m sure there are others who haven’t either.

I also want to be abundantly clear that I am currently in the process of seeing if this works for my situation. I could be rejected, and be right back where I was when I started the process. I have no stats on how many people this has or hasn’t worked for, but it’s zero cost other than the time it takes to fill out the form, so I kind of figure you don’t have much to lose.

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I attended the Art Institute of Seattle (AIS), where I majored in Computer Animation. Despite going to college a bit later in life, I still had very little frame of reference as to what college should cost, nor what a legitimate school operated like. Prior to AIS, my only college experience was a year at a state run university, but I was 18 and couldn’t have given less of a poop about paying attention to my courses, let alone how that very legitimate school operated.

So I missed what were undoubtedly bright red flags raised by the AIS at the time, because I frankly just didn’t know any better.

For starters, I was given a hard sell in my portfolio review. I was told that my work was good, but just good enough to put me on the bubble of missing out if I didn’t choose to sign up for financial aid that same day. “Classes were filling up fast!” They told me that they couldn’t guarantee I would get in if more talented students applied later, so it would be best if I signed up for government assistance that day. But I shouldn’t worry, because they had on-staff people who could take care of all of my paperwork for me, and I just needed to sign! What a deal!

The second red flag about the portfolio review occurred to me many years later. Reflecting on what I presented at the time, it was at best some pencil sketches and maybe a single painting. AT BEST. It was certainly not enough to get me into a truly legitimate art school, and in hindsight I’m not sure it could have gotten me into the pre-school finger-painting class at my local YMCA. Yet they were very encouraging and told me I had true talent and they could see massive potential.

The final red flag of the recruitment process came when the portfolio reviewer (recruiter) told me that AIS had one of the highest industry job placement rates in the country. This was another one that I didn’t understand the magnitude of until years later when I spoke to a former AIS professor who told me that the school’s job placement rate included “art jobs” at places like Kinko’s, because it was copy and print and technically fell into a commercial art category.

Then there was the school itself…

When I first started at the school, I was told they had some of the best Professors in their fields, who had a great deal of real world knowledge. Let’s take one particular case as an example of a possible fly in that ointment:

I had a professor who was teaching us the computer program, Maya. This professor had zero professional experience in 3D art (outside of teaching said class a few times previously), and yet was teaching us a 3D application. He made us all purchase a book for his class, which obviously isn’t uncommon, but then he spent every class reading directly from the book to us. He literally read step-by-step instructions from the book as we followed along.

“In the upper left corner you’ll find the Edit menu. [Under his breath: “Edit… edit… where is the edit menu. AH! There it is!”] Once you have clicked on the Edit menu, move your cursor down to Scale. [Again under his breath: “I don’t see a Scale. I can never seem to find Scale. This is odd. Scale… scale… scale… OH… Scale! It’s there under Move.”] Next you’ll grab the handles…”

And so on.

Often students would ask him questions like, “Can I unilaterally scale the object if I want?” He’d then feverishly attempt to look up “unilateral” in the Appendix, and if he couldn’t find it in the back of the book, he’d look up, lower his glasses to the tip of his nose, and calmly say, “Let me get back to you on that.”

Spoiler Alert: He never got back to any of us. EVER.

That’s not to say there weren’t gems in the Professor pool. One professor, Pat Watje, had DEEP industry knowledge, had worked on several well-known computer games, and was a fantastic teacher.

6 months after I arrived at AIS, they went through an accreditation process that would allow them to charge more for tuition. As a result, Professors without 4 year degrees were let go. “Let me get back to you on that” had a 4 year degree. Pat Watje did not.

There are SO MANY STORIES I could tell about AIS, but I’ll save them for some other time. The point to all of this is that I walked out of that school with almost a perfect GPA, which in most schools should mean that I had a portfolio good enough to land me a decent entry level job. At AIS it meant that I had shown up, stayed mostly sober throughout my classes, and (most importantly) had paid my tuition. That was all it took to get almost straight As.

The downside is that my portfolio contained work that wouldn’t have landed me a job at a bread factory, let alone a respectable art establishment of any kind. I had ticked every box the school had asked me to, and I walked away with 3 years of my life mostly wasted. Sure I learned some basic fundamentals, but I spent close to $100,000 dollars and should have learned a LOT more than simply how to launch Photoshop.

Up until this week, I just thought it was a lesson learned and a debt I’d have to slowly repay over time.

It might still be, but then again… maybe there is hope.

This week I was hit with a Facebook ad talking about a lawsuit settlement for the Art Institutes based on their recent closure. It was an obvious click-bait type of ad, so instead I turned to the Google Machine and looked up “Art Institutes Lawsuit.” After reading through several links, I found an article referencing something called the Borrower Defense service that is run through the US Government.

The Borrower Defense site states the following:

Under the law, you may be eligible for borrower defense to repayment forgiveness of the federal student loans that you took out to attend a school if that school misled you, or engaged in other misconduct in violation of certain state laws. Specifically, you may assert borrower defense by demonstrating that the school, through an act or omission, violated state law directly related to your federal student loan or to the educational services for which the loan was provided. You may be eligible for borrower defense regardless of whether your school closed or you are otherwise eligible for loan forgiveness under other laws.

Given what I described above, coupled with the stories I won’t make you read right now, it’s pretty easy to see why I got excited.

There is a link to the site and form (found below) that gets the process started, but I have no earthly idea how long it will take to hear back as to whether I’m approved or not. There was an option to pause payments while they decide the outcome, so I went ahead and did that, but I may just have to go back to paying if they don’t find in my favor.

I’m also curious as to whether or not I’d get a refund on previous money paid, or if it would just be a “you need to make no further payments on this loan and your balance is considered zero” kind of thing.

In any case I thought I’d share, just in case someone might find themselves in a similar situation to mine. It’s worth a shot!

The service is part of the U.S. Government’s Student Aid division, and can be found at their official website.

BORROWER DEFENSE FUND

I’ll let you know if I hear anything back, and if you use the service and get any kind of traction, I’d love to hear back from you as well! It will be like we’re student loan soulmates!

I’ll just have to figure out how to get “STUDENT LOAN SOULMATE” to fit on one of those matching half-heart friendship necklaces.

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Have you used this service? Do you know someone who has? Did you go to the Art Institute or another for-profit school and have similar stories? Let me know in the comments below!

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