My Student Loan Truth: Brandon Hurshman and Melissa Arroyo’s Art Institute Story | Blog
March 18, 2020
“Education shouldn’t be a business. It should be training to help build a life and contribute to society.”
Pursuing higher education is supposed to improve lives. Brandon Hurshman and Melissa Arroyo wanted a better life. They wanted an education that would bring them more opportunities. Instead, what they got from the Art Institute was a lot of unfulfilled promises and a heavy burden of fraudulent debt. In fact, the engaged couple says the only positive thing that came out of that school was finding each other.
This is their story.
What attracted you to the Art Institute?
Brandon: I was always seeing ads for the Art Institute as a kid. So, by the time I started looking at schools, it was recognizable and seemed reputable. I loved the idea of a degree in game art and design and AI was advertising a 90% employment rate upon graduation. Recruiters promised I wouldn’t have any problem paying off student loans.
Melissa: I’ve been into art since I was a child. I grew up in a family full of artists and painters and so when I learned about the Art Institute, I decided to give an art degree a chance. I requested information from the school and I was also promised an 85-90% employment rate within 6 months of graduating. I thought this would be a real opportunity to make money, so I enrolled in their fashion design program at the Art Institute of San Francisco because I wanted to go into costume design. Eventually, I transferred to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and switched into their illustration program.
What was the financial aid process like?
Melissa: I come from an immigrant family, I’m a first generation American. My family has never done this before. The financial advisor at the Art Institute told me that I qualified for federal and private loans, but once I reached a cap on the federal ones, I could go private. They said that to make it easier, my mom could take out loans for me too. So, she took out Parent PLUS loans, with the intention that I would pay back the loans after graduating. But, 6-8 months after I started classes, my mom started getting bills, which was my first negative experience with the Art Institute. They took advantage of us. My mom doesn’t speak English well, so there was a lot of miscommunication in the process. She eventually defaulted on those loans and now we can’t pay it back.
Did you use your degree to get a job in your field after graduation?
Brandon: I graduated from AI of Fort Lauderdale cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Film and Video. Contrary to their big promises, they didn’t help me find a job, even though I had the best portfolio that year, and the only film work I could get was small freelance jobs. I never made more than $25,000 a year freelancing. I was not anticipating essentially starting my own business as a freelancer. Now, I’m working as a Data Analyst, which has nothing to do with my degree.
Melissa: I tried to, but it wasn’t as easy as they made it seem. I was told that through the portfolio reviews at the end of the semester, we would have the opportunity to talk to employers about our work. It wasn’t legit. The clients that were there only wanted freelancers to do small projects, instead of the permanent positions we expected to find. We kept being told that the artwork we were showing wasn’t what they were looking for, even though we were doing what the Art Institute trained us to do. We were trained one way and then told by employers that it was wrong. No one got a job. Even the people who had genuine, extraordinary talent, didn’t get jobs because the style we were taught wasn’t what people wanted to see. After graduation, I had to pick up another minimum wage retail job to try to make my monthly loan payments. Now, I’m working at the same company as Brandon, in a position that has nothing to do with my degree, just trying to make ends meet.
How has managing your loans/debt been?
Brandon: I was at school for two and a half years. I took out about $55-60,000 in loans, but I couldn’t pay any of them off. I was freelancing and begging for work. The day Melissa graduated, we packed up our things and moved to Tennessee. For the next two years, I was applying to jobs everywhere, but my debt was still accumulating and I couldn’t pay any of it off. It ballooned $90,000 in three years. I think this last year my total student loan debt was at around $114,000. I’ve worked hard to pay my private loans down to around $84,000. I filed for Borrower Defense while I continue to pay off those private loans, in hopes of some relief.
Melissa: I was initially told I would be taking out between $50-55,000 to pay for school. After transferring campuses and having to start over, I had borrowed $80-85,000 by graduation. I was working retail while I was in school to help cover costs but it wasn’t enough. At some point, I had to start paying out of pocket and I was forced to take out 17 different loans to pay for this school. I started working retail again after graduating because it was the only thing I could find and my monthly loan payments were $1,200 – $1,600 – which is crazy considering this was in 2011. When I would request forbearance, the interest would rack up, which caused the total amount to snowball. I’m at a loss. I don’t even know what to do at this point.
If you could tell the Department of Education or a member of Congress one thing, what would you want them to know?
Brandon: I didn’t know what a for-profit school was. I didn’t know what financing these loans meant. I was young. I didn’t know what I was doing and having these schools prey on students isn’t fair. Don’t overlook the people in the system who are just trying to do the right thing. We’re just trying to be better. We may be the underdogs and not have that much money but at the end of the day, we’re people just trying to get through the system as respectful citizens. The government needs to look at these people because we are real people too.
Melissa: Education shouldn’t be a business. It should be training to help build a life. It should be a chance to grow. It’s not fair that we’re working 50-60 hours a week for loans that didn’t grant us the life we deserved. It’s not fair for the government to look at our household earnings and put us in a bracket that claims we’re doing fine. We’re not. We’re working hard everyday and burning out trying to keep our heads above water. We’re succeeding despite our experiences at this school, not because of it.