My Student Loan Truth: Nicole’s Art Institute Story | Blog
November 3, 2020
Nicole Edgar Sereno had always been interested in an art career. So when a recruiter from the Art Institute came to her high school, she jumped at the chance to pursue a career in animation. It wasn’t until she started looking for jobs after graduating that she realized they had been lying to her all along.
This is her Art Institute story.
How did you hear about the Art Institute?
The first time I heard of them was when they came to visit my high school. Art Institute recruiters set up a table and told us about this great program at an art school. I’ve always considered myself an artistic person, so immediately I was interested. I thought this was my chance to get started in the creative industry. I gave the recruiters my email address and that’s when the flood of emails started.
When did you decide to actually apply to the school? What was that process like?
In high school, I started seeing everyone around me getting their college acceptance letters, so I decided to apply to the Art Institute. It was just a single page application. There was no portfolio process or any review of my abilities. But as an immigrant and a first-gen college student, I didn’t know that wasn’t a normal college application process. It only took me about three weeks to get an acceptance letter. That should have been another red flag, but again, I was just excited to pursue something in art.
After that, I went to visit the Oregon campus with my mom. While we were touring, a recruiter interviewed me about my interests, what kind of classes I had taken in the past, what kind
of classes I wanted to take at AI. It was a very relaxed interview, but I remember the recruiter telling me “you’re exactly the type of person we want at this school.” Now, when I look back, it feels like I was another mark for them to take advantage of, like I was just another number.
What was your experience at the school like?
I ended up enrolling at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and really tried to take as much advantage of what they offered as I could. I was one of the few people who overloaded classes, taking five classes a week so that I could graduate in three years instead of four.
After a year or so, I noticed that all of the professors started quitting, which seemed suspicious to me. That was the first time I started to question things, but thought it was just
odd. Another red flag was the curriculum itself. They told us the software programs we were being taught on were top of the line industry standards. But when we talked to companies, they had no idea why we were using those programs. The Art Institute led us to believe that these programs were going to help us, and that they had connections in the industry to help us get a job.
Anytime I questioned anything, they told me what I wanted to hear, and as someone who had already spent all this time and money investing in this degree, I wasn’t going to leave without finishing.
You graduated with a degree in media arts and animation. Did the Art Institute advisors help you find a job in your field as promised?
Not at all. I still have the chain emails from my job counselor with a random job opportunity that was also forwarded to everyone else in my class. This was when I hit my major “oh, what have I done?” moment. I was getting emails that didn’t even have anything to do with animation or media. They were about culinary positions or film production.
I found all of my jobs by myself. I worked at the library while in school. I met people at my church that got me an internship. The job I have now I got through people I knew outside of AI, and it’s not even in animation. I’m working in coding. The Art Institute didn’t give me anything but debt.
Speaking of debt, what the financial aid process was like for you?
It was super confusing for a young person. My parents weren’t in Florida, they were back in Oregon, so I would have to try to understand everything the advisors were telling me enough to be able to repeat it back to my parents. As a first-gen college student, I was explaining the process to them for the first time, while simultaneously trying to learn it myself. We trusted them and didn’t realize that everything I was being told was in the interest of the school, not me.
When I expressed concern about paying for school, advisors were always quick to reassure me that I could always take out more loans and that it was “good debt
.” They would push more loans on me, and on my mom. They’d email paperwork to my mom, have her sign it, and she’d take out even more loans under her name in order to pay for my classes. It was very disheartening and confusing. I can’t think back to a time where I actually understood what I was signing.
How much did you and your mom accumulate in loans?
I graduated with around $35,000 in loans, but my mom has around $130,000 in Parent PLUS loans.
It’s criminal. I just want my mom out of this debt. She wants to retire eventually, but she’s so worried that they’re going to take her money. She’s working at a grocery store to help me pay these off.
What has managing that debt been like, for you and for your mom?
I’ve been paying mine off since I got a job in 2013, and we’ve been consolidating my mom’s loans. We’ve paid off about 17% of those by using all of our savings, and we’re still at $1
My mom can’t buy a house. I’m married now, and I’ve been pushing off having a baby or buying a house because I know it’s just not responsible to do that right now with this debt. And now with the pandemic, there’s another layer of anxiety and unease about not knowing what’s happening.
If you could tell the Department of Education one thing about the impact for-profit schools have on student borrowers, what would you tell them?
When they pass laws that benefit for-profit colleges, they need to think of the individual people impacted by them. A lot of the people in my generation would be more invested in stimulating the economy if we didn’t have the burden of these loans. We’d be pouring money into buying houses, investing in our communities, saving for our futures. Instead, we’re stuck under this burden of debt and we can’t see a way out of it.
These schools are targeting immigrants and low-income families and it’s criminal. We’re pawns in their game and the Department needs to realize we’re real people, with real lives, and real goals. We’re not just abstract collateral damage. This is real for us, and it’s not fair that they get to make these decisions without realizing how they’re affecting us.