LeCordon Blue

ANNE

My last post looked at the reasons that kids born into poor or blue collar families are highly have a hard time negotiating the college admissions process.  Low expectations, parents who know nothing about the admissions system, day care instead of preschool, and a lack of exposure to enriching opportunities like music lessons or travel.

Everyone’s situation is different, but I have to write at least one more post about what happens when kids from poor families do aspire to attend college.  It should be easy.  If they start at a community college for their first two years, then finish at a public university.  Pell Grants should cover their cost of attendance.  Students can take up to six years to complete their degree, which allows them time to work, which covers their rent and other living expenses.  Even private colleges can be a good deal for lower income kids, if they have good grades, because private colleges offer much more financial aid than public institutions.  They should have to borrow minimal, if any, in student loans.

But what can happen is that low income kids get all excited about for-profit colleges that are national chains and advertise heavily on TV, the radio, and the web.  These are places like LeCordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts, where Vince wanted to go when he was 16 and had dropped out of high school.  He stopped in to get information and they pounced, completing all the paperwork for him to take out student loans to cover the $40,000 tuition.

That’s $40,000 per year, for a two-year program.  That’s how for-profit schools make their shareholders very, very happy.  LeCordon Bleu has a graduation rate that’s better than Bemidji State University, but at 48% that still means 52% of students drop out under the worst possible circumstances: no degree, which means no prospects for a decent job, and on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars of student loans.  That’s U.S. Government money–aka tax dollars–going to subsidize for-profit colleges.  It makes me sick.  Back then I knew very little about the whole college aid picture but I understood that $40,000 was a ridiculous amount to pay to get a degree as a pastry chef.  I refused to sign the forms for Vince and he was furious, but maybe some day he’ll thank me.

Recently Vince asked me to send him information about culinary schools.  He was interested in earning a degree in the work he’s been doing for 20 years.  I checked out our local community and technical college and their tuition for a full-time student was a little over $3,000 per year.

But unsophisticated students can get into trouble even at community colleges.

Fast forward.  Vince has completed four months of treatment at Hazelden and a year living in a Hazelden-sanctioned halfway house in West Palm Beach, Florida.  He has settled in Rochester, Minnesota and is working at Spencer Gifts.  He decides to pursue a degree at Rochester Community and Technical College.

I was working at the job I mentioned in my last post–the college enrollment consulting firm–and offered to help Vince figure out the financial aid picture.  He seemed to think this was intrusive and unnecessary.

To make a long story short, he took out over $30,000 in student loans and dropped out a few credits shy of earning his associate degree.  What was going on in that financial aid office?  Wasn’t anyone tracking that no student needed that much in federal loans to attend a college that cost $3,000 a year?  Wasn’t there an underwriter to flag that this was a high-risk borrower?

He subsequently defaulted on those loans.  The penalties and interest have piled up astronomically.  Unlike other debt that can be discharged in bankruptcy, student loans are inescapable.   As Vince would say, “Ugh.”

It probably feels overwhelming to him; not what he needs as he is about to be released to make a fresh start.

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