SHREVEPORT-BOSSIER CITY, LA (KSLA) - More than 40 million people in the United States are weighed down by $1.3 trillion in student loan debt.
Now the federal government is cracking down on some of the expensive for-profit colleges and it could lead to some Shreveport-Bossier for-profit schools shutting their doors for good.
Students have a lot of choices when it comes to where they get their higher education. They can choose from public universities, non-profit or for-profit colleges owned by corporations.
Destini Jackson chose to go the for-profit route. She is in the pharmacy technician program at Virginia College in Bossier City.
"My auntie is a pharmacy tech, so I wanted to be one just like her," she said.
Tuition and fees for the 55-week program run between $20,000 - $24,000 dollars.
"It's more than the two-year colleges, but it is better. I feel like it is better," said Jackson, who is relying entirely on federal student loans. "It really isn't affordable without it," she said.
Jackson isn't alone. According to the Institute for College and Access and Success, or "TICAS," 99% of Virginia College students use federal financial aid.
"If you don't have student loans, or you aren't approved for it, then it is kind of impossible," she said.
According to the Department of Education, students at private for-profit schools have the highest rates of borrowing.
Ben Miller is the Senior Director of Post-secondary Education at the Center for American Progress. "I think certainly for some of the for-profit colleges, it is certainly a fair question if they are there to educate or make money," said Miller.
In late September, the Department of Education cracked down on for-profit schools, by making the decision to not recognize the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), the largest for-profit accreditor that accredited several colleges which later collapsed or are under federal and state investigations. Some examples of ACICS accredited colleges are the Corinthian college system and now closed ITT Tech.
The decision means, pending appeal, schools certified by ACICS will not be able to federal financial aid. Miller agrees with the DOE's decision. "Public tax payers and students put a lot of trust into accreditation agencies to set strong standards and protect everyone from bad colleges. ACICS has failed to do that time and time again and has no right to still be a recognized accreditation agencies," he said.
ACICS filed an appeal in hopes of overturning the decision. But Miller hopes the secretary of education upholds the initial decision.
"It is clear to me that ACICS has repeatedly failed to do its job as an arbiter of quality higher education."
If the decision is upheld, that means two schools in the Shreveport-Bossier area, Virginia College and McCann School of Business and Technology, won't be able to receive financial aid. That may force them to close unless they get a new accreditation agency within 18 months.
Jackson says she can't imagine affording school without student loans.
"It would have been real hard because you know when you have kids and have other responsibilities, trying to pay for school is kind of hard to do."
Alan Collinger runs a website dedicated to reforming student loans to better protect borrowers.
"I think the entire for-profit sector needs to be shuttered," he said, explaining that he sees for-profit schools with low repayment rates and high default rates as money-hungry.
"They see students as a sort of ATM card or a pinata, if you will, by which they can extract vast sums of federal loan money into their coffers."
But Ayers College Vice President Barry Bousada doesn't think it is fair to paint all for-profit colleges with the same brush.
"If we were only concerned about numbers here and dollars, we would have closed our doors a long time ago."
As a locally-owned and operated Shreveport college, Bousada believes they stand out from other for-profit schools.
"If you compare what we do at Ayers with what some of these big national chains that have been shut down, we are as different as night and day."
They don't offer expensive bachelor or masters degrees. Instead, they offer certifications in very specific fields with hands-on training.
"We definitely want to set up our students to succeed," he said.
With tuition starting around $15,000 per program, according to TICAS, 94% of students rely on federal student loans.
"We have one source of funding and it is our tuition," he said. "If it didn't we could charge much less."
The school has a job placement rate of 80%. Ayers College graduate Kayleigh Amelung falls into that category, able to get a job as a medical assistant at a podiatrist office. "I loved it, I loved every day in school, it made me ready for whenever I got out of school to know what to expect," said Amelung.
Like a majority of her classmates, she also relied on loans.
"Just like anything, it is just another bill that needs to be taken care of."
So far, one year out of school, she doesn't regret borrowing the money.
"I wouldn't change it for anything," she said.
Once Jackson finishes school, she hopes to still feel that way and be part of the 25% of borrowers at Virginia College able to pay back loans.
"Hopefully I'll go ahead and finish, then whenever it is time, I'll be making enough money to pay them off," she said.
In the end, she hopes her degree will be worth the debt she is taking on.
There is no deadline for the Secretary of Education to decide on ACICS's appeal. However, Miller believes it will be sooner rather than later.
Virginia College and McCann School of Business and Technology both say the DOE's decision has no immediate impact on students.
Read Virginia College's statement here.
Read McCann's statement here.
We reached out to ACICS for a comment but did not hear back.