Schools facing sanctions, over loans are worried


Just another day at beauty school, or so it seems.

Rows of swivel chairs face the mirrored walls of a converted movie theater on Liberty Heights Avenue. Pink-smocked students hunch over neighborhood clients.

The floor is strewn with clippings of black hair, the hot air filled with the smell of chemicals and blow-driers.

But this afternoon, the students at Ron Thomas School of Cosmetology have more than perms and sets on their minds.

Their school is one of nine in the state facing the loss of student aid eligibility because of high rates of default on student loans.

And despite some stoic talk from Von Thomas, who owns the school with her husband, Ron, the students and staff are plainly worried.

"If they take away the grants, where are the girls going to go?" asks DeShawn Harrison, a 21-year-old cosmetology student from Northwest Baltimore's Liberty Heights neighborhood. "There's nothing we can do if the school closes down."

Adds Janice Arnold, senior teacher: "I have my license. I can get a job whether this school survives or not. But what are the students going to do?"

Throughout the area, students and trade school owners are wrestling with those same concerns.

A week ago, the federal government issued a hit list of nine Maryland schools, eight of them trade schools, that face federal sanctions because of loan default rates as high as 62.5 percent in fiscal 1990.

One of the nine faced a loss only of its federally guaranteed loan eligibility. It filed an appeal with the federal government, temporarily blocking cutoff of its participation in the student loan program.

The other eight face the possibility of a more severe sanction, of eventually losing eligibility for all aid, including direct grants and college work study funds.

If that happens, school officials say they would lose students, and some schools could be forced out of business.

And they say that would leave their students -- many of them low-income, inner-city women -- with fewer opportunities to get the trade-school education they see as a route out of poverty.

"Here we have a group of people who, more than anything, need some kind of job training and may not be accepted into college," says Maxine Sisserman, administrator of three schools whose eligibility is in jeopardy -- Baltimore Studio of Hair Design on North Howard Street, and Maryland Beauty Academy, with locations in Owings Mills and Essex.

What if the schools lose their ability to offer grants, leaving loans as the only option for students?

"I don't know how many students would be able to come in and make payments on anything," Mrs. Sisserman replied.

Federal and state officials say that even if a school loses its eligibility, its students would be allowed to complete their training at another eligible institution.

And the government insists that the aid cutoff is a powerful weapon against schools with chronic default problems.

Maryland has 125 private career schools, with about 30,000 students in all, state and industry figures show.

School officials say their students are heavily dependent on federal grants or low-interest loans to pay their tuition.

Now, some of those schools are caught in a nationwide crackdown on chronic loan defaults.

Across the country, a total of 528,605 borrowers -- 22 percent of those with loans in repayment -- defaulted in fiscal 1990, according to federal figures.

Trade schools and other for-profit proprietary schools had the worst default rate, 41.2 percent.

That compares with a default rate of just 7 percent for public, four-year colleges, and 6.5 percent for private four-year colleges.

In the current fiscal year alone, overall student loan defaults are expected to cost taxpayers $2.9 billion.

But the total is down from $3.6 billion last year, a drop that federal officials attribute to their crackdown on loan programs.

In the federal government's view, the schools bear the responsibility for preparing their students to pay back the loans.

For that reason, the government requires schools to offer debt management advice to their students.

That includes sessions about their loan responsibilities. Schools also are required to verify information given by a certain percentage student loan applicants.

But trade school officials, say they are being blamed for a problem born of their students' financial problems.

"They [the government] need a scapegoat," says Mrs. Sisserman, the cosmetology school administrator. "They need somewhere to put the blame of the default rate. They don't want to put it on the student."

A 1989 study conducted for the Maryland Association of Private Career Schools found that about a quarter of career school students had been on public assistance before enrolling in trade school.

Even so, most trade school students eventually complete their programs and get a job in their field, the organization found.

But simply having a job doesn't mean a student is able, or willing, to pay back the loan.

"Mostly, the type of student that we see has never had any credit, does not know how to pay back bills," says Mrs. Thomas. "Their past history shows they're not responsible for credit."

Other students simply may run into financial problems that make paying back a loan difficult, says Jeff Welsh, spokesman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

"In a lot of cases, they're going into entry-level positions, or into jobs that don't pay a lot of money," he says. "After they've paid all their monthly expenses, they may well not have enough money to pay off their debt."

And high unemployment in poor city neighborhoods complicates the problem, says Herbert Singleton, assistant to the president of Sojourner-Douglass College.

Despite those barriers, trade school officials say they are working to lower their default rates.

Lincoln Technical Institute, for example, which is appealing the threatened cutoff of its student loan eligibility, hired a full-time student loan adviser last year and does extensive loan counseling.

And officials at several schools, including Lincoln Technical and Sojourner-Douglass, say they will challenge the federal government's default claims.

If they fail, they warn, the students will be the real losers.

"Our downtown school is an inner-city school," says Mrs. Sisserman, administrator of the Baltimore Studio of Hair Design and other schools. "We serve a downtown population, and who is going to serve this population? These people certainly need job training."

The low-interest loans are made by a bank or by the school to the student, and guaranteed by the federal government. Those loans eventually must be paid back.

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