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For-profit grads struggle

| Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 7:47 p.m.

Kasey Oliver's student loan burden grows daily between her online visits to a website that tracks how much she owes for a 2009 bachelor's degree in animation.

As a student at The Illinois Institute of Art-Schaumburg, owned by Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp., she borrowed nearly $80,000 for tuition and living expenses -- and her debt grew by about $15,000 before graduation. If Oliver, 26, makes only the minimum payments during the next three decades, she would pay more than $216,000.

Oliver understands that she is not alone. Student loan debt is common nationwide, with nearly 14 percent of all borrowers defaulting within three years, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, a Washington nonprofit.

But the default rate at for-profit schools, such as EDMC, was the highest at 25 percent.

"I didn't expect to be working for Disney, but I expected to be able to find some kind of job in animation," said Oliver, who is unemployed and living with her husband in Norfolk.

EDMC, which operates 50 Art Institute campuses among its more than 100 locations across North America, says it tries to educate students about not borrowing too much.

"What you're trying to do is present students every option available besides borrowing before they go to school," said Anthony J. Guida Jr., EDMC senior vice president. "And from a budgeting perspective, to get them to realize not only what they're borrowing now but how that relates to ... a return on investment for their education."

EDMC counts many successful graduates, such as Carrick native Jason Cutler, who worked on this year's 3-D release of Titanic. He moved to Los Angeles after graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in visual effects and motion graphics.

"I definitely have a hefty amount of loans to pay back, but it was all worth it," Cutler, 27, said.

Under federal rules that began last July, for-profit schools must publish information about costs and alumni employment.

EDMC says bachelor of fine arts students in the media arts and animation program at the Schaumburg campus where Oliver attended pay $130,000 for tuition, room and board, and other costs.

Fewer than a third of the students in that program finish in four years, EDMC says, and two-thirds of its graduates find jobs in the field.

Alejandro Brubaker said things worked out for him after he graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh with an animation degree in 2005. He runs his own company, Alexanimation, and his work appeared on ESPN and HBO. He said he feels proud about the school but knows classmates who spent a lot of money before finding they lacked the drive or talent to succeed.

"Unfortunately, there are some people who have a lot of debt and don't do animation work," Brubaker said.

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