Ian Sherman was happy to be in Florida's subtropical climate and far from the cold weather of his native Detroit as he walked onto the paved streets of Full Sail University's campus in Winter Park, Florida in the summer of 2006.
Months earlier, the 22-year-old had been working in Detroit's local music scene, and was looking for a way out of his hometown. For a young person diagnosed with dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Sherman found the traditional university system route an intimidating prospect. So when a friend mentioned a school in Florida offering programs designed to launch a career in the music business, he went down for an open day.
"It's a beautiful place. I was coming from seeing burnt-out buildings in Detroit to seeing palm trees," he told VICE News. "There was a sense of solace for people passionate about music. It really was a Willy Wonka factory for music dorks… Being young, foolish, and seeking instant gratification, I chose what was put in front of me."
A month after his open day, Sherman enrolled in Full Sail's two-year Music Business program, which today costs a total of almost $60,000 before any grants and scholarships. On-campus housing was not an option for Sherman's program, and because of the course's intensive schedule, neither was working. So he took out a mixture of federal and private loans worth a staggering $130,000 to cover tuition, rent, and living expenses.
It's easy to see why Full Sail's sprawling 191-acre campus was so attractive. Students can wander through a Hollywood-style movie studio back lot depicting 19 different outdoor locations from suburban Middle America to New Orleans' French Quarter. In June 2010 it opened its Studios Gateway Project, a 22,000 square foot plaza complete with an illuminated archway, branded with the Full Sail logo, leading to video game production and recording studios. Full Sail reportedly invested more than $10 million in the build.
Such modern facilities are one of the reasons why Full Sail can charge high fees and still attract thousands of students each year.
According to the Department of Education's (DOE) College Affordability & Transparency Center website, Full Sail's average net prices are in the top 5 percent of all colleges in America. After scholarships and grant aid is subtracted from the total cost of attendance, Full Sail charged an average of $30,769 in the 2011-12 academic year.
This was $9,000 more than the average for-profit college and almost $19,000 more than a four-year public university's average tuition. According to the data collected by the DOE, the equivalent cost to attend Harvard University was a bargain basement $18,277.
Full Sail University disputed being listed in the most expensive 5 percent of colleges when contacted by VICE News, pointing out that their bachelor's level degrees are "accelerated" programs that pack in more tuition time than other four-year colleges.
According to a Full Sail representative, an academic year for its accelerated degree has on average 45 credit hours versus the more usual 30 hours. This means that the cost per credit hour comes to $684, less than the average four year for-profit university ($725) but significantly higher than the average public university ($386).
"When you consider the amount of education delivered in a Full Sail 'accelerated' method vs. traditionally-paced methods, Full Sail is positioned in the middle of the cost landscape… Many of our technology-intense degrees, our state-of-the-art campus, and the university as a whole are capital intensive and require continual re-investment to maintain the quality of education of which we are proud," a Full Sail spokesperson said.
Despite the school's intense schedule, Full Sail students are still among the most indebted in the country. Data from 2013 shows that the average amount of student loans received by full-time undergraduates was $10,459, placing Full Sail in the top 6 percent of all four-year schools in terms of student indebtedness.
Full Sail began life in 1979 as an audio recording workshop in Ohio. Five years earlier, Congress had reauthorized the Higher Education Act, a move that raised the amount of government student aid available to for-profit schools. Full Sail founder Jon Phelps moved the school to its current Florida location in the late 1980s, incorporated it as a private company, and recruited a series of local businessmen to its board of directors. Over the next few decades, Full Sail hoovered up nearby land and began developing its facilities.
At the same time as Full Sail's growth, the US private education sector underwent a renaissance, as Title IV federal aid programs expanded in size and scope. More and more people started choosing for-profit schools and by 2013 the sector boasted more than 2 million students, according to the DOE's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Most of these attended four-year institutions, where the number of students at for-profits quadrupled from around 265,000 in 2000 to over 1.3 million in 2013. This far outstripped the four-year public and not-for-profit sectors, which saw student bodies grow by 34 percent and 29 percent respectively.
Rising enrollment soon caught the eye of Wall Street firms, which poured money into the sector and helped launch several education companies, such as the Apollo Group, which went public in 1994 and now dominates the industry with a market capitalization of $3.54 billion.
For over a decade, the investment returns were excellent: a $1,000 in investment in Apollo on the day it went public in January 1995 was worth more than $55,000 10 years later. Student debt was also the only kind of household debt that continued to rise through the recession that began in 2008, as more people elected to stay in school than join a fragile labor market.
'I think it's a form of permanent wage theft.'
Supporters of the for-profit sector claim that these schools are providing much-needed access to higher education for a demographic neglected by traditional colleges. An influential 1999 report by Merrill Lynch analysts, titled "The Book of Knowledge," sums up the investment case in favor of for-profit schools.
"One of the fundamental problems with the education system is the disconnect between who colleges think their customers are and the real customer, the students. In the last century the student body has changed dramatically with now nearly 50 percent over the age of 25, yet our traditional institution system have remained unchanged, still set up to serve 18-22 year olds… We have often said that where there is a problem, there is an opportunity and in this case, we see the opportunity for proprietary schools as huge in that they can provide education that is market-driven and customer-oriented," the report said.
Apollo gained so much market share by aggressively targeting so-called "nontraditional" students — usually older, working adults. Until 2008, the Apollo Group's University of Phoenix (UOP) would not accept applicants under the age of 23. According to the authors of the Merrill Lynch report, Apollo simply applied the business principle of "listen to your customer" to higher education by offering evening classes and locations such as highway strip-malls.
David Halperin, a policy advisor who has spent years investigating the for-profit education industry, has an alternative explanation for the sector's appeal.
"It's three things," Halperin told VICE News. "Since they got federal money, for-profits have successfully lobbied against regulations making it difficult for them to use deceptive marketing tactics. The second is the marketing itself, which is a large part of what they do. Lastly, it is the enormous vacuum that exists in terms of facilities helping low income people prepare for careers. When there are no other options, there is often no choice but these schools."
During the 2012 election cycle, Full Sail executives donated a total of $381,816 to political candidates. This included an $85,000 donation to failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney from Full Sail's CEO Bill Heavener, who is also a key Romney campaign fundraiser. In return, Romney publicly heaped praise on Full Sail at a 2012 Iowa town hall meeting, commending the school for "hold[ing] down the cost of education" and helping students get jobs without saddling them with excessive debt.
Even as enrollment in for-profits surged, so did regulatory scrutiny. Lawmakers soon became concerned with the amount of student aid these colleges were raking in — up to $32 billion in the 2009-10 academic year — while charging far higher tuition fees than comparable public universities.
Typically, these higher price tags did not lead to better quality education. A Senate investigation in 2012 found that for-profit schools on average spent more money marketing their courses than teaching them. They also fared poorly on measures of student success after graduation, such as the number of students who are unable to pay back their student loans. During the first three months of 2013, at least 4.3 million student borrowers from all types of colleges couldn't make payments on their loans for over 90 days.
This official rate of those unable to make payments on their loans stands at 11.2 percent of the total 38.8 million student borrowers, but the real number could be twice as high, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Researchers noticed a quirk in the Department of Education's (DOE) accounting that lets it ignore loans temporarily not in a repayment cycle, even if they were technically more than 90 days delinquent. They estimated that the true rate is roughly double, putting the number of delinquent student borrowers at approximately 8.6 million.
Data released in September 2014 from the DOE gives a more detailed picture of the borrowers who have had the most difficulty paying back their debts. At least half a million graduates couldn't make a payment for over 270 days, and therefore defaulted on their loans between 2011 and 2013. As the New York Fed analysts found out, this number could be twice as high once you account for loans that have been deferred.
A disproportionate amount of these students attended for-profit colleges — roughly 40 percent of all defaulted borrowers. The institutions with both the highest default rates and the most indebted students were overwhelming for-profit colleges, with a high number of trade schools focused on the creative and culinary industries.
According to the latest DOE data on defaults, more than 1,200 of the 6,129 Full Sail graduates who started paying back their federal loan in 2011 ended up defaulting over the next three years, at a rate of 20 percent. The average rate for comparable for-profit schools was 15 percent, while for public schools the average default rate was 10 percent, and just 7 percent for private not-for-profit institutions.
Sherman graduated from Full Sail in 2008 as the US economy entered a prolonged slowdown. Undaunted, he moved to New York to follow his dream career in the music industry. After several years working in bars and restaurants by night and taking unpaid internships by day, he now works as a music producer alongside the electronic rock outfit tSELA (pronounced "Say-la"). He still owes over $100,000 in student loans, and gives up $1,000 of his monthly paycheck to loan installments.
"Going to Full Sail taught me not to trust any program," he said. "It's better to just teach yourself in this business… Only a handful of my classmates are still making music, most people that started to default got jobs on the corporate side. It's a sad situation. They went to Full Sail to follow their dreams, but had to give them up to pay back the loans."
If the free market argument says that for-profit schools are so bad, why do so many rational consumers choose to attend them each year?
Professor Andrew Ross teaches social and cultural analysis at New York University, and has written extensively on the dangers of a debt-fueled higher education system in the US. For him, these colleges should be analyzed as businesses aggressively selling their aspirational product to people who often lack any family history of higher education.
"I don't mean to portray the students as victims, they are responsible for their actions, but they are also very vulnerable consumers. For the most part, the for-profit sector is looking for students that feel like they are stuck in a rut, that are uncertain about the future, and vulnerable both financial and emotionally," Ross said.
One of Full Sail's more recent students is Rena, a 59-year-old transgender woman from Colorado who moved to New York in 2007. She is passionate about storytelling and earned an associates degree in technical writing from a local Community College to realize her dream of being a screenwriter. But it wasn't enough to get her a break, so in June 2012 Rena enrolled at Full Sail's 21-month creative writing for entertainment program.
Rena finished the program in November 2014. She told VICE News that she paid a total of about $66,000 to Full Sail. Pell Grants eased the burden by around $10,000, leaving Rena with roughly $45,000 in debt on her graduation day. She now faces a monthly struggle to make installment payments to the collection firm Great Lakes, who own the rights to service her loan.
"I have a lot of health issues, physical, and psych issues, and I collect disability," she said. "I do have Medicare, which pays a lot of my medical bills. There's a plan that I can get that takes 10 percent of any income, but I don't know how long it will take to find a good job."
While she enjoyed the course and thinks it really helped her grow as a writer, Rena has started to worry about her prospects.
"Now that I'm looking at the debt, it's much bigger. I didn't really think about it when I went to school. I thought that I was going to make it and pay it back," she said.
"I don't know if I would recommend Full Sail to a friend. I'd tell them look around and make sure see if you can find something cheaper and closer to home," she added.
Some other graduates are more positive about their time at Full Sail. Xavier Andrew is 24-year-old alum, originally from Indianapolis, who now lives in Brooklyn working in the film industry. After completing a 20-month bachelor's film production degree in 2010 at Full Sail, he stayed for a master's degree in entertainment business. He finally left in 2011 with around $67,000 in debt, but also with a strong portfolio of projects to show prospective employers.
"Yes, Full Sail is very expensive, but I did learn how to do things and I'm now a working producer. They really set us up, and the quality of education is not an issue. It guess I'm going to have to see further down the road if it was worth the debt," he said.
A recent federal crackdown on the sector provides a view into how for-profit education's worst players have managed to boost enrollment. Justice Department and state investigators have uncovered outright fraud, predatory lending, and high-pressure sales tactics within the multi-billion dollar US higher education industry. The effects are already being felt. In June 2014, Corinthian Colleges, a listed for-profit higher education firm, announced its imminent bankruptcy in the face of multiple investigations into its financial and educational practices.
Today the total amount of unpaid student debt is valued at roughly $1.3 trillion, and is second only to mortgage liabilities as the biggest debt burden faced by US households. While studies show that on average a college degree is likely to improve your lifetime finances, this does not help a growing pool of students for whom college turned out to be a terrible investment.
"Some people describe it as a form of indenture. It's a provocative term, and I think that it makes a lot of sense," Ross said. "If you're in a society where we are told you cannot find a decent job unless you have a degree, then you can't get the wage unless you get the debt.
"I think it's a form of permanent wage theft," he said. "Students are giving access to future wages at a critical part of their lives."
Follow Alex Plough on Twitter: @newshack
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