I-iesha Leon of Bethlehem never expected her one-and-a-half year stint at Lehigh Valley College could cost her $92,910.47.
That's what she's on track to pay -- seven student loans totaling $37,514, plus $55,396.47 in interest.
The Center Valley college, which changed its name from Allentown Business School this year, is setting up young adults for a future of suffocating debt, bad credit and tough-talking bill collectors. Unpaid student loans also can lead to the loss of credit necessary to buy homes and cars or to return to school later in life.
Most of the loans in question are private loans carrying 15.375 percent interest -- a rate normally associated with credit cards, not historically cheap student loans. Financial aid advisers at several other schools in the Lehigh Valley said they had never heard of student loans with rates so high. Three to 7 percent interest is common today, they said.
Leon's mother, Jan Frisby, said she feels a combination of guilt and anger at her daughter's plight.
"I was the one pushing school. I kept saying, "Education, education, education,' " she said. "I never dreamed an educational institution would take advantage of [her] naivete."
The Morning Call reported last month that LVC engages in hard- sell sales tactics to boost enrollment. High tuition and fees -- $30,400 to $37,500 for an associate degree, compared with $5,400 to $5,640 at the area's community colleges -- then leave students with heavy debt.
High-interest student loans are another piece of the equation.
The sales tactics extend to financial aid, according to LVC's former dean of admissions, a former financial aid director of another college owned by LVC's parent company and 10 students who independently contacted The Morning Call about their high-interest loans.
The students said LVC advisers took control of financial aid matters, guiding them toward a variety of loans. But, the students said, the advisers rushed them through the process, giving them little opportunity to consider the fine print and no warning of the consequences of high interest rates.
Students said they were later shocked by their bills. Some are now struggling -- and failing -- to make monthly payments of $500 or more.
LVC and Sallie Mae, the company that has processed loans for the school in recent years, said they did their part to inform students and to comply with the law. The 1968 Truth in Lending Act requires lenders to disclose interest rates and finance charges.
Such information is provided over the phone at the time loans are approved, said Sallie Mae spokesman Tom Joyce. Employees, he said, follow a telephone script instructing them to do so.
But even if the employees followed the script, students said they did not hear or understand the information.
The rates and charges are also sent in the mail to students upon the disbursement of funds, Joyce said. The students then have the option of canceling loans by returning the money, according to the promissory note students initially sign.
"Anyone who tells you they were somehow "surprised' by what they ultimately needed to pay back isn't being truthful or simply failed to read their contract," Kurt Praschak, a spokesman for the school, said in an e-mail.
The arrangement between LVC and Sallie Mae, the nation's No. 1 student loan lender, is simple enough: Sallie Mae, which buys the loans after they are originated by a bank, collects the interest. LVC's corporate parent, Career Education, gets tuition money, its primary source of revenue.
It's part of an efficient money-making machine that grinds away without regard for students, according to the former financial aid director. He said Career Education's objective has been to "package" enrollees with loans as quickly as possible -- before they have a chance to change their minds.
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