steffanie rivers

Steffanie Rivers

*Twenty years after I graduated from college I still owe student loans. And since I didn’t’ owe enough, I went back to school and got a master’s degree with borrowed money.

My mother keeps asking me to get a PHD, but I’m not going to pay anybody else to tell me how smart I am, especially when the salary for PhDs is less than the amount of money it takes to go back to college to earn a PHD.

Even though I’ve had “professional” jobs since I left Tennessee State University, I’ve always had to juggle my student loan payments. And I know it’s not just me. I know people in their 70’s who still owe too.

They didn’t graduate in the 70’s – they are 70-something years old – and still owe federal student loans from undergrad. For a long time I’ve felt as if the higher education system was less about education and more about loaning money for education. Just as the mortgage business is less about housing and more about loan fees and interest rates.

And speaking of Wall Street, some big banks and private equity firms have discovered that millions of people want a college degree more than they want to own a home. Now for-profit schools are the new cash cow.

A few months ago I answered an ad promoting business ownership. Turns out it was a cover for an on-line university trying to recruit me. And some people on the other end of the call might be just as surprised to find themselves in sales instead of education.

A friend of mine said her son was hired as “Director of Admissions” at some college. After he was hired he found out he’s a glorified telemarketer talking to people who answered an ad. While traditional universities such as Morris Brown College in Atlanta face foreclosure and extinction because they don’t have the enrollment or the cash flow to pay their bills or keep their accreditation, companies such as Education Management Corporation purchase entire college campuses that are in financial trouble and inherit their accreditation as part of the deal. Then overnight they change the names to Argosy University or Strayer or Ashford or you name it. They appeal to working professionals whose mother wants them to get a PHD so they can be more marketable in a slow economy where jobs are scarce and money is tight.

The federal government pays something akin to signing bonuses to the college for every student enrolled at these “accredited” colleges. And every student enrolled in undergrad is eligible to receive close to $120,000 in student aid. There’s more money for grad school. The trouble is for-profit schools don’t have to meet graduation standards. So once they get you enrolled they get the bonus money, even if you never graduate. But students are stuck with their student loans forever. Nobody cares if you pay it off. They only care that you continue to pay until you’re 70-something or until you die, which is around 70-something for most people. I guess nothing is for sure in life but death, taxes and student loan payments.

Steffanie Rivers is a freelance-writer based in Dallas, Texas. For speaking engagements, questions or comments email her at [email protected]. The video version of her column is at