Eight Ways to Avoid Predatory Lenders

A recent graduate in Seattle recently filed suit against Navient (formerly Sallie Mae) for predatory lending practices.

Like me, Ashley Hardin graduated from a good art school and found herself in six-figure student debt. A decade ago, Hardin borrowed more than $150,000 to attend the California-based Brooks Institute of Photography. The school described the degree as a path into an industry hungry for graduates, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

The article quoted Hardin as saying, “I wanted to learn from the best of the best.”

I felt the same way when I went into high student debt at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where I earned a degree in Film Production. If I go to the best school, a high-end education will result in a well-paying career, with enough money to pay off the debt.

For both Hardin and me, it didn’t work out that way.

Today, Hardin pays more for her monthly student loan payments than she does for rent. After 10 years of payments at nearly $1,400 a month, she has paid down almost none of the debt.

The suit claims that Hardin did not realize that she had taken out high-risk private loans in pursuit of a low-paying career. But the lender understood this, lawyers say — and made the loans anyway.

This poses the question: What is our personal responsibility when borrowing, and what is the lender’s responsibility?

We’re young, just out of high school and applying for loans for a bachelor’s degree, or just out of college and applying to grad school. Either way, we have big hope for our future. We’re told to do what we love, to aspire to a life of fulfilling work. This is our rite of passage into adulthood. We enter college or grad school with big dreams and great passion, and that is as it should be. Young borrowers are probably not going to be savvy about how much they can make in any given career. Add to this that in today’s post-financial crisis world, jobs in many careers are not as guaranteed as they once were.

Enter predatory lenders. The suit alleges Sallie Mae was well aware of the tremendous financial risks its borrowers were taking on. “These loans were designed to fail,” Shannon Smith, the from Washington State attorney general’s office, told the Times.  “While these risky loans were a bad deal for students, they were a boon for Sallie Mae. The private loans were — as Sallie Mae itself put it — a ‘baited hook; that the lender used to reel in more federally guaranteed loans…” the article explained.

What has always bothered me is how people barely out of high school — or still in their 20s if they’re taking out loans for grad school — are handed an outrageous amount of money without having to prove any current or future income. You can be 25, have a credit score n the 500s, make no income and they’ll just hand you $100 grand. But if you’re getting a mortgage, they need proof of income, and even then, it’s still difficult to acquire a loan.

Whose responsibility is it then? The predatory lender, or the innocent student? The answer, I think, lies somewhere in the middle. Lawsuits such as these can help to curb over-the-top predatory lending. I do think lenders of student loans need to take on more discernment and more responsibility for the loans they approve.

And on the other side of the argument, as borrowers, we have to be more savvy. We have to seek out advice and listen to it. Parents need to steer their children more carefully. We can be the heroes of our own life stories, not the victims, by being aware even at a young age of financial decisions that will affect the rest of our lives.

Here are eight ways to avoid the predatory lending trap.

1.) If you want to study something in the liberal arts field (art, acting, photography, literature, dance, film, etc) try to email or speak to people who are currently doing what you want to do. Ask how important their degree was and how they got where they were. Maybe your $100K is better spent making your first film, or enrolling in acting classes in Hollywood. Try to think of the best return on investment.

2.) If your career path requires a higher degree to do it (i.e. medical / dental / law) try to find the cheapest undergrad program you can to check off the requirements, then set your sights on getting high grades and test scores so you can get into a graduate school that will impress. If you plan on getting an MBA, try to finish undergrad with no debt.

3.) Remember that success is more measured by what happens in your actual career versus where you went to school. Before we have careers, we want to have a calling card that tells people we’re smart. Before you have a career, this can only be attained at school. However after finishing school, the university you attended matters a lot less than how you are actually earning money. It often becomes more about how much you earn and your lifestyle. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by being in financial slavery into your 40s or 50s just so you can tell people you went to a “name-brand” institution.

4.) Research degrees in your area of interest. You can be an artist, while getting a degree in another field that will pay you more. (Remember, artists who have high student debt find less time to do art, as they have to work more hours — and the stress of paying down debt can be so overwhelming it interferes with our creative work.)

5.) Research careers in your chosen degree. Be aware of the income you can expect. Many people got law degrees when the economy crashed, to the extent that many cities have people with more law degrees than open jobs.

6.) Research how much your student loan payments will be after graduation in relation to your monthly projected income.

7.) Take out only the loans you need. Decrease the amount you borrow.

8.) If possible, work while you go to school. Look for incentives the university offers. When I was in undergrad, I worked as a Resident Advisor in return for free room, board, and food. It basically just required me to stay in on some weekend nights and walk the residence halls every few hours, hold a phone, and help plan events. I probably saved over $50,000 not having to rent an apartment in San Francisco (where I was going to school).

This is your life. Don’t let anything come between you and your dreams. Even if you’re already in high student debt, you can handle this. I know, because I did. Read my story here.