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'I Was Trying To Lift Myself Up By The Bootstrap, But I Got Cement Shoes Instead'

The New England Institute of Art promised Ollie Venezia flexible class schedules, 1-on-1 support, quality internship placements, and post-graduation career help. What they got was something else entirely. What they got was almost $200,000 of student loan debt — and an invoice instead of a diploma on graduation day.

Associated Press

The New England Institute of Art promised Ollie Venezia flexible class schedules, 1-on-1 support, quality internship placements, and post-graduation career help. What they got was something else entirely. What they got was almost $200,000 of student loan debt — and an invoice instead of a diploma on graduation day.

This is Ollie’s story.

Project On Predatory Student Lending

How did you hear about the New England Institute of Art (NEIA)?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

When I heard about NEIA, I was working full time in a retail job, supporting myself, and I just kept seeing this commercial about their new interior design program over and over again.

The commercial talked about how they offered night classes, 1-on-1 support, flexibility, and opportunities after graduation, so it seemed like a really good idea. I have the tendency to stew on things for a while before pulling the trigger, especially for big decisions, but this time I thought, “What could it hurt?” So, I contacted them for more information, and it snowballed from there.

Project On Predatory Student Lending

What happened after you asked for more information?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

The school called me very quickly after I contacted them. Someone at admissions called me within a couple of days and asked if we could set up an interview to talk. I knew that students often do interviews with schools during their application process, so it felt right that they wanted to talk. Looking back on it now, it ended up being a very high pressure conversation. They told me that the next session started at the end of the month, so if I wanted to apply I needed to do it ASAP.

I remember thinking that it was a super quick decision to make, but I thought, “You know what? What am I waiting for? Just do it.” Going back to school was supposed to be the smart thing to do.

Project On Predatory Student Lending

What was the financial aid process like?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

I knew going back to school meant I was taking on a huge financial responsibility. When I went in for that interview, they had me go right to the financial aid office to see if I would qualify for “pre-approval” on any loans. I didn’t qualify for any grants or other financial aid, so I would have to take out all loans. They asked if I had cosigners, and thankfully I said no. When I asked about the high interest rates, they told me not to worry that I’d get a great job in this industry and be able to pay them off quickly.

I needed an education. Without a degree, I wasn’t going to amount to anything. I didn’t have the financial awareness to really understand what was happening, but they kept telling me it was going to be fine, so I pushed away any uneasiness and signed all the paperwork.

Project On Predatory Student Lending

Once you enrolled, what was the experience at the school like?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

At first it was okay. I was a little taken aback because I did have previous experience with what college was supposed to be and this didn’t feel like a real college. We were meeting in old conference rooms, not classrooms. The building was pretty much a retrofitted office space, not a school. And whenever we asked about it, we were reassured that it was temporary and that it’ll be upgraded soon. The building was under construction the entire time I was there.

The program I was in was a computer heavy program and the computers we were supposed to use barely worked. I had one teacher that would literally just read from the textbook as our lecture. I remember thinking, “Why am I paying you to teach me when I could have just read the book myself and taught myself?” That’s when I realized that this wasn’t the best quality education, but I was already three quarters of the way through and I couldn’t transfer somewhere else because my credits wouldn’t transfer. So, I was stuck.

Project On Predatory Student Lending

Did you graduate? If so, with what degree?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

I did graduate with a degree in interior design. I was there for a total of seven years, but somewhere around the third year, I started going every other semester to balance paying it off. I would work a semester, save for the next, then enroll for the upcoming semester. The people who I started school with graduated two or three years before I did.

When graduation came around, I walked across the stage, I wore my cap and gown, my parents were in the crowd cheering me on. I was the only person in my family who had graduated from college. But, after I walked off the stage and went back to my seat, I looked inside the folder that was supposed to hold my new diploma, and instead, I found an invoice! It said I had an unpaid balance and that I had to go to the office and pay it off if I wanted the diploma. My parents wanted to see my diploma, and I had to pretend that it wasn’t a big deal and didn’t want to show it to them. To this day, I still haven’t held my diploma. I paid off that balance. But they never sent it to me. It felt like the ultimate insult to injury.

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

Did you get a job using your degree?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

Technically yes, but not through any help from NEIA. I was working at a bar full time while going to school, and one of the regulars was a general contractor with a design aspect and had told me that if I ever needed an internship to contact them. I ended up working there for a while. I started as an intern and turned into a full time job later. I wasn’t using any of the stuff I learned in school, but it was a job I enjoyed.

Project On Predatory Student Lending

What has managing your debt been like? How has it impacted your life and your choices?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

I currently owe around $198,000 in federal and private loans, and I ignored it for a long time. I didn’t get the normal grace period after graduating because I took a few semesters off while I was trying to save money to pay for school. So, when I graduated, I had to start paying immediately even though the amount they were asking me to pay was twice the amount I was making.

I learned about borrower defense right before 2016, and I started the paperwork and the process. But then I hear the horror stories of people not getting answers, or getting mass denials, so I put it on the back burner.

Now, after the election, I’ve started thinking about it again. I haven’t been able to do a lot in my life because of this debt. I can’t buy a car, I have to pay for an apartment six months in advance because my credit sucks. I’ve never been able to recover.

Project On Predatory Student Lending

How has the pandemic affected your debt?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

The pandemic put life on pause and it forced me to reevaluate my life. I was out of work from March until October, and while I was home I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I could have done with my life if I didn’t have this looming over me. I was so tired of having this problem, and I didn’t want to live like this anymore. I want to make my life better. It’s a hurdle I have to overcome before I can do anything else.

So I went back to my borrower defense application and have started the process to filling that out. My life has changed a lot recently. I’ve officially changed my name, I’ve started talking to my family again, I moved to New York. If I’ve done all of these things I never thought I would be able to do, I can deal with these loans.

Project On Predatory Student Lending

If you could tell the Dept. of Education one thing about the impact these schools have on student borrowers, what would you tell them?

Headshot of Ollie Venezia
Ollie Venezia

I would want them to understand that we were promised the world and were handed dirt. I wanted to be a productive member of society. I wanted a 401(k), I wanted a career. Instead, I got a bogus degree and a bunch of debt. I was trying to lift myself up by the bootstrap, but I got cement shoes instead, and I’ve been drowning ever since. It’s not fair. I’m not the only person dealing with this issue. There are so many of us out there, and I don’t know how that’s not enough to make people realize that something needs to be done.

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