Local college speaking out against federal guidelines on student loan debt

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Student loan debt is at the center of a nationwide debate. The battle could soon impact students and the degrees they can earn right here in the Lowcountry.

The Obama administration is looking to help lower student debt by tightening rules at career focused colleges. The Art Institute of Charleston is one of them.

"I believe that it not only just limits choice but it also limits creativity," said Elliot Carlyle, a student studying fashion retail management at the Art Institute of Charleston.

Students and staff at the Art Institute are saying "no" to proposed guidelines of the Gainful Employment rule.

Culinary arts student Vanessa Matonis said, "I'm very passionate about culinary arts, so to be able to pursue that is very important to me and to learn about it and then to further my career later."

Proposed changes to the federal rule focuses on colleges like the Art Institute; colleges where students get to learn a creative trade.

The schools would be rated on loan repayment rates of graduates, specifically each student's debt to income ratio, based on what they earn after graduation.

Todd Cunningham, president of the Art Institute of Charleston said, "Many of the students that attend here at the Art Institute of Charleston attend so via student loans.

"Federal student aid for students could also be cut if the school doesn't meet the proposed debt to income guidelines.

"Unfortunately if this rule goes into effect in its current form, many of the programs could be curtailed or eliminated," Cunningham said.

Cunningham says students across the nation would suffer.

"Probably about a million students could be affected who are pursuing degrees in these programs," Cunningham said.

Students at career-focused schools like the Art Institute make up only 13% of higher education students but are responsible for nearly half of all college loan defaults.

"I want to be a photographer. I have 28 years to the military so now it's me time," photography student Stan Shillingburg said.

Shillingburg says the Obama administration should focus on teaching students about debt.

"Do they really have an active eye of the job market, do they really understand what they're income is going to be and are they willing to take that risk," Shillingburg said.

"It's a lot of money. These schools they are great but they are very expensive and with that comes loans and you need to be prepared to work and pay those back off when you graduate," interior design student Taylor Hipwell said.

Eighteeen programs are offered at the Art Institute of Charleston. Right now Cunningham doesn't know which or if any of those programs would be cut if the changes go through.

Public comment on this change to the Gainful Employment rule ends on May 26th. A final decision could be made as early as July.

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