"I was just excited I was going back to school - of course they painted a pretty picture," said the now 44-year-old Hicks, who admits she didn't know that her loan balance would grow so high and didn't grasp the problem that her Art Institute credits mostly can't be transferred to other schools.
But she faults the Center City college for teaching outdated skills, and she said that job-placement help amounted largely to forwarding some ads from Craigslist.
And she's not alone: Her classmate Taryn Zychal, with similar complaints, says she owes close to $150,000 and is working in a convenience store when not selling her artwork.
Advocates say that the remarkable thing is that horror stories like those aren't that unusual. Thousands of middle-income students who've rushed to for-profit career colleges in recent years have been overwhelmed by aggressive recruitment, loose admission policies, overhyped academic programs, a crippled U.S. economy with few jobs - and, finally, their massive taxpayer-funded student debt, with little hope of repayment.
At the same time that enrollment at for-profit colleges - many now owned by large, publicly traded firms backed by big banks and investment houses - has soared to 11 percent of U.S. higher education, statistics show that these schools now account for a mind-boggling 48 percent of all defaults on federal student loans.
Call it what it is: yet another new front in the war on the middle class. In a nation already under assault from the crippling of American manufacturing and record long-term unemployment, a mortgage-foreclosure crisis and a political attack on labor unions, now the Wall Street sharpies are coming for your children, with soft money and hard promises about exciting careers that have been hard to keep.
"Like any sector, what Wall Street rewards is quarterly numbers," said Pauline Abernathy, a former Nutter administration aide who's now vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit seeking a clamp-down on abuses by for-profit colleges. "There's pressure on these schools to increase their 'new starts' " - newly enrolled students - "regardless of whether the students are qualified, or can repay their loans."
The front line in the skirmish over for-profit colleges has shifted to Washington, where the Obama administration's Education Department - backed by a coalition of civil-rights groups such as the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza - is seeking tough new regulations. The proposed rules would restrict or even block federal student aid to for-profit colleges that aren't training enough students for "gainful employment" - that is, jobs in which they'll earn enough to repay their loans.
Such a rule could not only help future students avoid unmanageable debts but it also has the potential to save U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, since federal student aid - such as Pell grants and military benefits - is as much as 90 percent or more of the dollars that some for-profit colleges take in, amounting to $26.5 billion annually. So, you would think that GOP lawmakers, who swept the 2010 election with promises of massive cost-cutting, would be down with that.
Instead, legislation aimed at blocking the Obama administration from imposing the rules passed the House with overwhelming Republican support back in February, and although the measure's prospects seem dim in the Democratic-controlled Senate, the final outcome remains very much in doubt. The industry has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on big-name lobbyists, like former Philadelphia congressman Bill Gray, in a bid to sway the debate.
The leading industry group for the career colleges, the Coalition for Educational Success, argues that the high default rates don't reflect bad faith on the part of the schools but rather their efforts to take a chance on training more poor and working-class students. Officials with the coalition cite studies showing high loan default rates at traditional nonprofit colleges - who would not be affected by the proposed rules - when students from similar economic backgrounds are singled out.
"Who are the students that are going to our schools?" asked the coalition president, Penny Lee, a former communications chief for ex-Gov. Ed Rendell. "Most are the nontraditional, military or minority students that community colleges or other institutions aren't serving."
Perhaps because of its large blue-collar population, Philadelphia is something of a hotbed of career-college education, which tends to offer degrees in job-oriented skills such as photography, computer programming and auto mechanics.
Most of the major companies have one if not several campuses in the city or its nearby suburbs. * The nation's largest for-profit higher-ed firm, University of Phoenix, is a publicly traded company that has a main campus in Wayne and learning centers in Center City and Lower Bucks County.
* Kaplan University - with several Philadelphia sites, including the Thompson Institute, in Center City, and CHI Institute, in Franklin Mills - is owned by the Washington Post Corp. (whose flagship newspaper editorializes enthusiastically against stricter federal rules).
* The Lincoln Technical Institute campus, in Torresdale, has a three-year loan-default rate of 48 percent, according to federal stats, which is nearly double the national average. Officials with Lincoln's parent company did not return calls seeking comment, but Shaun McAlmont, chief executive of the Lincoln Group of Schools, said during an investor conference-call this month that admission standards have already been tightened up.
* The Art Institute of Philadelphia is owned by the Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp., or EDMC, which has increasingly been embroiled in the controversy over the industry's practices since the Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs helped take the company public and took a 38-percent ownership stake in the late 2000s. Goldman recently paid a whopping $550 million civil penalty over its role in the subprime mortgage crisis but smelled money in the career-college business.
An expose of EDMC in August by Bloomberg News - which achieved notoriety for its account of a debt-ridden 2007 Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale grad who could find work only as a stripper - quoted whistle-blowers who charged that academic standards fell and recruitment grew more aggressive when Goldman came in.
But even some students who enrolled before that allege that the Art Institute oversold its academic and job-placement programs, a problem made worse when they graduated into the teeth of the economic meltdown of 2008.
Center City resident Zychal, who moved to Philadelphia from Scranton to attend the Art Institute and graduated in June 2008, from the same industrial-design program as Hicks, said that she's roughly $150,000 in debt - some of that due to housing and other fees - but that her degree has been worthless to her.
"Mostly I didn't hear back from a lot of people," she said of her job-seeking experiences, "because mostly they wanted people from accredited schools." (The Art Institute of Philadelphia is regionally accredited, but course credits commonly are not transferable to other schools.) Zychal also said that most industrial-design shops were using a program called SolidWorks - but that she wasn't trained in that.
Zychal said she's had some success recently selling her artwork - recycled umbrellas - but, otherwise, she works as a clerk in a convenience store, "the only job I can get. It's sad and frustrating."
Officials from the Art Institute of Philadelphia declined requests for a traditional interview and to talk with students of their choosing. Instead, they emailed material that's given to students saying that it's "unlikely" that their credits can be transferred, as well as a claim that 87.6 percent of its 2009 grads worked in a field related to their degree, at an average salary of $26,704. The school also sent handout profiles of two graduates, one employed as a 3-D artist and one working on visual effects for the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."
The stats and the handouts are cold comfort to an unemployed grad like Hicks, who said that she finds herself in a bitter Catch-22: her student debt - which, unlike a bad mortgage, can't be used to file for bankruptcy - has trashed her credit rating, which is checked by most prospective employers, making it even less likely that she can find work to pay the money back.
Said Hicks, wistfully: "I expected to be doing better by now."