You might think that the students who graduate with the most student loan debt in this country attend Harvard or Yale or Stanford. You may think they will get a bachelor's degree leading them toward a career in medicine or law or engineering.
The most debt-laden undergraduate college students in the entire United States go to school in a nondescript strip mall in west Omaha. They take classes in a one-building campus sandwiched among a fitness center, a carpet store and a McDonald's.
These Omaha college students graduate with degrees in a field where the starting salary is roughly as much as the manager of a fast-food restaurant makes.
The Creative Center is a tiny, for-profit school specializing in graphic design. Each year, 30 or so students graduate from the center after taking two years of classes for an associate degree or three years for a bachelor's degree, in a program meant to mimic a real job at an advertising firm.
These graduates are generally well-respected in Nebraska's advertising and design community, in part because they leave school with a professional-looking portfolio meant to help them nab that hard-to-get first job.
At this juncture, you may be wondering why you have never heard of the Creative Center. You have company. I covered higher education in Nebraska for years, sat through countless board meetings and wrote stories about seemingly every university, college and community college in this state.
I had no idea the Creative Center existed until last week.
“We like to call ourselves the best-kept secret in Omaha,” says Kim Guyer, the center's executive director.
The secret is out, and it's not the kind of secret the Creative Center will be whispering to prospective students.
Students at the Creative Center graduate with an eye-popping median debt of some $52,035, says a new government report on college cost and affordability, released after President Barack Obama trumpeted the new “College Scorecard” in his State of the Union address.
That's more than double the median debt of a Creighton Bluejay. That's quadruple the debt of a UNO Maverick.
It's more debt than any other college, university or trade school in the country.
To make matters worse, these well-prepared Creative Center graduates — and they are well-prepared, according to area employers — graduate into a job market known both for its scratch-and-claw competitiveness and its low starting pay.
The average starting salary for a graphic designer is $35,000, according to industry experts. In Omaha and Lincoln, it's several thousand dollars lower, says Mark Carpenter, a partner at Omaha's Skar Advertising and a veteran ad man who sits on the Creative Center's advisory board.
I asked him whether he worries about the idea that some Creative Center graduates are leaving school with more debt than they might make in two or three years' worth of paychecks.
“Advertising agencies and graphic design firms, we're pretty ..., ” Carpenter laughs. “How do I put this? We don't worry about that. It's a 'That's their problem' sort of thing. I realize that's kind of cold ... but I have 15 other agencies in this market that would just love to eat my lunch and take my clients. That's what I worry about.”
In one way, the Creative Center does seem to ready students for exactly this kind of dog-eat-dog world.
Nikole Fulkerson, a 2006 graduate, says the curriculum mimics the flow of a typical 8-to-5 workday at a real job.
While in school, she met and befriended dozens of people already in advertising, including CEOs and vice presidents with hiring power. She produced a portfolio that she's still proud of and said that portfolio, not any diploma, was the reason Skar Advertising (and Carpenter) hired her.
At 26, she has gotten several promotions at Skar, a firm that's done recent TV and print campaigns for the Nebraska Lottery and worked with TD Ameritrade and ConAgra Foods.
Some of her fellow 2006 graduates are moving up the ad ladder in Lincoln and Omaha or have started their own boutique firms. Still others are working in bigger markets on the East and West Coasts.
Fulkerson actually graduated with no debt because her parents footed the college bill with savings. But she says she would have gone to college at the Creative Center even if it meant paying a monthly loan bill.
“It was worth it, every penny. It was absolutely worth what my parents put into my education,” Fulkerson says of the cost, which has now climbed to $34,730 a year in net tuition and fees, according to the government.
By contrast, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln costs $13,108 for the average student after scholarships and financial aid.
In another way, the Creative Center and for-profit trade schools like it seem to set up students for a rocky financial future before they even set foot into the real world.
Micah Schmiedeskamp graduated from the Creative Center's two-year program with $30,000 in debt. His first post-college job — one he fought tooth and nail for against dozens of other applicants — was an internship at the widely known Nebraska firm Bailey Lauerman.
That internship paid little more than minimum wage, he says. He got a better job. Then he got laid off — not an uncommon thing for young ad agency employees when their firm loses a big client.
“It's been that way since the Mad Men days,” Carpenter says.
Schmiedeskamp and his wife had to move into her grandmother's basement in part because he didn't want to delay making his $300-per-month student loan payments. Not all students do this, by the way — 16 percent of the Creative Center's students default on their loans, according to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal.
Schmiedeskamp is 29 now and has a good graphic design job at a small firm in Denver.
When the monthly envelope comes, the one that shows how much he still owes for college, he avoids looking at it.
“This is a little embarrassing, but I don't know how long it's going to take to pay off,” he says.
“Decades?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah, decades,” he says.
Schmiedeskamp knows plenty of graduates worse off than him. They are working for nonprofits or, worse yet, they were laid off by nonprofits during the recession.
After talking to Creative Center alumni and area employers — some of whom wouldn't go on the record about their concerns — I can't get the image of a casino out of my head. Before you suggest Gamblers Anonymous, let me explain.
With each passing year, a college education, any college education, looks more and more like a high-risk, high-reward gamble, as if the American Dream up and moved to Vegas.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.
It's high reward because study after study shows that graduating from college is a student's best chance — increasingly his or her only chance — to live a middle-class life doing something the student enjoys.
It's high risk because spiraling tuition ensures that most students will have to take out massive loans to pay for this. Increasingly, our younger siblings and children and grandchildren are betting giant chunks of money on the possibility that they might make a decent wage as an adult.
And the Creative Center looks like an extreme version of that same wager, the educational equivalent of throwing $52,000 on red, closing your eyes and saying a silent prayer as the roulette wheel spins.
Guyer, the center's executive director, isn't buying the metaphor. She says the school costs what it does because the Creative Center has no endowment fund or alumni association and receives no federal money. She says the Creative Center students and their parents have their eyes open to the possibilities and the pitfalls before they attend the school.
“They come in knowing that they aren't going to get out and make a million dollars,” she says. “You get into it because you love it and this is what you want to do with your life.”
I ask Guyer, a former copywriter and graphic designer, if she is still paying off college debt. No, the center's executive director replies. She got scholarships to attend the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She graduated and started her career debt free.
In other words, she worked hard enough in high school and then made a college decision that allowed her to skip the roulette wheel altogether.
“I was lucky,” she says.
On that point, I think we can all agree.
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