NYTimes | Ashley Hardin dreamed of being a professional photographer — glamorous shoots, perhaps some exotic travel. So in 2006, she enrolled in the Brooks Institute of Photography and borrowed more than $150,000 to pay for what the school described as a pathway into an industry clamoring for its graduates.
“Brooks was advertised as the most prestigious photography school on the West Coast,” Ms. Hardin said. “I wanted to learn from the best of the best.”
Ms. Hardin did not realize that she had taken out high-risk private loans in pursuit of a low-paying career. But her lender, SLM Corporation, better known as Sallie Mae, knew all of that, government lawyers say — and made the loans anyway.
In recent months, the student loan giant Navient, which was spun off from Sallie Mae in 2014 and retained nearly all of the company’s loan portfolio, has come under fire for aggressive and sloppy loan collection practices, which led to a set of government lawsuits filed in January. But those accusations have overshadowed broader claims, detailed in two state lawsuits filed by the attorneys general in Illinois and Washington, that Sallie Mae engaged in predatory lending, extending billions of dollars in private loans to students like Ms. Hardin that never should have been made in the first place.
“These loans were designed to fail,” said Shannon Smith, chief of the consumer protection division at the Washington State attorney general’s office.
New details unsealed last month in the state lawsuits against Navient shed light on how Sallie Mae used private subprime loans — some of which it expected to default at rates as high as 92 percent — as a tool to build its business relationships with colleges and universities across the country. From the outset, the lender knew that many borrowers would be unable to repay, government lawyers say, but it still made the loans, ensnaring students in debt traps that have dogged them for more than a decade.
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, according to an internal strategy memo cited in the Illinois lawsuit.
The attorneys general in Illinois and Washington — backed by a coalition of those in 27 other states, who participated in a three-year investigation of student lending abuses — want those private loans forgiven.