For Lora Ladd, the dream went like this: Get a great education in graphic design. Land a $40,000-a-year job. Pay off those student loans. Save some money and start a business.

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For Lora Ladd, the dream went like this: Get a great education in graphic design. Land a $40,000-a-year job. Pay off those student loans. Save some money and start a business.

It all seemed within her grasp. After all, when Ladd researched Brooks College in Long Beach, Calif., the institution promised that almost all of its graduates found good jobs with great wages. Lenders were only too willing to write her loans.

But nothing would turn out as planned.

Ladd, 22, found out the hard way just how much of a burden student loans can become. She is part of a growing number of Americans expected to default on their loans. The problem remains hidden behind rosy official statistics, but is noted in a U.S. Department of Education audit, which predicts about a quarter of freshmen and sophomores who take out loans will default during their lifetime.

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The problem often begins with young students like Ladd who make far-reaching decisions about debt at a time in their lives when they’ve never needed to be financially responsible. The seemingly sure bet that higher education will pay off can be upended by any number of factors: broken marriages, illnesses, lost jobs, substandard schools and unrealized dreams.

Not helping the situation are the aggressive marketing tactics of some loan companies. Even now, in the midst of a financial crisis that has thrown the future of the student-loan industry into doubt, companies continue to make it sound so easy: Borrow up to $250,000 lifetime, with approval given in as little as one minute, says one Web site, Think Student Loans.

And the federal government has made student loans harder to get rid of than almost any other type of personal debt.

Unlike credit cards, car loans or even mortgages, student loans are not routinely discharged in bankruptcy. Even some private loan companies argue the rule, imposed to stop students from racking up huge debts and then dodging them, is too stringent.

When things do go sour, students can find themselves relentlessly targeted by collection agencies. Take Premiere Credit, an Indianapolis company that has landed large student-loan-collection contracts with the U.S. Department of Education. The company installed a 3,800-gallon saltwater shark tank in its lobby, complete with live sharks inside.

Why sharks?

“Sharks are constantly moving forward, resistant to infections and cancers, and have the ability to heal quickly from severe injuries — qualities that Premiere Credit of North America nurtures as part of its corporate culture,” the company explains on its Web site.

The company did not return calls seeking comment.

Trapped in a cycle

By the time Lora Ladd graduated with an associate degree in 2005, Brooks College, a for-profit, was on probation for its run-down buildings and poor academic standards, and for misrepresenting job-placement rates. The school has since announced plans to close.

Ladd’s first “career” job turned out to be a $10-an-hour customer-service gig at a printing company. She’d borrowed $20,000 in private student loans from Sallie Mae — the nation’s largest private student lender — but wasn’t able to make payments and quickly went into default. Some days, she says, creditors would call 20 times.

Documents show the principal on Ladd’s Sallie Mae loan has increased from $20,000 to $35,000 because of accrued interest and penalties. The interest rate is now 14.875 percent; her monthly payments $487. Add the federal loans she took out in her father’s name but which she pays down, and her total debt now stands at more than $52,000 — $12,000 more than she borrowed — with monthly payments of nearly $700.

“It’s made me feel hopeless at certain points,” said Ladd, who said the stress has led to tears and contributed to bouts of depression. “I work and I work and I work, and all I have to show for it is paying this company money which doesn’t go toward anything.”

Three years after graduating, Ladd, of Portland, says she is getting back on her feet. She has realized one dream by starting her own business, a personal-assistant and maid service. For Ladd, one of the attractions of self-employment is that loan companies can’t easily garnish her wages. She plans to pay back her loans in full.

The stories “floored me”

Alan Collinge has heard dozens of stories like Ladd’s. Three years ago, he launched StudentLoanJustice.org from his Tacoma-area apartment. On the site, he posted his own story: how he graduated from the University of Southern California with three degrees in aerospace engineering and $38,000 in loans; how he struggled to find jobs in the industry; and how his debt ballooned to $118,000 through what he views as exorbitant penalties and fees.

Collinge, 38, has posted hundreds of similar testimonials and appears to have tapped a deep reservoir of anger. He’s appeared in news reports across the country, including a segment on “60 Minutes,” and now has a book contract.

“The stories I got in just floored me,” Collinge said. “There were people who left the country to avoid their loans, people whose family members committed suicide. The shackles that this has put over so many people across the country is just shocking.”

But Tom Joyce, a spokesman for Sallie Mae, derides Collinge’s tactics — which have included calling loan-company executives at their homes in the middle of the night.

Joyce says the topic of student-loan debt is important but that Collinge, with his three degrees from a top university, has had many opportunities in life.

“There are real hardship issues. There are people who have health issues and so on, and they need relief and they need help,” Joyce said. “It’s right for the government and for others to be concerned and to help them work through it. Unfortunately, Alan is the wrong poster child for that movement.”

Collinge, for his part, said he regrets the late-night calls, which were made several years ago when he was angry about his situation. More recently, he has set up a political action committee and is trying to persuade lawmakers to amend bankruptcy laws and curb what he views as unfairly high fees and penalties in the industry.

Much controversy remains over just how many students will end up defaulting. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings proclaimed in a news release last month that default rates are “historically low,” with just 5.2 percent of recent graduates in trouble. “Federal student aid remains one of the best options for financing education,” she concluded.

But a very different picture emerges from the Department of Education’s own risk model.

The proportion of freshmen and sophomores at four-year colleges who will default on federal loans over their lifetime is estimated at between 19 and 31 percent, depending on the type of loan and when it was written, the department’s Office of Inspector General wrote in a 2003 audit.

Outside of four-year colleges, the figures get even worse: At community colleges, between 30 percent and 42 percent of students are expected to default on their loans; and at for-profit schools, between 38 percent and 51 percent are expected to default, the audit notes.

The audit calculates lifetime risk — rather than the model used by Spellings, which looks at what happens to graduates two years out from college.

New cause for concern

One change in private student loans that worries Janet Cantelon, the director of student financial services at Seattle University, is the increasing frequency with which companies market directly to students, often at higher interest rates and without the oversight or knowledge of the university.

One company told university officials it made more than $1 million in “direct-to-consumer” loans to Seattle U. students last year alone.

“We said ‘Oh my gosh, there’s that much out there from one company?’ ” Cantelon said. “That’s kind of frightening.”

Cantelon said students who take out such loans aren’t always savvy enough to know they could be getting a better deal. Parents and students need to investigate all options thoroughly, she said, and make sure to talk with school counselors and financial planners.

“Especially for students going to private schools, there are large costs, and they need to do what they can to reduce costs and not borrow more than they really need,” Cantelon said. “There are going to be students who come out with excessive debt … but students need to get a good education, and maintain manageable debt levels.”

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com