All Lisa Riley Richardson wanted was a chance to work in a photographer's studio, to earn a living taking and developing pictures. She thought her childhood dream would have been fulfilled by now.
Yet despite training at a Dallas trade school seven years ago, today Richardson is no closer to being a photographer. Instead, she is snared in an educational Catch-22 that has left her credit ruined, her nerves wrecked, and herself facing $10,000 debt for a degree she can't prove she has from a school that no longer exists.
"I have nothing," she says. "No diploma, no transcript. No one can prove I was there. All I have is this loan."
In 1989, Richardson, now 27, attended Elkins Institute of Dallas. The school offered a number of courses, among them training in professional photography. The course included classes on taking photographs and instruction that supposedly would allow her to work in a photography studio. The school also boasted of job-placement assistance. The nine-month program cost more than $5,000.
The Elkins Institute was once a chain of 21 trade schools nationwide. The schools were sold off individually in the early 1970s, says Bill Elkins, the company's owner. By the time Richardson attended Elkins Institute of Dallas, it was no longer affiliated with the parent company.
Richardson received a student loan for tuition through the school, which filled out the paperwork, asking only for her signature. As an accredited school that had been operating since 1979, the school qualified to be part of the federal guaranteed student loan program.
Richardson graduated in September 1989.
Soon afterward, she tried to get job-placement help. She says Elkins Institute stalled her. Not one to sit and wait, she tried to get a job on her own. At her first job interview, she learned why Elkins had stalled her.
"I was actually sitting there during the interview when the interviewer told me the number for Elkins was disconnected," she recalls. "I found out later that they were closed."
Elkins Institute of Dallas closed its doors in April 1990, says Jody Harrison of the Texas Workforce Commission, which certifies schools to participate in the guaranteed student loan program. The school didn't give a reason for closing, and the Dallas Observer was unable to locate its former owners.
Bill Elkins still operates a school in Dallas called Elkins Enterprises, which provides interactive long-distance correspondence courses for businesses. But he no longer uses the Elkins Institute Inc. name since it has been tainted by closings like the one in Dallas.
"We still have a lot of people call us because of the name," Elkins says. "But we have nothing to do with them."
When the Dallas school closed, no one took responsibility for student records. Harrison says the workforce commission had neither the money nor the space to do so.
Richardson says she tried to get the records herself, but could find no one who could help her. She contacted the companies responsible for her loan and tried to explain her dilemma with no success. Without her transcripts or a copy of her diploma, it was impossible for her to get a job in photography, she says.
"No one would take a chance on me," she says. "I can't blame them. I can't prove I was ever there. Except I have this loan."
Richardson says she made one or two payments on the loan after graduating, but stopped when she found out that her schooling was worthless.
In 1993, Richardson says, she began receiving letters from the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corp. saying that it had taken over collection of her debt. The amount had increased to more than $6,000, and they wanted her to contact them about repayment. She says the corporation threatened to sue her, garnishee her wages, and even keep her income tax refunds if she didn't comply.
Richardson had taken a job as a secretary for Southern Bible Institute, a small private college in southern Dallas. Soon, she says, the letters began arriving at her office for her boss. The letters said that the school could be sued if it did not withhold money from Richardson's check for the loan. The school's president, Gordon Mumford, says they were harassing.
"It just doesn't seem to be quite equitable," he says.
In a written statement, the student loan corporation says that what it was doing was not harassment, but simply using "collection tools available through and required by federal law to collect on Ms. Richardson's student loan debt."
The statement also says that Richardson never told them of her problems in getting a job because the school had closed down until this May, when she requested a hearing about her loan--not that it would have made any difference.
"Ms. Richardson does not qualify for a discharge of her student loan due to the closure of the school because she completed her program of study prior to the school's closure," the letter states. "A student loan borrower's inability to obtain employment in her program does not constitute a valid dispute to the repayment of the debt."
Besides, Richardson did get a job in photography, they said.
Richardson laughs at the idea. For a few months during the 1991 Christmas season, she sold photographs in a mall kiosk. It was a part-time, minimum-wage job and had nothing to do with photography, she says.
"It wasn't like I was practicing any of my skills," she says.
Richardson had a hearing with the student loan agency where she says she tried to explain her situation, but was told that the school's closing was irrelevant. The issue was simply whether she owes the debt, which has now blossomed to more than $10,000. An administrative law judge ruled that she does.
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Richardson says she doesn't.
"There is no record of my having attended that school," she says. "They can't prove it to anybody else. Why should I have to pay for something I can't use or prove?"
Richardson has filed an appeal of the June ruling. After that, she's not sure what she can do. Even if anyone could find the records from Elkins, she couldn't use them now. She's forgotten most of the photography skills she learned.
"I couldn't even tell you how to develop color film," she says.
She holds out her plight as a cautionary tale to those who would follow her. It's not enough to suspicious; be downright cynical, she says.
"I trusted them," she says. "I thought Elkins was a reputable school, and look what happened to me. I'm having to rely on secretarial skills I learned in high school to survive. I'm afraid of the system now.