April 20, 2017
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School’s Out at Some Art Schools?
by Karl Cohen
Dr. Elisa Stephens, director of the Academy of Art and daughter of the school’s founder, in front of one of their stellar collection of classical cars. photo: courtesy AA
For-Profit Colleges on the Brink?
“Barack Obama Pushes For-Profit Colleges to the Brink,” read a recent headline in the New York Times.
Yes, the US government is finally cracking down on schools run as businesses which thrive (prey?) on students who get government loans, drop out and eventually default on those loans, leaving us with the bill.
Big Gov is not objecting to the schools making a profit—heaven forbid!—just to their inordinately high loan default rates. Too many former students, even graduates—with jobs even (!), can’t repay their loans because they couldn’t find the oft-promised “high-paying job.” That means you, the taxpayer, winds up footing the bill.
If the schools really placed their students in well-paying jobs Obama wouldn't be objecting and more students would stay in school working towards that reward upon graduation.
The government’s solution to this scholastic mess is to issue fines to schools not doing their jobs properly, forcing them to either close or clean up their act. The list of schools creating this student loan crisis is getting quite long and several are located in the Bay Area.
No Minimum Qualifications Necessary
Schools have been exploiting students and us, the taxpayers, for decades with what is called an “open enrollment” policy, meaning: No minimum qualifications necessary.
Literally anyone who thinks they have the talent or aptitude to succeed in a trade, regardless of education, intelligence, skills, etc., can pay to attend to study said skill without the school making a serious, honest—due diligence(?!?)—evaluation of that person’s chance to succeed.
Another big educational business, Argosy University, has one of its Art Institute schools in a prime San Francisco location on Market Street. photo: courtesy AISF
To be sure, the schools DO get some good students, who DO repay their loans, but also LOTS of duds. They seem to promise the moon to both suckers and qualified students, including great, high paying jobs upon graduation. Don’t you wish life was that easy?
Do these well-remunerated, entry level jobs even exist? Don’t worry, the schools claim they have excellent placement records. Oh no! Obama’s researchers and lawyers have finally come to the conclusion somebody has been selling a lot of students the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge.
Another prevarication many of the schools perpetuate is that they are fully accredited, meaning if you want to transfer to another school they will accept your transcript.
Gosh(!), the government apparently just found out that school recruiters at some of the for-profit schools lied. In point of fact, state and private colleges will not give you credit for some or all of your previous work if you try to transfer to their school.
Imagine that: Mendacity in our halls of higher learning where pedagogues are specifically tasked with teaching civics and ethics even before the sciences or arts.
Most of the questionable schools are easy to spot given their heavy advertising on the Internet and elsewhere. (Private and state run colleges do not nominally advertise.) If you are interested in information about a for-profit school, simply Google the school’s name, then the word “controversy” and see if there is any negative information about them. Wikipedia and Yelp report ugly news about schools and some of the “negative information” may shock you.
In fact, lots of lawsuits totaling millions of dollars are now being won by students and state governments. One big educational business, Argosy University, which runs a chain of Art Institute schools, one in San Francisco, right on Market Street, a half a block from SF’s state-of-the-art library, has already paid out millions to settle lawsuits against them. Currently, the US government’s $11 billion (that's with a 'B') lawsuit against them for fraud is pending a decision.
Another academic chain, Corinthian Colleges, with 111 campuses nation-wide, shut down and filed for bankruptcy this year after they were fined $30 million. Corinthian was under investigation for fraud, overcharging students and pushing students to lie in order to get more federal aid money.
And the Art Institutes are appearing everywhere—this one in Sunnyvale. photo: courtesy AIS
One article admitted their creditors and former students will have a hard time collecting much as the school did not own much property. The classrooms were leased.
The Department of Education is considering making debt relief available to many of Corinthian’s 74,000 former students who feel they were defrauded. Hearings concerning some 7000 students who are claiming fraud and seeking loan forgiveness are planned in September in SF and Washington, DC. The total price tag could end up leaving the American taxpayer with a bill to the tune of almost $4 billion.
Although the US Government’s investigations have uncovered lots of proof that school admission recruiters are trained by the schools to lie to prospective students, one part of the recruiters’ sales pitch may be very true: the claim that the schools have hired excellent teachers.
How is that possible? In case you didn’t get the memo, there was a massive financial meltdown starting seven years ago. This means that there were lots of unemployed or under-employed professionals willing take lower-paying part-time teaching jobs (with no benefits) at for-profit colleges in order to survive.
Unfortunately some of those qualified teachers have been not only let go but replaced by recent graduates from the school—the art school version of “Before you clean out your desk, train your replacement.”
Obama’s new “gainful employment rule” means the schools have to provide proof that at least a minimum number of their graduates have actually found gainful employment. If they can’t find a minimum number of jobs for their graduates, the schools can hire them as teachers and get rid of the seasoned professionals. Disgusting, but that is happening.
Should the schools be more selective in whom they admit as students? Should schools with low graduation rates be supported with government loans when only a small percentage of their students graduate and find appropriate work? Should Northern Cali as well as the US in general become a more arts positive place with funding for Locavore Art: public music, film and art shows, arts education in the schools, funding for local projects?
Ultimately, should the questionable schools be given enormous fines and/or forced out of business? With the Academy, the Art Institute of San Francisco, California College of Art and the Art Institute not to forget SF State and many other local schools (see CS’s
film school list
), art and film schools are big business in Northern California.
A local art teacher commented to me, “The ‘international school’ business itself is rife with these kinds of issues globally, and this is a boom expansion area for the for-profit school model. Awful schools and scams get accredited way too easily in that arena too.”
Buyer beware of for-profit schools, see the
Two Academy of Art students enjoy its fantastic mix room facilities. photo: courtesy AA
The Academy of Art University Case
San Francisco’s well-known and booming Academy of Art University was just covered by Forbes Magazine in two serious, controversial in-depth articles by Katia Savchuck. These articles are not nice puff pieces, no matter how cushy the life being led by the school's president may seem.
In fact, the articles are so negative-biased, I immediately contacted two people I know who work(ed) at the Academy, which I will get to below. To start, I want to note that while some of the for-profit schools under discussion are not accredited with WASC, Western Association of Schools & Colleges, the Academy worked hard years ago to gain full accreditation. Indeed, the accreditation agency will be back in 2016 to see if it meets new Department of Education standards.
One of the many things the Forbes article points out is the Academy’s low graduation rate. “Just 32% of full-time students graduate in six years,” author Savchuk notes, while, “selective art schools like Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons graduate 90% of their students.”
The school’s owner, Elisa Stephens, daughter of the school’s founder, claims that once students get their portfolios together they can get jobs in their field, even before graduating. Indeed, she adds, “the diploma won’t make one bit of difference.”
True, but what proof is there that they drop out because they actually get jobs in their field? Do they drop out for other reasons? If they all got such smoking hot jobs, why the high default rate on the loans?
That is the issue the government has raised with many schools as testimony has proven that they have fabricated information to satisfy government watchdogs.
Meanwhile, the Forbes article raises serious questions about the Academy. Although some of the information may be biased and controversial, much of it has appeared in print before: Should we assume it is accurate? The articles also include information about the property the Academy or the Stephens family owns and other relevant topics.
I’ve worked with several well-educated graduates from the Academy who speak highly of the school, but others don’t. I know people who teach there and are quite positive about it, but I also know former teachers that are critical. If you are curious about the story see “
Black Arts: The $800 Million Family Selling Art Degrees and False Hope
A second article you might find interesting is “
How A For-Profit University Flouts San Francisco’s Land Use Laws
Paul Naas, an Academy MFA graduate who has taught animation at Disney in Florida, SF State and now heads the animation program at Canada, a two year school in the San Mateo area, has mixed feelings about the Forbes article. “While there's probably nothing in there that's untrue, it's also not the whole story,” he told me.
“My experience there was, like my experience at every other college I've attended, a mixed bag,” Naas continued. “Some classes were terrible, taught by instructors who didn't know what they were doing. But others were fantastic, with instructors that clearly knew what they were talking about and had the chops to back it up. “
“My experience was different from most students, as I had some years of experience before enrolling in the MFA program,” Nass went on. “That gave me the knowledge to assess the faculty and the curriculum. It's hard to argue that, with artists like Steve Segal, Mischa Berenstein, Chad Josewszki or Vince DeQuattro teaching classes, they don't know what they're talking about."
An open-admissions school like AAU is never going to have the success rate of schools like CalArts or Ringling, which take the cream of the crop — provided they can afford them. They have sky-high tuition but it also covers some scholarships. Students can and do successfully enter industry after an AAU education.
“Students that work hard and make an effort to improve are going to go farther than those that think all they need to land that dream job is a diploma,” Nass noted. As the saying goes, education is often the one purchase people don’t want to get their money’s worth: you get out of it what you put in.
“I've seen this first hand at my college, where we have graduates who are or have worked at places like Zynga, Electronic Arts, Sledgehammer Games, DreamWorks, and many more. And we also have graduates who aren't working at those places. The difference is the time and effort put into the work.”
“That said,” Nass concluded, “do I think AAU has sold some students a bill of goods? [Indeed,] I'm sure they have; I've heard personal stories from some of my students who had... ‘interesting’ interactions with placement counselors there. But that doesn't mean that once the student is in the classroom they can't excel, if they put in the work.”
“Personally, I think that those students who are considering attending a school like AAU but don't have an extensive art background should [instead] take advantage of one of the many art programs at community colleges around the Bay Area, or an animation program such as ours [Canada].”
“It’s far less expensive than AAU, the faculty are frequently working professionals or industry vets (our faculty has over 70 years of combined industry experience), and a student can get a sense of this is something they really want to pursue.”
“The added benefit is if they decide to continue on to a four-year program like AAU, SFSU, and others and they'll already have some experience under their belt and can go into the four-year program as a much stronger artist. And in some cases courses they've already taken will articulate with the four-year school, further reducing the time (and cost) necessary to complete.”
Rebuttal from Beth Sousa, of AAU’s Animation Program
“I was disappointed in the Forbes articles about the Academy of Art University,” Beth Sousa, the director of AAU’s undergraduate 2-D animation program, told me. “My colleagues are the best and most highly qualified team of people I have ever worked with. I spent more than 15 years in the animation industry then switched careers to teach that subject. A number of my colleagues have also left their industries to teach fulltime.”
“This fact makes those of us who choose to be fulltime faculty more qualified to teach in our fields of expertise rather than less, as the Forbes article implies,” Sousa said. “To assure our teaching skills remain top notch, the AAU provides a dedicated fulltime faculty development department.”
“Furthermore, many of us continue teaching at the AAU precisely because it is an open admissions school: this policy allows people who could not otherwise go to college that option and a fighting chance at a decent career.”
“Like the faculty, the staff also works very hard so that our students can succeed,” Sousa continued.
“They do this by making sure there are well functioning classrooms and dormitories, transportation, access to the resources students need, recreation and athletic programs, extracurricular activities, industry guests and panels. All factors essential to our students development into well-rounded individuals with solid social and professional networks. This same staff is regularly a reassuring and vital support link for students who come to AAU; especially those who are the first in their family to go to college.”
“Oddly, in the midst of all their subterfuge, Forbes also disparages WASC by implying it has low standards. WASC is no fly-by-night organization. It is the primary accreditor of a number of other respectable universities such as Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, USC, and more; information that can be confirmed by simply checking either WASCs or these schools websites.”
“Most egregiously, Forbes maligns our thousands of hard-working students and graduates suggesting that they are hapless dupes. On the contrary, they are professional artists employed in all of the studios mentioned in the article and many more. This fact would have been easy to corroborate if Forbes reporters had even tried. [Indeed,] our graduates are people who have exerted huge effort, often overcoming great odds, to hone their skills to a gleaming edge, all in an effort to land jobs in very competitive industries.”
“These graduates would be proud to tell a reporter how they worked hard, succeeded and now work in advertising, animation, industrial design, web design, game design, fashion, architecture...the list is long. The point is: these are real professional artists, in real jobs, making real incomes. This is the hallmark of their successful education.”
Beth Sousa encourages you to read the school’s official response “which includes actual facts rather than the hearsay that seems to pass for journalism at Forbes.”
AAU’s Classic Car Collection
When I told an animator who drives a gorgeous 1930 Plymouth about the Forbes article, he recommended I read “
Just How Much Is Academy Of Art's Vintage Car Collection Worth
Indeed, that article confirms that the school’s magnificent, world-class, classic car collection is worth untold millions, yet another incredible asset the Academy offers San Francisco. Although auto design students are allowed to look at the cars, please, no touching!
Posted on Sep 17, 2015 - 10:48 AM