Education

Why Students Say Their Degrees From The Art Institute Are ‘Worthless’

CREDIT: Royalty-Free/Corbis

Jay Fabares moved to San Diego when she was 18 to pursue a relationship. Fresh to a new city, she had her whole career ahead of her. Eventually, she took general education courses at a community college because even though she didn’t yet know what she wanted to do with her life, she already knew that she loved to draw.

“My whole life, I’ve been an artist. After my jobs, I would come home and draw. I was very much into art and cartoons and had an almost photographic memory of motion,” Fabares said. A co-worker’s husband suggested attending The Art Institute of San Diego after seeing her drawings, so she decided to check out the open house.

“I was the first person in my family to go to college and they hadn’t helped me prepare for education, so I was basically on my own,” Fabares said.

The school was expensive, but the school said they could get her financial aid. They also told her that credits she’d already completed wouldn’t transfer. As a first-generation college student, though, “I thought that this must just be normal.”

But during her third quarter into the Media Arts and Animation program, she realized that her decision to enroll was a mistake.

“I was never even able to take a Flash [animation] course, which in the industry was unheard of,” she said. “I felt trapped –- after spending this much time and money toward the program already.”

The debt striker movement spreads

The Art Institute of San Diego is owned by the Education Management Corporation (EDMC), and is a for-profit career school that receives grants and subsidized student loans from the federal government. But earlier this year, the corporation announced it would gradually shut down 15 of 52 of its Art Institutes campuses. So far, San Diego hasn’t made that list, but the sheer number of closures and the stories from other campuses is enough to make AI students concerned. Enrollment in the Art Institutes has dropped in recent years, from 66,440 students in 2013 to 61,070 in 2014. It’s a troubling sign for the for-profit college industry.

After all, students at Corinthian Colleges, another for-profit career-oriented college that went bankrupt, have called for debt relief from the U.S. Department of Education. And it looks like the department is starting to hear their case. For the first time, students mired in burdensome debt from poorly run for-profit colleges saw a glimmer of hope.*

Seeing how effective those students were at exposing the abuses of Corinthian colleges, AI students began voicing their concerns about their own debt burdens and the quality of education they received. Former AI students signed a MoveOn.org petition to clear the debt of parents and students for those who attended the school between 2003 and 2011. The former students who created the petition thought 2011 was an appropriate cut-off because that was the year that The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against EDMC, making the accusation that it fraudulently took $11 billion in government aid and targeted low-income students to collect their aid money.*

Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, says that as a society, we’ve sold the importance of going to college so hard that it has become easy to manipulate students into thinking every college is “created equal” and convince them that every college worth the price. EDMC colleges tend to have higher tuition than public colleges with the same programs but higher levels of student loan default, suggesting they’re having a hard time getting the kinds of jobs they were promised.

In October of last year, EDMC announced that it received notice from the Securities and Exchange Commission that it wasn’t in compliance with SEC rules after it delayed filing its annual financial report. Soon after, it delisted its common stock from the Nasdaq, which means it is no longer under the SEC’s filing obligations. The company said the delay was due in part to the SEC’s division of corporation finance’s comments on its revenue recognition and bad debt reserve recorded on student withdrawals from school.

“This is a company that intentionally went private last year so the public wouldn’t know what was happening with it, and that says a fair amount in itself,” Miller said.

“Beyond for-profits, we still send kids to colleges that aren’t very good, but for-profit colleges in particular, because of their customer service orientation, are more likely to take advantage of [the idea that every college is created equal], and show up and be friendly and make it really easy to apply,” he said. “Part of it is that there’s a very sophisticated marketing machine, so they pitch that you can do it and you can’t afford not to do it. They prey on people’s insecurities about their self worth.”

Quality of instruction and admissions standards

Several AI students told ThinkProgress that they realized in the first year after beginning school that the Art Institutes didn’t provide the quality of education they were paying for, by teaching out-of-date methods and not hiring enough teachers for courses assigned for broad and popular majors, as well as providing very weak career services.

Rebekah Hancock-Murphy, 23, wanted to become an illustrator but opportunities were mostly far away from where she lived. Hancock-Murphy wanted to take care of her grandmother, however, so she didn’t feel comfortable moving far away. Then she saw The Art Institute of Houston (AIH), which was closer but allowed her to have “the college experience.”

“Since my grandma was there, I had to make sure she was okay. They told me I’d get plenty of financial aid so I ended up applying and it just wasn’t what I thought. The building was ancient and they were really behind on the technology. I was gobsmacked by what they were teaching me,” she said. But the price was high — she had to take on a huge amount of debt beyond the grants and federal loans she qualified for. Hancock-Murphy’s adviser recommended she take private loans on top of the federal loans she had already taken out, but she declined to do so. Now, AI Houston is one of the 15 campuses that will be shut down.

“As I was going through classes, my teachers would tell me the degree I was getting was worth nothing,” Hancock-Murphy said. “They would tell me that it was going to get me nowhere, so I better have a great portfolio.”

Rebekah Hancock-Murphy attended The Art Institute of San Diego and The Art Institute of Houston.

Rebekah Hancock-Murphy attended The Art Institute of San Diego and The Art Institute of Houston.

Other students who attended AI San Diego, which isn’t on the closure list, never required them to show their portfolios to admissions staff, and that there appeared to be minimal to no standards for deciding acceptance. For those students who did struggle, they say they didn’t receive very much help from faculty and staff. One student said he received very little support for his learning disability from the school after his acceptance.

Hancock-Murphy was enrolled at AI Houston during the period covered by the petition which is why she thinks her teachers felt comfortable telling her that her degree wouldn’t help her secure a job.

She said the school never offered discounts on software students might need or even suggested getting certain software or laptops that would meet the demands of using certain 3-D rendering programs, the kinds of things often offered to students at other schools. Students say they instead had to rely on teachers to go the extra mile because the schools wouldn’t provide direction.

“We were learning 3-D rendering programs that are rarely used by people in the industry and we didn’t learn for example, that ZBrush is a big thing in the industry or Mudbox and things like that,” Hancock-Murphy said. “One time we got free software was the Maya program, and that was because one of our teachers, who was still actually an artist, knew about it and he was the one who had told us how to use it.”

Since then, she decided to attend Grossmont College to study history and global studies. It was there that she realized how inexpensive college could be, receiving fee waivers and financial aid for textbooks.

“I still do art as a hobby but going to AI, I realized I wasn’t ready to go to art school and was accepted on false grounds, so even though I was pretty good when I left high school and had all these recommendations from my art teachers, I wasn’t prepared and on top of that, I had no idea how to approach subjects,” she said on why she switched her career focus.

All credits are not equal

For too many students, they wind up feeling trapped once they’ve been in a program only a few semesters, in part because it’s very difficult to transfer credits to another school.

Andrew Shufeldt, 29, who now works in an administrative role at Paradise Valley Community College and attends school there, said The Art Institute of San Diego’s game design program was at least five years behind the curve and told students that cell phone games would be low tech when all trends in the industry showed that games would become more high-end and compact. He said that although some instructors were effective, the resources they had to work with were inadequate, which is why many of the teachers he’s known have moved on.

“There were at least two good instructors, but the resources they were given and curriculum they had to follow meant their hands were tied, and many have moved on,” he said.

Shufeldt said it’s very difficult to transfer credits from AI schools to other institutions. After enrolling in and working at Paradise Valley Community College, he learned more about the difficulty in transferring credits due to AI’s status as a three-year college. Instead of a college algebra course being three credits, it would be 2.3 credits, making students retake general education courses.

“It was difficult dealing with what they were worth to other schools. Transfer credits are pretty much useless to any other school besides maybe some other tiny for-profit school. The credits going to Arizona State University or any other college come across as electives,” Shufeldt said. “They are ranked as quarter rather than semester, so it doesn’t technically count as a full course. Gen-eds from that school can only be used to fill prerequisites and even that is being extremely generous.”

In an enrollment agreement covered with fine print, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, for example, notes that its credits aren’t easily transferable: “The credits earned are not intended as a stepping stone for another institution … If you are considering transferring to either another Art Institutes school or an unaffiliated school, it is your responsibility to determine whether that school will accept your The Art Institute of Pittsburgh credits.”

After Hancock-Murphy’s grandmother passed away, she moved to San Diego to live with her father and attend the Art Institute there, but she found that she found that she had to apply all over again.

“What people don’t tell you is that when you transfer between Art Institutes, is that the system isn’t interconnected, so when you transfer, you have to fill out a completely different application. They can’t send anything between schools other than transcripts,” Hancock-Murphy said.

Miller said students often assume that because a school is accredited, it should be straightforward to transfer those credits to another institution. But he warned students shouldn’t rely on accreditation agencies, and to be careful of non-U.S. News or Washington Monthly school rankings sites that feature for-profit schools prominently, as many are created by marketers charged with the task of finding students, or as they call them, “leads.”

“The other major problem you have is that most consumers assume that if department of education is willing to give you a grant to go here, that should mean there’s some degree of due diligence that went into choosing colleges that can participate. The problem is that’s not really true,” Miller said. The accreditation agencies that are one line of defense are basically co-opted by the schools and do an abysmal job of consumer protection.”

The path forward

Given the aftermath of Corinthian Colleges’ closures, AI students may be able to step into the path already forged by those students. The U.S. Trustees Office gave former Corinthian students the OK to form a committee to represent students during the bankruptcy process. Public Counsel Law Center, Robins Kaplan LLP, and Strumwasser & Woocher LLP said they are representing the interests of around 500,000 Corinthian students affected by its collapse.

ThinkProgress requested a comment from the U.S. Department of Education on what former AI students could do to seek financial relief, as former Corinthian students have done.

“As EDMC phases out several campuses, the Department will closely monitor the situation to ensure that their students’ interests and futures are protected,” said Denise Horn, assistant press secretary for communications and outreach at U.S. The Department of Education.

Unfortunately, it’s these students that had it bad, but there is hope as the department deals with the fallout, Miller argues.

“The students at Corinthian on the day it got shut down and a little bit before that too, they will have a path to get rid of loans without getting into murkier borrower defense to repayment. This is a transitionary period. The sector is getting much closer to rightsizing, and now the worst actor is gone, and the second and third worst actor may not be here this time next year,” Miller said. “But the problem is that you have people who have been ripped off for years, and so what do you do about it? I think part of what they need to do is get money from these schools while they still have it.”

AI is also on the U.S. Department of Education’s heightened cash monitoring list, which provides additional oversight over federal student aid. Schools are put on the list due to issues such as late or missing financial statements or audits, outstanding liabilities, accreditation issues and concern about the school’s financial responsibility, to name a few.

AI schools included on the list, as of March 2015, include The Art Institute of Phoenix, The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, The Art Institute of Atlanta, The Art Institutes International Minnesota, The Art Institute of Houston and The Art Institute of Seattle. Most of them are listed under either “CIO problems” or “financial responsibility” on the department’s list.

Life after graduation

Shufeldt said the college had decent connections in the industry, but all of them were through professors, not necessarily though the school administration’s efforts to reach out to employers.

“They were relying on educators’ past connections with different companies and had nothing really going on outside of that,” he said. “They had superfluous jobs that were somehow tied to hiring quotas. Like jobs at Kinkos counted toward the animators’ hiring quota. Game artists working as a game tester counted, which, you know a person who hasn’t even graduated high school could get that job.”

That may sound typical to those who attend four-year colleges, but schools like the Art Institute are classified as career colleges, meaning that they exist to provide students with an entry into specialty fields that require special training. These job placement rates are often part of the marketing students hear before they sign up.

According to a 2012 Health Education, Labor and Pensions committee report on for-profit colleges, EDMC students struggle to find jobs despite the high cost of attending these schools. Even though The Art Institute of Minnesota reported a job placement rate of 89 percent for the 2012-13 academic year, the school counted any job, regardless of whether it related to their degree.

They’re also taking out a lot of private loans. According to U.S. Department of Education data provided in 2011, The Art Institute of Hollywood’s median private loans for cinematography and film/video production came to $25,393, and at The Art Institute of San Diego, the median amount apparel and accessories marketing operations students took out for private loans was $27,780. At The Art Institute of Colorado, median private loans for computer graphics was $21,675.

Although Jay Fabares became frustrated with her college of choice at AI San Diego, it is also where she met her husband, Sanders Fabares. They met while attending the school from 2003 to 2006. Both Jay and Sanders had a difficult time finding work after college, taking food service jobs just to pay the bill, as well as their student loans.

Sanders and Jay Fabares both attended The University of San Diego together.

Sanders and Jay Fabares both attended The University of San Diego together.

Fabares said that career services didn’t bother to reach out to her post-graduation. “I graduated, it was fleeting — no contact or reaching out from the school. I don’t recall them ever writing or calling me on their own. I remember emailing them about possible leads just to be sent a list of jobs that didn’t even match my skill set,” she said.

When Fabares began applying for jobs, she thought that her portfolio would stand out, given that she considered her work more developed and skilled than many of her peers, but once she realized the kind of preparation students from other art colleges received, she felt ashamed.

“But once you get out there and realize what students have done at other schools, you realize, ‘Oh, my portfolio sucks.’ Not even that, but it just was subpar, and all these people from CalArts had connections and relationships with potential employers. They had studios come to their school for portfolio views, and they knew what to make for them. Their curriculum was more targeted.”

Fabares worked at a Starbucks for a few years while she tried to find work in her industry. She did secure an internship at Disney, but she didn’t get offered a position. Meanwhile, her husband worked at a hotel after college and eventually secured different positions within gaming companies.

She eventually found a full-time job at a gaming company with his help. She now works as a senior flash artist at Playtika Santa Monica, doing animation. Sanders Fabares now who works as a website moderator.

The couple, now in their thirties, helped each other secure jobs once they graduated while they did their best to keep up with student loan payments. His debt is currently $25,000 and hers is $71,000. Most of the time, the couple moved wherever Jay found work, since her positions tended to pay more. That meant that Sanders couldn’t always pursue his passions for sculpting and film.

“I have a good job that allows me to work from home for an overseas company, but this isn’t what I ever saw myself doing as a career,” Sanders Fabares said. “I have never once benefited once from what I learned at AI-SD.”

EDMC released a statement in response to ThinkProgress’ inquiries about some of the issues former students mentioned:

It is disappointing to us when a student has a bad experience at our school. We go to great lengths to help students understand what they are signing up for when they attend our schools, including costs of education.

Our financial aid team works extensively with each student from application to graduation and beyond regarding the financial aid process and individual financial aid plans. We do everything we can to help students understand loan obligations and commitments including IGrads, a financial aid literacy resource, and a Student Consumer Information website.

Like all accredited colleges, we have no control over which schools will accept our credits.

With respect to the quality and outcomes of programs at Art Institutes schools, our industry-experienced faculty have worked with many organizations both national and local, bringing that experience and industry knowledge into the classroom. Our faculty is committed to teaching industry-relevant trends and technologies, equipping our students with the skills they need to succeed in the creative industries of the future.

Our curriculums are evaluated to ensure the competencies taught are industry relevant and we also have a program advisory committee of industry professionals that review the curriculum.

We are committed to helping our students find jobs from day one. Our campuses have internship programs and co‐op partnerships with local companies to help students grow their portfolio and gain valuable work experience while still in school.

We have a Career Services team that helps students navigate the job market both before and after graduation, by offering leads on job prospects, coaching students on crafting resumes and preparing them for interviews with employers. We also provide numerous opportunities and events for students to showcase their work, including Portfolio Shows where graduating students present their work to potential employers.

We are dedicated to providing the opportunity for an education that … were it not for schools like ours … many of our students might never achieve. We truly help build careers.

The Fabares couple moved several times, to different areas of California, until they could both find work. “We ping-ponged all over the state, so wherever there was a job for her, we went there, because that was the higher paying job and we didn’t have savings to fall back on,” Sanders Fabares said.

He said their struggles finding work after AI have tested their relationship, but ultimately, it was a comfort to know they were both in the same boat and would face those challenges together. Before Corinthian Colleges made headlines for their inaccurate job placement rates, they didn’t know other students at different for-profit colleges faced the same problems.

“It definitely put a strain on our relationship, but at the same time, knowing another person went through the same experience made it somewhat easier. We knew we were together on that,” Sanders Fabares said. “Over the last few months we have been amazed and outraged at how similar other student’s stories are to our own.”

* Since this piece was first published, the 2011 U.S. Department of Justice case against EDMC was settled for $95.5 million and EDMC did not admit any wrongdoing. Although major progress has been made in regards to providing student debt forgiveness to former students and graduates of institutions belonging to Corinthian Colleges, the then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the case did not find “a misrepresentation to students” that would help students of EDMC colleges with debt forgiveness. However, the case did accuse EDMC of giving students misleading information, such as false job placement rates.