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By Lucy Stratton
March 5, 2015
Caption : The Art Institutes have long served as a cautionary tale for fledgling artists and designers seeking an affordable, versatile art school. Once enrolled, Art Institutes prove to be anything but affordable, saddling graduates with upwards of $75,000 of student debt.     

The Corinthian College system is not the only for-profit college system to use predatory marketing and loan practices to ensnare hopeful students. The Art Institutes have long served as a cautionary tale for fledgling artists and designers seeking an affordable, versatile art school. Once enrolled, Art Institutes prove to be anything but affordable, saddling graduates with upwards of $75,000 in student debt.

The Art Institutes (AI) college system includes 50 locations scattered throughout North America, all of which offer bachelors, masters, and associate degrees in the visual, creative, and applied arts. Browsing through the AI website, prospective students are bombarded by marketing slogans such as “Creative Education. Made More Affordable” and “Creativity for Life.” Upon clicking its “about” page—also titled “Creativity for Life” to further drive the slogan home—users are brought to a series of promotional videos that boast real world experience, professional career counselors and mentors, and post-graduation success.

“At The Art Institutes system of schools, we believe creativity is more than just a word,” the webpage reads. “It’s a passport to a life less ordinary. It’s what drives us to foster and facilitate an inspiring community of creativity… Most importantly, creativity is the reason we’re here to help guide you toward the creative career you want.”

With honeyed promises and catchphrases, it is easy to see why prospective students interested in the arts might enroll in The Art Institutes. College tuition has steadily risen every year for over a decade, and student loan debt remains at an all-time high. For a high school student hoping to break into a tough industry and follow their passion, AI’s promise of an accessible, worthwhile education seems too good to be true.

Unfortunately for the 125,000 students who have attended AI branches, an education at AI is a passport to a life of extraordinary levels of student debt. Many forget that The Art Institutes is a for-profit education system owned by the Education Management Corporation (EDMC). Unlike public or private universities, for-profit college systems are owned by private corporations seeking to make a profit. These schools only boast a 25 percent graduation rate, and dropouts and graduates alike walk away with a heavy helping of debt after paying high tuition costs through loans.

For-profit colleges tend to spend more money on recruiting students and securing tuition than actually educating those who attend. The Art Institutes is not overly concerned with graduation rates or debt statistics. After all, unpaid debt is a loss to the taxpayer and borrower, not to the institution profiting off the original loan.

EDMC earned 80 percent of its revenue from tuition paid with federal and financial loans in 2013. In October 2014, however, the company delisted itself from the NASDAQ due to various lawsuits accusing the parent company of relying on misinformation and predatory lending to ensnare students.

Graphic designer Thomas Bowen experienced AI’s manipulation firsthand when he enrolled at The Art Institute Washington in 2006 to study graphic design. Hoping to receive an education specifically geared towards his interests, Bowen was further reeled in by a streamlined admissions process.

“What convinced me to attend was a meeting with an admissions advisor that, on the surface, went extraordinarily well. Too well really, but this is what their advisors are supposedly trained to do, as I later learned,” Bowen said.

Bowen’s experience as a student at AI was initially more than what he hoped for. He was surrounded by creative and like-minded individuals, and even though the campus was located on the top four floors of a twelve-story building, the classrooms were adequately equipped and staffed. The institution began to show its true colors when it was time to register for new classes and plan his degree.

Eager to rake in student tuition, Bowen’s loan renewal and class registration was a “huge hand-holding event.” Students at AI were not allowed to register for classes without the express permission of their faculty advisors. At the same time, Bowen and his classmates also found themselves forcibly registered for classes touted as ‘required’ despite not being a part of their degree programs or officially noted as such.

Moreover, no student could register until their tuition was fully paid. To Bowen, this made sense; students could not take classes they could not pay for. It also made sense that he would have to collaborate with the financial aid office because his tuition was paid for entirely through student loans and the savings he accrued in high school. The ease through which he was expedited through the financial aid process, however, was suspicious.

“What raised a red flag for me was when I was barely needed for any of the process, save for signing dotted lines and carrying papers from office to office,” Bowen said. “Nothing was explained to me, nothing was conveyed in a way that helped me understand what was going on with loan terms, amounts, interest rates, nothing.”

Bowen is not an outlier amongst AI graduates. According to a string of whistleblower lawsuits filed by former employees against EDMC, recruiters often misled prospective students because of the financial incentives received for recruiting them. One former student, Brandon Bieri, revealed to The Missoulian that his admissions officer claimed that 95 percent of graduates from his program found a job in the animation field. After leaving school with $90,000 in loans, Bieri begged to differ.

“He was like a used-car salesman,” Bieri said. “It was a high-pressure sale. I feel like everything I learned there I could have learned on YouTube.”

In addition to exaggerating job prospects, the lawsuits also allege that AI underestimated program costs and lied on financial aid forms in order to receive larger loans. In December 2014, EDMC was further accused of targeting veterans in order to cash in on their GI Bills.

Until recently, articles lambasting AI for its shady practices were few and far between. In the media flurry caused by the bankruptcy and investigation of the Corinthian College system, The Art Institutes quietly slipped under the radar until it made the grievous mistake of targeting veterans and military members.

On social media, however, many former students have come forward with their own horror stories. In particular, Yelp has served as a platform for students dissatisfied with their educations.

“This school is a JOKE. DO NOT be fooled by their marketing or their promises of employment after graduation… you WILL regret it,” a former student of The Art Institute of Philadelphia shared on Yelp.

“Most people don’t graduate here with a stable job, and end up in debt…end of story,” a student from The Art Institute of Arlington wrote.

“If anyone is thinking of coming here, please think things over,” a graduate from The Art Institute of California-Silicon Valley pleaded. “You will end up with a huge amount of debt in loans, and will be completely disappointed with the overall school. This has been a total waste of my time and money.”

The good news is that students, states, and the federal government are wising up to the for-profit college scheme. EDMC lost $664 million of revenue during 2014, and the state of California forced the company to pay a $4.4 million settlement to students. President Obama’s 2016 budget includes provisions that would prevent for-profit college systems such as The Art Institutes from taking advantage of military benefits.

Bowen’s education was rocky, but like many graduates he has had to persevere in spite of AI’s overpriced tuition and lackluster courses.

“I do not recommend The Art Institutes to anyone I meet. I can’t after what I experienced there,” Bowen said. “I’m just glad I’m out and able to work in my chosen field, which I totally credit to the caliber of my work and determination to go after what I want, not to AI.”

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