Cartoon Villainy In The World of For-Profit Higher Ed

101-dalmatians cruella de vil

Cruella de Vil is alive and living in San Francisco. Cruella, AKA Elisa Stephens, is making bank by running the for-profit Academy of Art University, a diploma mill — one that saves money by not even printing that many diplomas.

No observable talent is required to gain admission to AAU. The school will accept anyone who has a high school diploma and is willing to pay the $22,000 annual tuition (excluding room and board), no art portfolio required. It would be easy to accuse AAU of being a diploma mill, except the school doesn’t manufacture many diplomas. Just 32% of full-time students graduate in six years, versus 59% for colleges nationally, and that rate drops to 6% for online-only students and 3% for part-time students. (Selective art schools like the Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons graduate 90% of their students; see “Why Art School Can Be A Smart Career Move.”) The few AAU students who manage to collect a degree are often left to their own devices in finding employment in a related field. In marketing itself to dreamy prospects, the school touts its success at placing students at Pixar, Apple and Electronic Arts. But the morning shift at the local Starbucks is just as likely for some students. That and a mountain of debt. In the 2013-14 academic year 55% of the school’s roughly 10,700 undergraduates had federal student loans totaling $45 million.

Mallory at The Toast applauds de Vil’s Stephens’ shamelessness, which is, indeed, on grand display:

By 2007 enrollment reached 10,000, a figure the family once thought impossible. “It made us pause and think, ‘Wow, maybe there’s no limit to this,’ ” Stephens says. …

She also wants to recruit more foreign students, now one-third of enrollment, presumably because they pay tuition out of pocket, no regulatory strings attached.

Mostly though it’s hard to read the profile and not feel sorry for the poor Dalmatians who are being skinned to make the coats:

After graduating from AAU in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in animation and visual effects, Jacob Fraga spent two years working at Starbucks. He was drawn to AAU because it touted connections to companies like Pixar, but he says he didn’t get meaningful guidance for finding a job. “It just didn’t feel like anybody really cared where you ended up,” he says. Fraga, who owes $25,000 in student loans, is now driving for Lyft and taking computer science classes at a community college in hopes of getting a better job. “I’ve felt pretty helpless. How am I going to get out of this debt?” he asks.

Tamara Huynh also ended up making coffee at Starbucks, five minutes from Stephens’ office, after earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 3-D modeling and sculpting from AAU in 2011. While the school promises in its catalogue that faculty are “top-notch professionals who earn a living doing what they teach,” Huynh said that some instructors were recent college graduates or people who hadn’t worked in the industry for years.

Sure, you could blame the students themselves for being taken in. But on paper, doesn’t it all sound reasonable, even enticing? A well-funded school with dozens of prominent buildings all over San Francisco, boasting of high-quality teachers and post-grad job placements at the most exciting organizations around, and a figurehead who pals around with the city’s mayor … You’d have to be a pretty jaundiced 18-year-old not to be hoodwinked.

Anyway, AAU is hardly the only for-profit institution of higher ed to be making money off of students with the help and blessing of the American taxpayer. Steven Salzberg at Forbes reports:

many of the biggest beneficiaries of federal loan programs for graduate schools are low quality, for-profit universities that have figured out how to turn federal largesse into nice fat profits.

A new study from the Center for American Progress finds that just 20 universities account for nearly one-fifth of all grad student debt, a total $6.6 billion. What’s perhaps most surprising is who those universities are: 10 of the 20 are for-profit schools, including two foreign schools.

I agree with Salzberg’s conclusion. Why doesn’t the US government cut these shysters off?

It’s too bad that for-profit universities continue to draw in students with promises of a better future, only to leave them in debt. But we don’t have to subsidize their practices. Let’s stop offering loans for degrees at online-only and for-profit schools.

If you need an enumeration of places of which everyone should steer clear, here’s a handy list. As it happens, the Academy of Art University is #1.


This story is part of our College Month series. 



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