Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Dark Arts of Higher Ed




By Professor Doom

     A recent Forbes article decides to have an easy day: it shreds the shenanigans going on at an art school. It does a good job, but, as is so often the case, misses some important details which explain how the atrocities can take place.

     The article focuses on the life of the Poo Bah at the school. Life is sweet if you’re a Poo Bah:

‘…Stephens, 56, is wearing a fitted black skirt-suit with a Chanel clutch and a sparkling brooch the size of a Christmas ornament…Elisa made sure photographers snapped her with fashion designer Lubov Azria, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and former mayor Willie Brown. After the show, guests feasted on filet mignon topped with foie gras and drained the house dry of red wine.

…The Stephens family has turned that pile of art-school tuition into one of the largest real estate empires in San Francisco, with more than 40 properties in prime areas…the real estate is worth an estimated $420 million, net of debt, and the family pulls in tens of millions of dollars each year leasing these buildings back to the Academy of Art for classrooms and dorms.

…Stephens, her younger brother, Scott, and her parents, Richard and Susanne, are worth an estimated $800 million…”


     Wow, ruling over a university is a nice gig if you can get it (the article also mentions the family’s $70 million car collection). I’ve written before of the kind of money Poo Bahs get, and while there are plenty of articles bemoaning the pay, realize there are some hefty perks that make Stephens’ lifestyle not particularly spectacular for a Pooh Bah.

Stephens also went on a real estate shopping spree, buying 11 buildings in the 1990s and another 17 the following decade. The family leases all of them to the school.


     Now, Stephens rules over Academy of Art University, an 86 year old for-profit university. When she took over the school a few decades ago, it had a mere 2,200 students, but she followed the golden rule of all administration: growth is everything. Now it has 16,000 students, and the money has been pouring in. The Poo Bah is also buying property, and leasing it to the institution…bizarre real estate deals are par for the course in higher education today. Forbes’ explains the successful plan for growth:

…luring starry-eyed art students into taking on massive amounts of debt based on the “revolutionary principle” (Stephens’ phrase) that anyone can make a career as a professional artist. 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…

…And the school is fighting a whistle-blower suit by former recruiters who say they were paid more, illegally, if they enrolled more students…


      So, this school followed the template that most other state and non-profit schools followed: annihilate standards, abandon integrity, open admissions to everyone, and grow, grow, grow. Just as now colleges regularly admit students that can’t function at the 6th grade level, so does this art school admit students who can’t demonstrate any interest in art. Old accreditation wouldn’t allow this, because old accreditation requires admission requirements. This rule, much like every rule that cut into growth, was removed.

      This is this big thing the article missed: it doesn’t look hard at accreditation’s role in allowing students to be scammed. This school, like so many others, is focused on plundering the student loan money:

Just 32% of full-time students graduate in six years…and that rate drops to 6% for online-only…

…But exactly how many of AAU’s grads actually land a job in their field of study is a bit of a state secret….


     Hey, there are plenty of schools that aspire to have a 6%, 6 year graduation rate. It isn’t merely that graduation is not a goal for this school, it’s also that graduates get degrees of no value (despite paying about $100,000 for that piece of paper). 

     Graduation rates are tracked for all schools; post-graduation employment, on the other hand, isn’t….well, it is here, but the information isn’t revealed. I’ll get to that later.

      So, when challenged on the abysmal graduation rates, administration just wheels out an excuse similar to what other bogus schools offer:

Stephens insists that graduation rates are a “red herring” at a place like AAU. “If a student can get that portfolio built before they finish all their requirements, and they get a job in their field of study, then we don’t want to keep them here,” she says.


     I have to chuckle at this, because it’s so similar to the lie I heard many a time at a community college with atrocious graduation: “We’re a transfer institution, so we don’t produce many graduates.” Never mind that with thousands of students, it should be easy to produce a great number of successful students that got their start at the school…such students never seem to appear in great quantity, although one, perhaps two, students for each year of operation do manage to succeed. Among thousands.

     Most students, even the ones with shiny degrees, get nothing:

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.

--Poor kid, after being suckered by AAU, is now going to community college, where he’ll get suckered again. My own community college also had a computer science program; even though we desperately needed help in our IT department, we wouldn’t hire our own graduates because the program taught nothing useful. He’ll find out how that works when he graduates. Poor, poor kid.


     Universities, like all large bureaucracies, are obsessed with collecting data. AAU is no exception. They have the data on job placement, but won’t release it:

AAU also tracks job-placement statistics, Stephens says, but it doesn’t publish them despite the federal requirement to do so. A spokesperson for the Department of Education says schools that don’t comply with the rule may be cut off from federal student aid if violations are deemed “egregious.”…The Department spokesperson says all schools that voluntarily collect job-placement rates must share them and the method used.


     Does the gentle reader really suppose that, if AAU’s data showed their graduates were successful, AAU would violate federal law by refusing to release the data? AAU knows full well their degrees are basically worthless, that the money they’re raking in from the Federal student loan scam is just going directly into Poo Bah pockets, while the students rack up debt they’ll never be able to pay back.

     A former employee at AAU explains the reality at this school:

“…who now heads production at a Bay Area animation studio, says that while AAU has success stories, its business model is based on underperformers. “There are many students left behind,” he says. “From an initial class of, say, 100 students, we get maybe 5 kids at the end that are employable.”


     Because these schools generally offer no protection to their faculty (or honor it even if there is such protection), I doubt we’ll get any quotes from current employees. If we did, they would say much the same. Again, it’s what I saw at the community college level: perhaps 1 student in the class was legitimate, and the rest were being robbed. Admin doesn’t care.

      But what of accreditation’s role in all this? Accreditation is supposed to look at a school, and assure the school is legitimate. We’ll take a look at accreditation’s colossal failures here next time.

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