The Art Institute of Seattle's abrupt decision to close its doors Friday was a shock to many of its students and faculty, who were trying to get answers Thursday.
One day after the Art Institute of Seattle abruptly announced that it would close its doors for good at the end of this week, students there scrambled to secure transcripts and find out if they would be able to graduate.
Students and faculty said the news shocked them, because they’d been assured repeatedly that the Seattle campus, one of a group of Art Institutes nationwide, would not close. Art Institute campuses in dozens of cities — including Portland, Denver and San Francisco — shut down in October.
Some students from those shuttered campuses then transferred to Seattle — which has an enrollment of about 650 — because they were told this school would stay open, said Jackie Buttice, an adjunct faculty member who teaches graphic web design.
She said the school “had been in disarray for a while,” but that she always assumed students would be allowed to finish out the year. The Art Institute is on a quarter system, and the quarter ends in two weeks. The academic year ends in June.
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As of Thursday, it was unclear when and why the decision was made to shut down before the quarter ended. In a statement, Mark Dottore, receiver for Dream Center Education Holdings, said the company has been “working day and night since the institution entered into receivership to find the best path forward for students at The Art Institute of Seattle and are doing everything that we can to save the campus.”
The art school’s history in Seattle traces back to 1946, when it was a private school known as the Burnley School of Art. It was purchased by Education Management Corporation in the 1980s, and the name was changed to Art Institute of Seattle. EMC went bankrupt in 2017, and Dream Center Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit, bought the schools, only to claim in court filings that actual revenues were tens of millions of dollars below what EMC projected. In January, the Washington Student Achievement Council — a state regulatory and policy agency — notified the school’s Seattle director of its “at-risk” designation and prohibited it from enrolling new students.
Sara Alkhalifah, a student in graphic and web design, started three years ago at The Art Institute in Denver. When it closed in October, she transferred to Seattle. Now, she doesn’t know what to do.
Alkhalifah, who is from Saudi Arabia, said her family has spent thousands of dollars to send her to the U.S. for a degree. “I don’t know how to say this to my family,” she said. “They paid a lot. My father wanted to see me graduate in the U.S., and be proud.” Her family, she said, has already booked a flight for what was to be a June graduation ceremony.
If the campus is not acquired by another higher-education institution, or if another institution does not agree to “teach out” the programs, it will close Friday upon court approval, Dottore said. Under a teach-out agreement, Art Institute students would be allowed to finish their remaining degree requirements at another school. However, that option might not be available for all AI Seattle degree programs.
“We are working with students, accreditors, state regulators and the U.S. Department of Education to provide as many options as possible for students, to include transfer to another higher education institution or student loan discharge,” Dottore wrote.
Student Rayli Bruess, who is studying digital filmmaking and video production, said she’s supposed to graduate in two weeks.
Bruess, who is from Spokane, said the school seemed like a good choice when she moved to Seattle four years ago, but that it cut corners and declined in quality as the years went on. “They fired all of the program heads, and then the dean, and then the janitors,” she said. “We all had a feeling it was going downhill.”
She’s worried that a degree from The Art Institute won’t mean anything after the closures. “Companies will see it’s an Art Institute student and they’ll put our applications on the bottom of the pile now,” she said.
Buttice, the faculty member, said in recent weeks her classes have been making art about their experiences with depression and anxiety. The classes “have been turned into therapy — art therapy. You have to hear people cry and tell their story, because nobody else is listening.”
She said it’s “a mystery, honestly, what really happened” that led to the abrupt closure.
The Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) announced the closure Wednesday in order to give students a clear understanding of what was happening to the school, but WSAC Deputy Director Don Bennett also said he disagreed with Dream Center’s decision to close before the quarter ended. WSAC is planning information fairs for AI students on March 12 and 13, and is lining up area colleges and universities to help transfer credits, waive some graduation requirements and develop teach-out plans.
Last year, state legislators passed a bill that created a tuition trust fund for degree-granting schools such as AI Seattle. Under the legislation, if a school closes, students could get a refund of tuition they paid in advance. It’s similar to a trust fund administered by the Washington Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board for licensed private vocational schools.
However, the trust fund is not funded yet, so it’s not an option for current AI Seattle students in degree programs. WSAC spokeswoman Emily Persky said AI Seattle has posted a small surety bond for $50,000, and WSAC will determine how to distribute those funds to students in the school’s degree programs.
Staff reporter Neal Morton contributed reporting to this article.