Staff and students say that even before the layoffs, management had let the school stagnate. Its academic success is under the microscope, and its owners plan to close 18 other campuses this year.
Students returned to The Art Institute of Seattle this fall to find some classes canceled, as 10 of 13 full-time teachers had just been laid off.
The Art Institutes, a group of art colleges nationwide, have been plagued with performance and financial troubles. Dream Center Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit, acquired the schools from the bankrupt for-profit Education Management Corporation last year. Of the 31 Art Institutes campuses currently open, 18 will close by the end of the year, including the Portland campus. The Dream Center also acquired South University and Argosy University last year.
The layoffs come as the Washington Student Achievement Council, which oversees degree authorization and financial-aid eligibility for schools in the state, is considering designating the Seattle school an “at-risk” institution, council policy spokesperson Emily Persky said. This classification would allow the council to impose restrictions on new programs and even suspend or withdraw the school’s authorization to operate.
A Dream Center spokesperson said in an email the changes were made to better align the company with “its mission to provide students with accessible, affordable, relevant and purposeful education” and resulted in the elimination of less than three percent of employees. It was unclear whether the spokesperson meant for the Seattle campus or Art Institutes nationwide, as she did not respond to attempts to contact her over six days, but according to a list of affected positions distributed to employees, the cuts affected 15 percent of staff at the Seattle campus.
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The Seattle campus, which had 857 students in fall 2017, will remain “a vital source for creative professionals,” the spokesperson said. But staff and students say that even before this most recent round of layoffs, management had let the school stagnate, neglecting to retain staff or keep vital equipment working. Some students said these conditions aren’t worth the $22,000 a year they pay in tuition and fees.
The school is primarily staffed with adjunct or part-time instructors. There were 76 at the time of layoffs, according to the lists of affected and unaffected employees. No part-time instructors were let go in this round of layoffs.
Richard Shaw, a former photography adjunct, resigned in March after 20 years of teaching at the Art Institute. He had hoped the change in ownership would lead to more investment in the campus, but continued to find himself spending more time fixing equipment than teaching, he said.
“I cannot, in good conscience, continue to be a part of an organization that takes money from students and doesn’t deliver on the educational promises we make,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
The new campus director, Lindsey Morgan, hosted town-hall meetings with faculty and staff this week. Morgan, a former dean at an Art Institute campus that will soon close, came to Seattle after the Seattle school’s president and dean of education departed. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Of the students who started at The Art Institute of Seattle as full-time, first-time students in fall 2011, only 31 percent graduated with an associate degree within three years or a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A three-year analysis of student borrowers found that 14 percent defaulted on their loans, compared to the national average of 10.8 percent. Ten years after they entered the school, the median salary of former students who had received federal financial aid is $35,600, according to federal data. In comparison, University of Washington students made a median salary of $57,700.
The Washington Student Achievement Council has concerns about recent closures of other schools owned by Dream Center, and also about the Seattle campus’ ability to offer online courses and the recent layoffs, Persky said. It did not renew the school’s approval to receive state funding for financial aid, a decision based on the school’s enrollment, graduation rate, financial health and students’ ability to find jobs and pay back loans.
The campus is authorized to offer degree programs through April 2020, but must meet state criteria to continue operating beyond that point.
The school underwent an accreditation review in the spring, and is under review as part of the change in ownership. Mac Powell, a senior fellow with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, said the school has been meeting with the commission regarding “unresolved issues.”