Whoa. Forbes has not one but two pieces out today coming after the for-profit Academy of Art University and the multimillionaire Stephens family who have been running it for several generations. It's only been in the last two decades, though, that it's grown into the monster it is now, having had only 2,200 students enrolled back in 1992 and ballooning to 18,000 students at its peak in 2011.
One former teacher tells Forbes that despite the high enrollment numbers, which have dropped off a bit in recent years, a dismal percentage of students graduate with job placements in their fields. Vince De Quattro, who headed the school's online animation program from 2004 to 2011 calls to question the claim that 75 percent of students get placed in jobs "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.” This could spell problems for the school's accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which has scheduled a review of the school for next year.
Only 32 percent of full-time students graduate after six years, and that drops to 3 percent for part-time students (and 6 percent for online students). But still, students continue to take out loans to cover the $22,000 annual tuition.
With all that massive growth in enrollment the school also had to go hog-wild acquiring places to house and teach these students, and they notoriously have acquired over forty buildings across SoMa, downtown, and the Tenderloin, many of which are being used for purposes that run counter to existing zoning and planning code. (See the map.)
The Planning Commission has been decrying the AAU's violations for years now, and yet the school has done little rectify the situation, perhaps because they're obligated to keep their profit margin up. And now wealthy socialite and school president Elisa Stephens, whose grandfather founded the school for "advertising art" 86 years ago, says, "I don’t know what prompted somebody to wake up and see us finally. We’ve been here, and we haven’t been hiding out.” (It also seems as though Stephens thought Forbes just wanted to write a nice piece and make a video about her fabulous car collection and her wealth!)
There's been suspicion that former mayor Willie Brown and current Mayor Ed Lee have intervened to keep the AAU from facing any serious punishment, and so far, despite dozens of buildings out of compliance and over 20 hearings about AAU's misuse of properties, some of which were formerly rent-controlled housing, the university has only ever received one fine from the city of $420,000 for a single violation.
Also at issue is a draft Environmental Impact Report that the university and its attorneys were at work on for six years, which they finally submitted to the city back in February. It's expected to be finalized by next year but only addresses the school's real estate acquisitions since 2010, and therefore excludes some 28 buildings amassed since the 1990s.
The Forbes pieces point the finger squarely at Stephens, and point out how many expensive homes her family owns, and how she has a collection of 250 classic cars housed in the school's own "museum" (a nice write-off that benefits AAU's automobile design program).
And in all the years I've lived in this city watching the AAU grow, this is the first time a major publication has called them to task on several fronts, and highlighted the egregiousness of a family profiting gloriously on the backs of wide-eyed students who all just want to be creative professionals, and think this degree will help them.
Countdown to the blowback...3...2...1...