Art college network the Art Institutes abruptly closes its remaining campuses, shocking students and teachers

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Around 1,700 students have been left in the lurch after the Art Institutes, a network of for-profit art and design colleges, announced that its eight remaining campuses across the United States would permanently close by 30 September.

The news came suddenly. According to The New York Times, students and professors alike learned the news through a short email statement, followed by disconnected phone lines and curtailed semester schedules.

The Art Institutes have been plagued by mounting issues over the past decade, following a nearly $100m settlement with the Justice Department in 2015, a loss of accreditation in 2018 and diminished enrollment during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Department of Education, campuses will be closed in Austin, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, San Antonio, Tampa and Virginia Beach.

Deborah Obalil, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, a non-profit consortium, told the Times, “There are students who thought they were pursuing an education who are now going to be left out in the cold.”

The original Art Institute of Pittsburgh was founded in 1921, acquired by the company Education Management Corporation in 1970 and then expanded its scope to culinary arts, audio production, fashion design and more. Business boomed, eventually reaching a crest of $2.5bn in 2010, bolstered by $1.5bn in federal grants and student loans. At its height, the network of Art Institutes included more than 40 campuses across the US and in Canada. Often marketed as a cheaper alternative to more prestigious four-year institutions, Art Institute degrees could be obtained for about $90,000, less than half of the typical cost of a BFA from a more prestigious art school.

In 2015, Education Management Corporation paid a $95m settlement to the Justice Department over claims of illegal recruiting and consumer fraud. Two years later, the faith-based non-profit Dream Center Educational Holdings acquired the schools. Soon after, both parties settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that the Art Institutes had misled prospective students about the accreditation status of its colleges. Almost 20 Art Institutes locations closed in 2018 after losing accreditation. Now, the only eight remaining locations are shuttering.

Federal rules requiring educational institutions to provide students with resources for degree completion after a closure do not apply to all for-profit schools, and while the Education Department has proposed a rule change to include for-profit schools within the guidelines, that shift will not go into effect until July 2024. Consequently, Art Institutes students have few recourses beyond the services offered in the closing announcement.

Many students and teachers sounded off online about the sudden closures. Anne Perry, an instructor who said she has taught at the Art Institute in Dallas for 17 years, posted on Facebook that she would “grieve over its fate”.

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