Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The tagline “Create Tomorrow” appears on the door to the Art Institute of Las Vegas.
That tomorrow is in jeopardy for the hundreds of students paying about $90,000 in tuition to prepare for dream jobs in fashion, film, animation, visual design, interior design, gaming and culinary arts.
Financial troubles have brought the Art Institute to its knees. Parent company Dream Center Education Holdings notified the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education that it intends to close the institute by March 31.
But a miracle might still occur. The court-appointed receivership could keep the doors open long enough for a buyer with deeper pockets to save the day.
“We’re like the rest of the world — we’re waiting to see what happens,” says Kelly Wuest, administrator for the Nevada Commission of Postsecondary Education, who added that when she receives new information, she'll post it on the commission’s website, cpe.nv.gov. “Hopefully, if something goes wrong, we’re able to make [students] whole, give refunds and help them find good programs.”
This isn’t the first of the problems for the school located in Henderson. It was already under censure from its accrediting organization, ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools), for a campus-level job placement rate of 49 percent, 11 percentage points below the standard.
As part of a “show cause,” the campus was given a corrective action plan and is required to submit quarterly accountability reports. If it doesn’t improve, it could lose accreditation. That is, if it continues to exist.
Calls to various numbers at the Art Institute went unanswered and unreturned. The phone number for Academic Affairs & Student Services, for example, leads to a Verizon wireless message saying that “the called party is temporarily unavailable.” Efforts to reach Dream Center Education Holdings were also unsuccessful.
Heartbreak for Students
Some students stopped attending classes when news of the impending closure broke last week. Others press forward, finishing out the current quarter even though their credits may not count toward anything. (Only currently attending students are eligible for refunds through the state.)
Angie Miner is one such dedicated student. A proud member of the dean’s list, she was on track to earn a bachelor's degree in game art and design. Now she’s hoping to find an online program that offers similar instruction. No equivalent degree exists in Nevada.
“It’s my absolute favorite thing and now it’s all going to be taken away,” Miner says. She describes the Art Institute as a “utopia for nerds,” a place where she finally fits in and where there’s no bullying.
On Thursday afternoon, Miner attended a painting club with a handful of other students. The club meets in the life drawing classroom, an area that is still full of inspiration and possibility: Bulletin boards double as impromptu gallery space featuring impressive student-drawn portraits; a model skeleton holds a paintbrush and sports a toothy grin; easels form a half circle around a platform for live models — today the platform holds art supplies.
In this rarefied space, the students sketched or oil painted, commiserated over their interrupted education and discussed contingency plans for the future. They wondered what would happen to the furniture and the library books.
When she first heard the news of the possible closure, Miner says she felt numb, only accepting the direness of the situation when she saw the lights off in administration offices. The organization has already had massive layoffs, leaving only instructors, security and a few others.
“Printers are breaking down and they’re not even bothering to fix them,” Miner says. “Once it clicked, I started crying because I absolutely love this school. ... Video game art is the only thing I’m willing to do. I don’t want to go to regular college; I want to study video game art.”
She plans to keep in contact with her teachers from the Art Institute, some of whom have offered to continue giving art lessons outside school.
“Closing the school would have disastrous consequences for the students,” says Kelly Knox, an adjunct instructor at the institute and paint club mentor.
He’s been teaching for 20 years and does his best to help his students navigate the unusual situation. There’s little to be done, so he refers them to the “one administrator still at the campus.”
In the meantime, he’s busy assigning midterm grades and “teaching the classes remaining this quarter to a dwindling number of students.” For his own part, job insecurity has forced him to move — “even if the school remains open.”
One bright spot: Knox is organizing a mural project for his students that’s independent of the fate of the school.
Picking up the Pieces
As a veteran and recipient of the GI Bill, Chris Okubo was one of the first to get official word of the school’s planned demise.
“It’s been a slow, weird trickle of information,” says the 25-year-old game-design student and former Army medic. Okubo had been hoping to graduate with a full video game for his portfolio. Now he plans to find other avenues to reach his dreams. “But as a veteran, you have to wait until the school is officially closed,” Okubo says, “otherwise I have to pay my tuition back to the VA.”
The Nevada Commission of Postsecondary Education is preparing transfer agreements in case of the institute’s closure. It’s a painstaking process that will take weeks because negotiations involve institutions, multiple accrediting bodies and a variety of curricula that doesn’t always translate.
“Some degrees are more difficult [to transfer] than others,” Wuest said. “The Art Institute has very unique programs for Nevada. There are some programs that nobody else does.”
The negotiation process starts locally and then fans out nationally. When it’s complete, the Nevada commission will host a transfer fair. If the Art Institute remains open, the transfer capability will be an added bonus.
Students and faculty are taking up grassroots efforts to keep the institute alive. A change.org petition to “Save the Art Institute of Las Vegas” has garnered 3,654 signatures. A GoFundMe campaign has raised $570 to help save the institute via legal action.
No matter what happens, the stakes are high.
“When you shut something down, it ends up harming students,” Wuest says. “Nevada will lose programs. We’ll have things that just won’t be taught in the state.”