School of Hard Knocks

Former students of a local high-tech graphics training program paid up to $25,000 for their diplomas. Many say they didn't get the education they were promised. The school dismissed their complaints; state and federal authorities didn't.

Robert Allen left the School of Communication Arts in Minneapolis with a diploma in his hand certifying the successful completion of SCA's program in Computer Art and Animation. The 43-year-old truck driver, who was having so much trouble with the class that he would have dropped out immediately if any part of his tuition had been refundable, couldn't have been more stunned to have this degree conferred on him.

"I tried to stick it out," says Allen, "but I was flunking and not meeting any of the requirements. Graduation rolls around and I'm nowhere near being complete. We're all lined up and they give us these folders, so I'm thinking that there's going to be a letter in mine saying, 'You haven't completed this, you don't get your diploma.' Well, there's my diploma that says I'm a graduate from this course. My instructor didn't even turn in these grades until six weeks after the graduation, so how did I get a diploma without a grade? I got a B and have no idea how I got it."

Roberta Jensen, who recently completed SCA's program in computer graphic design, is also at a loss to explain how the school decided who had earned a diploma. "We got a new instructor two weeks before we were supposed to graduate. He didn't know our work or understand the point system that we had been graded on by our previous instructor, Deb Salstrom. He finally told us that he didn't believe in grades and he gave us all As," she says.

Cory Rasmussen

Jensen and Allen's accounts wouldn't usually raise an eyebrow. As SCA administrators are eager to point out, students sometimes have unrealistic and confused expectations regarding their academic performance. But these stories happen to corroborate federal and state findings that charge the school with erratic admission policies, fiscal irresponsibility, misrepresentation, and the falsification of records.

Housed in a nondescript building just off a service road alongside Highway 7 in Minneapolis, SCA is a private vo-tech school that promises its 400-plus students a variety of programs to prepare them for careers in high-tech graphic-arts fields. Students, who shell out anywhere from $25,000 for a two-year program to $6,690 for a six-month certificate, are supposed to have access to cutting-edge computers and software packages and are supposed to emerge ready to go to work. But last February, the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office notified SCA of its decision not to renew the school's license based on findings that the school provided "false and misleading information" to the state and to prospective students and failed to provide appropriate facilities. Soon after the state announced the license revocation, SCA owner and President Roger Klietz received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education stating that it planned to terminate the school's eligibility to receive federal funds because a routine federal review indicated a serious failure to meet "standards of administrative capability and financial responsibility"; fines were set at $145,000 and the agency demanded repayment of nearly $2 million in federal funds that it felt were misused by SCA.

As one example of its concerns about SCA's fiscal practices, the Education Department cites the case of SCA employee Susan Winge. In August 1991, Klietz sued Winge in Hennepin County District Court, claiming she had embezzled anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 in her post as a bookkeeper. "Today, Susan Winge confessed to me that she embezzled from the company," Klietz wrote in an affidavit. "She admitted forging my signature on those [company] checks." SAC voluntarily dismissed the case seven months later, before it came to trial. Winge, who reportedly repaid some of the money, was subsequently appointed the school's director of financial aid.

"I made a mistake but I talked to them [SCA Vice President Kathy Dale and Klietz] about it," Winge said in a recent interview. "I made good on it and they do trust me." After the federal audit, Winge was removed from the position of director of financial aid and made the assistant to the director, with Dale assuming the director's position in what Winge called "a measure taken by Kathy Dale to appease the feds."

There is much at stake in the resolution of these contentions, not the least of which is the value of the degrees. The 40-page letter from the Education Department details several charges, including instances of altering student attendance and grade records, failure to submit proper reports, failure to maintain accurate accounting records, and the usage of commissions, bonuses, and other incentives by SCA to recruit students, a serious breach of its program participation agreement, and a practice to which SCA admitted.

Federal findings that SCA paid staff bonuses for signing new students as well as other "recruitment incentives" goes a long way toward explaining the plight of Robert Allen and other students who sensed major discrepancies in the school's admissions policies. Although SCA's catalog states that student candidates "must have completed the program in Computer Art and Animation, or demonstrate substantial animation skills through a computer animation portfolio" in order to enter the 3D Computer Animation program, Allen, for instance, was shooed through the door without any of these prerequisites.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

At that time I believed this article was part of a smear campaign against our institution which was attempting to do nothing more than deliver on the mission I spoke of above. I stand by this belief today, over sixteen years later. When reading this article without context what it alleges appears shocking. However, I provide the following information to help provide a more accurate lens to view this article from.

Please keep in mind, all students enrolled at our institution were graded according to the procedures and policies in place at the time. These procedures were the duty of our then Director of Education and other staff to follow. We were, at the time, a relatively "new kid on the block." Along the way we made mistakes, but the institution always had the best intentions of our students at the front of the administrative decisions we made. Many of the statements made in the article, while based on some morsel of truth, are without doubt sensational and exaggerative in nature. When concerns were actually brought to the attention of administration, the institutions staff were expected to act according to its published policies and procedures at the time to correct any issues.

Consider the following extract from the article:

“ ‘We just didn't have the students signing up for the classes so I laid these guys off,’ he says. Manthei calls instructor Todd Crooks, who also claims that his firing followed pressure from school officials about the investigation, a ‘conspiracy-monger and a jailhouse-lawyer type,’ blaming him for stirring up anti-administration sentiment among students. ‘After I gave Todd his 30-day notice, he went into the classroom and started spouting off about all this foolishness and passing out private documents to students.’ ”

The truth of the matter is that faculty were employed on a term-by-term basis. There was nothing hidden or sinister about this. All new faculty were made aware of this fact and were employed on this basis. While we do our best to retain faculty, if the institution did not have classes to be taught then the faculty members contract was not renewed. This is a prime example of how truth can be used to spin mistruth.

In all instances where inferior practices were identified the institution has now corrected its former practices, which were admittedly inferior, to be in alignment with its licensing, accreditation and regulatory bodies. As we did then, we continue to strive to adhere to these rules and provide the best educational environment for our students to become gainfully employed, productive members of society and to fulfill their professional dreams.

As a final note:
The article was never updated with the final resolutions of either federal or state level cases. Also, the paper in which the article appeared, is a small weekly publication. The leading mainstream newspaper in the Minneapolis area, the Minneapolis Tribune had no interest in reporting any related “news” on the school. In the end, the suit for wrongful termination of Moye failed to find the school responsible on whistle blower charges. A freedom of information request by the school provoked an inflammatory letter sent by Minnesota official Paul Thomas to government regulators. The court records reveal that Thomas and Moye were in established contact on Moye’s plan to assist in opening a competitive school.