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.

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