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.

"I took a tour of the school and was led to believe that it was a very simplified course," he explains. "I had none of the prerequisites, no art training, no animation training, no graphics training. There was no room for me in what I thought was the introductory course, so Darcy Cross, my 'guidance counselor,' asked me if I would wait 'til September to start. I said, 'No, either you take me now in this class or I'll go to Brown Institute.' So Darcy gave me a little test on a little piece of paper, draw a straight line here or there," he continues. "At this point I didn't really want to go there, so I attempted to flunk the test. I never saw my test again after it was taken out of the room. Darcy came back in 15 minutes and said I'd passed and that he'd found me a spot.

"I get home that evening and call him back and say, 'Hey, there's been a mistake, I'm in the more advanced class instead of the introductory class.' He tells me not to worry about it because the first class is just introductory and I know DOS commands. I got in there on the first day of class and figured out I was in the wrong spot, it was much more advanced. There were people in there who were artists along with guys like me in there who couldn't tell you one end of the pencil from the other."

If Allen he had been a more wary consumer, he says, he would have seen the problems right from the start. Making matters worse, he says, his instructor seemed unprepared to deal with students with different levels of expertise. "There really wasn't any curriculum," he explains. "Nobody knew what to teach, and pretty soon our instructor was teaching by the seat of his pants. He'd go home at night and whip up something for the next morning or we'd go through something he'd thought of in class. It was a big mess."

Cory Rasmussen

Dozens of students echo Allen's feelings of resentment, with their complaints ranging from not receiving job-placement assistance to not getting the instruction, curriculum, and use of materials and facilities promised them in their contracts with the school. The situation is so bad, one local lawyer currently in negotiation with SCA on behalf of several students who want tuition refunds refused to go on the record about his clients' cases. The exposure, he fears, could encourage other student complaints. "It could quite easily turn into a class-action suit, which might force the school into Chapter 11," he says. "If everybody complains, the claims will be so high that the school wouldn't be able to pay, and I'm not in this for the exercise of it."

"There is no question that the school has serious problems," says Jason Kliewer, who expects to graduate in February. "I went into computer art and animation after taking the prerequisite computer graphic design and was a little surprised to find people in there who had never used a computer before in their lives. It seemed like there were different prerequisites--basically whatever it took to fill the class."

Students with complaints, administrators say, are malcontents, and in some cases are being used as pawns in SCA's increasingly thorny tangle of legal troubles. That's how administrators dismissed a letter of itemized grievances sent in July to the private, nonprofit Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology by a group of SCA photography students. In their letter, the students charged that they were "completely dissatisfied and disappointed with the level of education" they had received, were stuck with extremely limited access to facilities and defective equipment, and had been charged different tuition prices for the same course.

SCA responded that the students' complaints to the accrediting agency were part of an organized vendetta prompted by the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office, which it alleged was out to get the school. "I believe that the students who made this complaint have been coached by Paul Thomas of MHESO in order to facilitate his continuing vendetta against SCA's president, Roger Klietz," Mike Manthei, then the school's director of education, responded. "This is a rather convoluted issue and is even more obfuscated by MHESO's involvement." The students, most of whom had never spoken to Paul Thomas, were baffled by this response.

Serious students, avers the school's Vice President Kathy Dale, wouldn't have time to complain because they would be busy doing their school work. As an example, she points to Jennifer Sealy, a computer-graphics and animation student who spent two years and $23,000 getting her degree. In June, Sealy waved her diploma in front of a KMSP Channel 9 reporter during that station's investigation of the school, griping, "I got this piece of paper out of it, but that's about all." Klietz dismisses KMSP's piece as "yellow and extravagant journalism."

"Sealy didn't voice one concern while she was here," Klietz says. He describes her as "a mediocre student at best," adding that in his opinion, Sealy was prompted to speak badly about the school by disgruntled ex-instructors.

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