Sudden closure of visual arts school leaves students in the lurch

The Brooks Institute, a for-profit Ventura visual arts school, is shutting down immediately, amid questions from students, faculty and alumni. 

Brooks abruptly stopped enrolling students and announced that classes won’t resume in the fall. 

“The campus will close completely, effective October 31, 2016,” transitions officer Kristen Howard wrote in a letter to students. She said Brooks would return tuition to those enrolled for the fall and help students transfer or find other schools at which to finish their programs.

At a series of meetings on Friday to inform faculty and students, attorney Aaron Lacey, a partner at the St. Louis-based firm Thompson Coburn, told them that enrollment had declined from about 2,500 students in 2005 to 250 students registered for fall 2016.

The school also faced regulatory hurdles and economic pressures, he said.

“We’ve attempted to mitigate this impact through contraction, strategic planning and innovation,” he said. “Our only remaining responsible course of action at this time is to proceed with closure.” 

Turmoil at the school had been evident, but the swift closure took many by surprise. For David Leighton, the school’s student life coordinator, who was getting his master’s degree in fine arts, it packed a triple punch. Leighton, who turned 26 on Saturday, said he felt “shattered.” He earned an undergraduate degree from Brooks and was one semester short of finishing his master’s. All at once, he lost his degree, his health insurance and his job.

“There were signs that an end was near,” Leighton said. “But none of the faculty or staff or administration had any idea it would be so sudden.”

The closure followed a swift series of blows: Last week, as the Ventura County Star reported, the school’s president was ousted and most of the trustees resigned. Plans to build a new downtown campus had stagnated.

At the school, which was founded 70 years ago, undergraduates could study such subjects as visual journalism, film, graphic design and professional photography. Graduate students could immerse themselves in photography or technical imaging. Undergraduate tuition could add up to about $80,000 without scholarships or loans.

Benjo Arwas, 30, said Brooks was the reason he came to America from Tel Aviv, Israel. After serving in the Israeli army, he did a Google search for the world’s best beach-side photography school. He found Brooks, which helped him get a visa, and he’s now enrolling for his green card. 

Arwas, who works as a photographer in Santa Monica, graduated from Brooks in 2013. He credits the school with launching his career. “Brooks destroyed you to make you better, almost like the Israeli military,” he said. 

Brooks has faced scrutiny over the years amid a nationwide push to ensure for-profit colleges were spending federal financial aid appropriately, educating students sufficiently to enable them to land jobs after graduation and not saddling them with crushing debts.

Matt Harbicht, president of the school’s alumni association, said he had gotten used to the school’s ups and downs. “There have been rumors about the school closing for 10 years now,” he said. “But somehow, the school just pulled through. This time, that didn’t happen.”

The school has faced numerous lawsuits and investigations relating to loans and hidden fees. In 2012, in response to a New York suit against its parent company, Brooks revealed that it had been overstating its job placement rate. The school was placed on the federal government’s list for increased financial oversight in March 2015 but has since been removed. Last summer, it was sold by Career Education Corp. to the Massachusetts-based Gphomestay.

Completion rates for the school’s various programs ranged from 3% to 40%, according to Brooks’ accreditor’s records from 2012. Some said many students dropped out as soon as they got full-time work.

Brooks did not respond to requests for comment Monday, and Lacey said he was not authorized to answer questions on the school’s behalf.

Students, meanwhile, are researching their options. “We are sort of school refugees,” Leighton said. “We hope other schools help us out.”

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com

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