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Photo Institute Faces Possible Closure Over Recruiting Claims

Times Staff Writer

A state consumer agency has threatened to shut down the Brooks Institute of Photography, a well-known school with campuses in Santa Barbara and Ventura, for allegedly lying to students about the amount of help they could expect from the school in finding jobs and about the amount of money they could make.

After a review that included an undercover visit, the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education told Brooks to prepare for closure in 2007 if it does not meet a number of conditions, including giving an undetermined sum in restitution to students who have attended since 1999.

Brooks officials, noting that the school is fully functioning, said Wednesday that they plan to challenge the findings at a public hearing.

“We welcome the opportunity to present the facts,” said Tracy Lorenz, a spokeswoman for Career Education Corp., the school’s Illinois-based owner. Lorenz said she could not comment on specific allegations in a 19-page letter that was sent by the agency last week to Greg Strick, the school’s president.

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Although still preliminary and subject to negotiation, the state’s action has rocked an institution that was founded in 1945 by Ernest H. Brooks, a former photographer for seed companies. Over the years, it has attracted students from around the globe and has been a center for specialties as diverse as underwater photography and the investigation of the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the burial cloth that was draped around the body of Jesus.

The state’s report also was another shot of bad news for Career Education Corp., which has been targeted in an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as by a number of lawsuits.

In its review, the state concluded that Brooks routinely inflated claims of its graduates’ success in order to draw new students. Posing as a fledgling photographer, an agency employee was told by an admissions counselor earlier this year that she could expect to make $50,000 to $150,000 in her first year out of school.

“The sky’s the limit,” the counselor told her, according to the state’s report.

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But agency officials contend that the limit is considerably lower, saying their investigation found that only 45 of the school’s 151 graduates from the class of 2003 are working full time. They make an average of about $26,000 and owe $74,000 in loans, according to the state’s report.

Brooks admissions counselors allegedly dangled job placement before prospective students, claiming that nearly all graduates found work right away. But state investigators called such claims part of “a pervasive pattern of misrepresentation,” citing experiences such as those of one disappointed graduate whom they did not identify.

Responding to an inquiry from the agency, the graduate wrote in an e-mail that “any job was counted as placement, even if it had nothing to do with photography.”

Lorenz, the Career Education spokeswoman, suggested that the state based at least some of its conclusions on too small a sample. According to the report, only 14 graduates from 2003 responded to an e-mail survey sent to them by investigators.

Accusations against Brooks surfaced in 2003 in complaints made public by a former registrar at the school, Cam van Wingerden. However, Career Education Corp. dismissed them as the work of a disgruntled ex-employee, and they also were seen as unfounded by Brooks’ private accrediting agency.

However, the charges were revisited during a routine review by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, a division of the state Department of Consumer Affairs.


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