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Black Arts: The $800 Million Family Selling Art Degrees and False Hopes

Since taking over as president of the family-owned Academy of Art University more than two decades ago, Elisa Stephans transformed the 86-year-old for-profit Academy of Art University from a regional operation into America’s largest private art university. Under her watch enrollment has skyrocketed from 2,200 to 16,000, generating an estimated $300 million in annual revenues, heavily subsidized by federal student loans.

The Stephens family has turned that pile of art-school tuition into one of the largest real estate empires in San Francisco, with more than 40 properties in prime areas, including a historic former cannery on Fisherman’s Wharf and a 138,000-square-foot office building steps from City Hall. In all, the real estate is worth an estimated $420 million, net of debt, and the family pulls in tens of millions of dollars each year leasing these buildings back to the Academy of Art for classrooms and dorms.

But behind the shiny façade is a less than lustrous business: luring starry-eyed art students into taking on massive amounts of debt based on the “revolutionary principle” (Stephens’ phrase) that anyone can make a career as a professional artist. No observable talent is required to gain admission to AAU. The school will accept anyone who has a high school diploma and is willing to pay the $22,000 annual tuition (excluding room and board), no art portfolio required.

It would be easy to accuse AAU of being a diploma mill, except the school doesn’t manufacture many diplomas. Just 32% of full-time students graduate in six years, versus 59% for colleges nationally, and that rate drops to 6% for online-only students and 3% for part-time students. (Selective art schools like the Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons graduate 90% of their students; see “Why Art School Can Be A Smart Career Move.”) The few AAU students who manage to collect a degree are often left to their own devices in finding employment in a related field. In marketing itself to dreamy prospects, the school touts its success at placing students at Pixar, Apple and Electronic Arts. But the morning shift at the local Starbucks is just as likely for some students. That and a mountain of debt. In the 2013-14 academic year 55% of the school’s roughly 10,700 undergraduates had federal student loans totaling $45 million.