The Art Institute — Portland was formerly known as Bassist College, a fashion design institution founded in 1963 by Portlanders Donald and Norma Bassist.

The Art Institute — Portland was formerly known as Bassist College, a fashion design institution founded in 1963 by Portlanders Donald and Norma Bassist.

April Baer/OPB

The Art Institute of Portland has marketed itself online as a vibrant piece of Portland’s storied creative landscape: a launch pad for jobs in design, tech, fashion, cuisine and film. For some students, like Patrick LaValley who grew up in East Portland, an environment full of so many creative people was heady stuff.

“I didn’t go downtown a lot,” LaValley says, of his time at AI-Portland. “And hanging out down there was cool.”

But walking into class at the soon-to-close Art Institute was not really like entering other college campuses.

“The campus is a little wonky and felt antiseptic at times,” according to Kyle Glenn. He lives in Oakland now but he and LaValley graduated together from the Institute in 2008.

“It was three floors of an office building in the Pearl District in downtown Portland,” Glenn remembers. “And one half of it was the open space, this unfinished part.”

If the classroom setting was a kind of underwhelming, Glenn and LaValley both say AI’s instructors were well-qualified and invested in helping students.
 
They both say they got what they needed out of their AI experience, mostly through social connections they made. LaValley works in Portland’s film industry as a camera assistant, a veteran of shows like NBC’s “Grimm” and the Netflix series, “Everything Sucks.” Glenn is a videographer in the Bay Area.

“Four of us started a production company [working together from] 2008 to 2012,” he said. He went on to start his own company.

Their own success notwithstanding, LaValley says they were definitely aware that some fellow students felt sore about what they were getting for their $17,000 a year in Art Institute of Portland tuition.

“I certainly know a lot of people there who were unhappy with their time there,” he says. “The high tuition was a huge part of why they were unhappy.” Also, in his experience, AI offered little or no post-graduation job placement advice or steering.

The Art Institute has reported substantially lower retention rates for first-time students than Portland State University, Clackamas Community College or PCC.

AI-Portland’s original owner is a 56-year-old Pennsylvania company, Education Management Corporation. In the past five years, EDMC paid a $95 million settlement and forgave over $100 million in student loans to settle a multi-state lawsuit. While the company admitted no wrongdoing, the initial filing details the company’s recruitment of thousands of students — even ones with little chance of college success, to plump its enrollment numbers and garner more federal student aid money.

This month, it declared bankruptcy, but not before selling off more than 100 schools in a $60 million deal.

Last year EDMC sold more than 100 schools, including AI-Portland, to another firm — this one a nonprofit: Dream Center Education Holdings. A former Christian missionary organization with California roots, it stemmed from a Southern California Assemblies of God ministry — a Pentecostal denomination — before expanding into higher education.

But the deal, while approved by the Department of Education, suffered a major setback this winter. Several of the regional nonprofits charged with overseeing academic standards at colleges across the U.S. decided in January to defer decisions on the schools’ accreditation. If these boards don’t find a college in good standing, work performed at that college won’t be accepted at other institutions. Getting the Dream Center schools back in good standing could take years.

In late June, Dream Center made the decision to close more than 20 schools, including AI-Portland.

Dream Center’s statement says the move is meant to support students in the programs that are still viable. But it’s leaving students like game designer Haneen Bakhashawain in the lurch.

A citizen of Saudi Arabia, she came to AI-Portland specifically on the strength of its game design track.

“I left my country, my family, everything to study,” she said. “Three terms before I graduate, the school decides to close.”

Bakhashawain is on a scholarship, which limits her choice of schools. There aren’t many colleges teaching digital game design in Oregon, so it’s likely, she said, she’ll need to go somewhere in California. If she goes, because AI’s accreditation stands in limbo, most of her course work won’t transfer with her.

If she’d known all this was coming before summer break, Bakhashawain said she could have gone home, applied for a new school and a new visa. Now she’s afraid to do that; her initial student visa has run out, and she’s remaining on a shorter-term permit that won’t allow her to travel internationally. She thinks she may not see her family for several years.

“I’m really stressed out. I’m so stressed out all I do is cry at home. I was trying to figure out the whole apartment leasing thing, and now I have to find out where I’m going to stay and what school is going to accept me and it’s a really long process,” she said.

Some students with majors like film or graphic design might choose to transfer to schools like Portland State University or Clackamas Community College. Again, there’s the accreditation problem. But Pacific Northwest College of Art and others say they’re ready to look at creative portfolios, and offer some credit for artistic proficiency.

AI’s announcement is just part of what’s roiling the waters of Oregon higher education this summer. In May, Marylhurst University’s board announced it will close this fall, ending 125 years in operation. The state’s restructuring of tuition assistance has kicked off some discussion about whether state assistance is tilting in favor of public schools, specifically community colleges.

Karen Marrongelle is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Portland State University. Her school is doing some outreach with students from the shuttered schools. She says it could be a good fit for some displaced from AI-Portland.

“Some of the places where we overlap, these have been some of our strongest programs. Similarly in technology, especially computer science, anything to do with software, creative computing.”

She won’t rule out some impact from changes in the state’s higher education structure, but she thinks the cyclical enrollment changes as the economy waxes and wanes may have been more of a factor on colleges, including the two Oregon colleges that closed within the past six months.

“Nationally, we saw a peak in college enrollment in 2010. Last several years we’ve seen declines. We do know that when the economy’s good, enrollment can struggle … We’re in a really good economy. When jobs are plentiful that’s when people slow down their education.”

Don Tuski is president of another downtown academic engine: Pacific Northwest College of Art. He says there’s no lack of interest in a creative education.

“There really is a need for independent art and design schools,” Tuski said. “We know society wants more creativity.”

But he suggests for-profit schools may be lacking three factors traditional colleges always take into account.

“I’ve been in higher education my whole career. This is my second art college. I pay attention to enrollment, operations and fundraising.”

In addition to its outreach to AI students, Tuski says, PNCA is preparing for a record-setting crop coming this fall, with more than 600 students enrolled.