The Nightmarish End of the Dream Center’s Higher-Ed Empire

For decades the Art Institute of Seattle was a fixture of the city’s picturesque downtown waterfront. But in recent months, things got ugly.  

In the fall, the institute’s parent organization, Dream Center Education Holdings, laid off almost all of the college’s full-time professors — a drastic cut accompanied by staff reductions at other Art Institute campuses around the country. In January, students at the Seattle campus’s culinary-arts program lost their teaching kitchen after the college was kicked out of the building by its landlord.

During the past few weeks, the campus operated without its janitorial staff. Garbage piled up in the bathrooms.

Through it all, top officials at the Seattle campus continued to tell students that everything would be OK. It was a pattern repeated at Dream Center locations around the country, where students were reassured despite obvious and escalating problems.

On Friday, it all came crashing down. Dream Center campuses around the country closed. The Art Institute of Seattle was one of them. Also closing: locations of Argosy University, another chain operated by Dream Center, which specialized in graduate programs. A small number of Art Institute campuses have been sold and will remain open.

Many college chains have gone out of business in recent years, but Dream Center’s empire died in a particularly cruel way. And there were numerous red flags and irregularities that surrounded its demise. More details are likely to be revealed on Monday, when the Education Department and Dream Center’s court-appointed receiver are expected to appear before a federal judge.  

Exactly how many campuses and students are affected by Friday’s closures is unclear. Dream Center’s colleges enroll about 26,000 students, according to a New York Timesreport. The collapse has displaced many of them. Not only do students feel they were misled about the risk of closure, but Argosy officials are accused of improperly keeping nearly $13 million in financial-aid money that was supposed to be distributed. Students counted on that money to pay for rent or groceries. In addition to losing their colleges, many also lost their financial footing.

“We have been defrauded out of these funds,” said a former Argosy student, Kendrick Harrison, a disabled Iraq war veteran with six children who never received his financial-aid stipend of several thousand dollars. Harrison faces the prospect of his car’s being repossessed and his family’s being evicted from its home. That would mean switching his children to new schools in the middle of the school year.

“It’s not my intent not to pay my landlord,” he said. “There was a system of robbery here.”

A day before the closures, David Schreiber, the campus director at the Art Institute of California’s Hollywood location, heard from the local police. Two students had been caught stealing a couple of industrial sewing machines from the college. An instructor at the college had texted students to say that it planned to sell the equipment for pennies on the dollar, Schreiber said.

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