CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a brightly colored pamphlet handed to prospective students, the Art Institute of Charlotte claims that 88 percent of its 2008 grads got jobs at least six months after graduation "...in a field related to their program of study."
But some recent grads, armed with degrees from the Art Institute and saddled by tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, question those job placement numbers.
At a recent Open House, the Associate Dean of Admissions at the Art Institute, Christopher Ramsey, said a related field was "...not working at a restaurant. Not working at Applebee's."
But one 2008 graduate of the Arts Institute who studied graphic design, Nathan Lewis, says his first job was a part-time, minimum-wage position in the copy center of an Office Depot.
"It's kind of misleading when they give you these statistics," Lewis said. "Myself and other students were disillusioned."
Lewis does credit his career advisor at the school with later helping him find a position as a graphic artist by settling up interviews. He says he got a bachelor's degree and is stuck with about $90,000 in student debt.
The president of the Art Institute of Charlotte, Maurice Lee, declined to provide the names of any grads who made up the 88 percent job placement figure, citing federal privacy laws.
"The students have not authorized me to release that information to anybody," he said.
In 2007, the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, a sister school owned by the same company, proudly promoted the graduation of tennis star Venus Williams with a degree in fashion design.
The Art Institutes are owned by Education Management Corporation, a Pittsburgh company which claims 136,000 students at four different schools in a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing. In a time of high unemployment, many students turn to trade schools with the hopes that a degree is a ticket to a job. And net revenues for Education Management for the last quarter of 2009 were up more than 25 percent from the same quarter the previous year to $665 million.
But students at for-profit trade schools like the Art Institute are much more likely to drop out, incur more student debt and default on that debt than their counterparts at state and private schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
David Largeteau of Bessemer City went to the Art Institute for three years studying web design.
"With me and my parents combined we owe $60,000 to $70,000 and after all the interest it's going to be over $104,000," Largeteau said. "All I want is a job in my field."
Until questioned about it this week, the Art Institute placed a smiling photo of David Largeteau on its Web page under the caption, "Student Employment."
"Pretty much the ultimate irony," says Largeteau, who says the school never placed him in a job off-campus.
Institute President Maurice Lee said, "Just because he's on the employment page ... does not mean there's any relevance to the page."
According to the College Navigator, a Web site operated by the U.S. Department of Education, total expenses at the Art Institute of Charlotte now run more than $37,000 a year, more than twice what it costs to attend UNC Charlotte.
At the same time the student loan default rate at the Art Institute of Charlotte tops 11 percent -- more than five times the rate at UNC Charlotte.
"You're really looking at something, unfortunately, most borrowers are never going to be able to repay," said Deanne Loonin, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center in Boston. As far as the job statistics for trade schools are concerned, Loonin says, "The job placement data is self-reported and notoriously inaccurate."
Not only did David Largeteau have no job and big debt, in the last few weeks of his time at the Art Institute as he was trying to finish his portfolio, he says he had no housing, either.
"So I was living under a bridge trying to graduate," he said.
Largeteau led me to a sandy spot in the shadows of a bridge on Tyvola Road, just blocks from the Art Institute's campus.
"This is where I had a blanket I threw out over the dirt," he said. "The last few times in class I stuffed my bedding under my desk."
Now Largeteau is living in an apartment in Gaston County and working for the Census Bureau with hopes of paying down his sizeable student debt.
"At this point I'm so numb," he said. "It's just what else is there to do?"
Late Friday afternoon, the Art Institute released a statement to NewsChannel 36. Click here to read the full statement.