Sunday, March 02, 2008

Class Action Suit

I went to Brooks Institute of Photography for about 9 months, or a third of their visual journalism program. Then I dropped out. It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made; I felt like a failure. I'd just been accepted to the school trip to Costa Rica, I was working part-time at the school computer lab and at Barnes and Noble, and I was deeply conflicted. I was not learning enough to justify what I was spending.

In my initial tour of campus and subsequent application, I was assured there'd be no problem finding loans, grants, and scholarships. It's my own fault that I wasn't more cynical, but I guess I wanted to believe and they were certainly willing to lie to me. Eventually I found a private loan to help pay for school, and it was a variable rate that would later rise and rise... Tuition was around $3000 every couple of months, plus camera equipment and film expenses, which for just one class was about $3000. I didn't mind it in that class though, it was the only one I learned anything technical.

I was accepted the same day I applied, without them ever seeing one of my photographs. That should have made me more suspicious. Later I felt I was accepted as soon as my check cleared.

My main instructor was smart and experienced and I liked him. The secondary instructor I never felt comfortable with. And more of my classes were being taught by him. Also, I made a mistake in choosing to study visual journalism. It was a brand new program and it was not as rigorous as the more established programs. Thus I found myself wandering around outside trying to find a feature that would never be used, when what I really wanted was technique.

It's true, I already had a Bachelors degree, but they didn't account for that. I had to take all the general education courses just like everyone else. I couldn't test out of them and finish the program at a different rate. That mildly irritated me, but not as much as the other things.

Basically one day I did the math. I realized at the rate I was spending, I'd be in $100,000 of debt by the time I finished. Then I looked up how much a beginning photo journalist could make. And I cried. Granted, I should have done this much much sooner, but it was so easy to want to believe what you're being told by people you trust are more experienced. I remember, vividly, walking through the Montecito campus and our tour guide casually pointing at an iceberg photo on the wall. "That photo has earned one of our instructors at least $400,000 in licensing alone." It was implied this was a common occurrence. I should have asked right then: Why is he still teaching if he's made all this money? Why isn't he on a beach somewhere?

The $20,000 I spent at Brooks taught me more about doing due diligence than it did about the art of photography.

So now there's a class action suit, and the school is being forced to be more honest in their statements. Apparently I was not the only one who was misled.

Do I believe I wouldn't have attended if I knew the real cost of my schooling (rising private loan rates and zero opportunity for other funding)? It would have given me pause and if I had still attended, I would have switched to a more reliable program. Also, the tuition rates went up while I was there, so they were never really open about how much it would cost in general.

The truth is, I was so devastated by my experience at Brooks, I didn't pick up my camera for another two years. I'm just starting to enjoy photography again. It helps that I've finally paid off my high interest loan. Also, the only job I could find when I left Brooks was around $27,000 per year, and that was just plain tough, living in Santa Barbara. I'm happy to say I've since rebounded.

It's an odd thing to talk about Brooks. Some good memories there, but mostly I came away with disappointment, in myself and the school administration. When I went in to ask for help finding other funding options, I was ignored.

If you are considering attending Brooks and have made your way here, I would just suggest you do a whole lot of research. I found out later that the school had been sold to a corporation not too long before I started attending, so there's no way I could have known its real track record. But be prepared for huge bills, and working very hard to create your own financial opportunities. Chances are you'll have to subsidize your photography by working in unrelated fields. For what it's worth, I recommend technical writing.

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