Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California has allegedly been conducting misleading recruitment practices by promising students they could earn between $50,000 to $150,000 in photography after graduation. According to a recent investigation by California's Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education the school was given a conditional operating status after it was found to have "willfully" misled students to believe that they could find high paying jobs in the field among completion of their program.
The New York Times reported that the 60-year-old trade school had been under investigation for some time by the bureau and had sent an undercover investigator to the school. According to the newspaper:
The California bureau, in addition to finding violations in Brooks's records, sent an employee to the school, posing as a prospective student. The report said she was told that she could expect her starting salary to be "$50,000 to $150,000" in her first year after graduation from Brooks - enough to pay off the debt she would take on as a student. "The sky's the limit," the admissions official said of her prospects, according to the report.
But the bureau's examination of Brooks's records found not one 2003 graduate at any degree level whose reported wages and employment tenure were enough to generate even $50,000 of earning potential.
Indeed, of the 45 graduates reported by Brooks as employed full time, the average income was about $26,000, the report said. The average indebtedness of this group was around $74,000.
In the official report, not only did Brook's officials mislead students by projecting high salaries, but they also presented false information on the availability of jobs.
In order for the school to continue operating under conditional approval, Brooks must now return an unspecified amount of money back to all students enrolled since 1999. According to The New York Times, the payoff to students could amount to between $21 - $43 million, which would be a drop in the bucket considering that Brook's parent company Career Education Corporation earned more than $300 million last year alone.
It is not clear which of the various programs offered by Brooks were investigated, but anyone connected to visual journalism understands that competition for entry level jobs is extremely intense and the salary poor, especially at small weeklies and dailies. Brooks began its visual journalism program in 2001 and some observers claim more than 300 students are enrolled in courses at any one time.
Daniel Sato, a former visual journalism student at Brooks, confirms in his blog what the investigation now makes clear:
I was told by the admissions adviser that Brooks had a high graduation rate and an excellent job placement rate, finding jobs for 90% of its graduates. With tuition costing around three to four thousand dollars every two months, job placement and average salary was a question that was in the front of everyone's mind heading in to Brooks.
It is hard to imagine where all the graduates from the Brooks program will go to find work in a field with seemingly limited opportunities for employment. The National Press Photographer's website lists about 50 universities with photojournalism program across the country. With student enrollment in the emphasis ranging between 20 and 150, depending on the institute, there are far more students graduating than there are opportunities for them in the field at present.
According to the Education Portal, in 2002 the "Median annual salaries of waged photographers was $24,040 according to the Bureau of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook."
As an educator, one of the most difficult discussions I face having with my students is what they will do after earning a degree with an emphasis in photojournalism.
I hope I am honest with my students about the prospects of this occupation and I hope they understand the situation clearly.
I hope I convey to them that opportunities out in the so-called "real world" are earned not only by mastering technical, compositional and journalistic competencies, but also through having a strong work ethic as well as good interpersonal skills.
It is no long "good enough" for students to just be photographers and take great pictures.
Students must be good writers and communicators as well. They must grasp the complex relationships in the world in order to tell compelling stories. Yes, students must be visually literate and technologically sophisticated, but they also must be integrative, analytical and critical thinkers.
Then, and only then, can students expect to "make it" in an occupation besieged by the trend toward bottom line business deals and share holder earnings.
In discussions with students concerned about their future, I find myself asking them what if photojournalism does not work out as a career. What if the dream fade?
If they cannot find work as a photojournalist after spending so many years and so much money in college, then what? In advising students, there must always be a Plan B. Many of my students think about these things. They cross train themselves in journalism as well as political science, history, sociology, or education. My students are beyond book smart, they are "real world" smart.
Judging from the charges leveled against Brooks recently, apparently the recruiters failed to consider the consequences of promising so much from a field that offers a median income of $24,000 a year nationwide. Apparently, the recruiters are determined to place profits over people. It's a risky game--one that they have been called on.
Promising students that they will make $50,000 or more right out college in photography is like promising the moon and fails to live up to the obligations educators have in being honest with students.