How the ‘School for Gods’ Seduced America
An Italian pop star’s for-profit school charged exorbitant sums to help students attain the jet-set life—even as the state authority claimed it was dodging the law.
In 2002, the co-founder of the European School of Economics, an Italian businessman and former rock musician named Elio D’Anna, released a novel in which a man named “The Dreamer” creates a school “where one will learn that happiness is economy… that wealth, leisure and beauty are every man’s birthright.”
The book described this place as “a School for Gods.”
Eight years before, D’Anna had created his paradise in real-life in Rome, and campuses for his school spread throughout Europe—from Paris to London—over the next half-decade.
The school’s philosophy was like a secular version of the prosperity gospel or that Oprah-sanctioned juggernaut “The Secret”—you are destined to get rich if you just believe it hard enough—and for $90,000 a year, the European School of Economics would help you actualize the jet-set life.
D’Anna’s confidence in his vision shines through in his novel, also titled The School for Gods. “Don’t fear any attack,” the Dreamer counsels. “It will seem as though you’re hindered in every way, but every difficulty or enemy will, in actual fact, turn out to be your closest ally, an integral and irreplaceable part of this construction.”
Yet even as D’Anna’s “School for Gods” expanded and aligned itself with celebrities like Kris Jenner and Donald Trump, it faced a slew of lawsuits abroad and in the U.S. over unpaid debts to former faculty and contractors—and cease-and-desist letters from the New York State Education Department, which told The Daily Beast that until this year, the school did not have permission to operate or advertise degree programs in the state.
The European School of Economics (ESE) did not respond to multiple Daily Beast requests for comment.
When attacks on the European School of Economics’ shortcomings came to light on the websites like CollegeTimes.Co, the school tried to have them scrubbed from the web.
Jesse Nickles of CollegeTimes.Co, which collects reviews of colleges and universities, said he received a takedown request of a negative review in the form of a “bizarre, poorly written email” from the email address of ESE’s CEO, Alessandro Nomellini, last year.
The commenter on Nickles’ site had correctly noted that The University of Buckingham, the school’s validator in the U.K., terminated its relationship with the school in 2014.
“This is a complete false statement,” the email sent from Nomellini’s address reads.
The email also claimed a comment about the school’s “fundraising gala” was “another false statement.”
“The Fundraising gala was organize [sic] by the European School of Economics Foundation which is a complete different entity from the European School of Economics,” said the email, which was provided by Nickles to The Daily Beast.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, The European School of Economics Foundation has not been in operation as a charity in the U.S. since 2011, before the school’s 2012 fundraising gala in Manhattan.
The school’s Wikipedia page, which currently does not mention any of the school’s legal battles, has been edited several times to remove controversies.
One section, titled “Legal,” once alluded to a lawsuit that ESE won against the Italian government, over whether the school could confer British-validated degrees within the country. It also mentioned several other international lawsuits filed against the school, like a 2009 fraud suit filed in Italy that the school eventually lost. The section was summarily deleted in January of 2014.
This kind of blackout on criticism can be a particular detriment for students looking to research a school as prestigious-sounding as the “European School of Economics”—or the “Legacy Business School,” which is apparently its new name in Manhattan, or so claims the New York State Education Department.
“I would hope that students understand what they’re getting into in the New York area. We want to make sure that students go in with their eyes open,“ said Stephanie Cellini.
Cellini is a professor at George Washington University who has written extensively about the impact of for-profit colleges on the economy—and on students’ wallets. While she usually works more with quantitative data, she doesn’t think she’s ever heard of another school with the $100,000-plus-per-year price tag that comes with a Legacy Business School certificate. (While ESE handed out Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees through its now-defunct partnership with the University of Buckingham, Legacy is only offering certificates.)
The rules for for-profit schools like the ESE and Legacy—ones that don’t apply for schools seeking federal Title IV funding—can be particularly murky.
“If you’re not getting federal student aid, you need to follow the rules in that particular state, and some states are more stringent than others,” said Cellini. “Institutions that aren’t eligible for federal student aid are not on the hook for their students’ outcomes.”
In her research, she found that schools receiving federal aid had much lower tuition than their counterparts.
“They’re trying to attract a different clientele if you’re not offering student aid. In [Legacy’s] case, they want to make it look elite,” Cellini said of the Kris Jenner-branded school. “This school is clearly trying to get the attention of some upper-class, high-income folks.”
“So my degree is worthless?” one student, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of consequences with future employers, asked The Daily Beast, after hearing about ESE's troubles with the NYSED and the New York campus's lack of accreditation in the U.S. or abroad.
This isn’t an easy question to answer.
The U.S. doesn’t evaluate academic credentials of colleges and universities, and there is no national, governmental authority that recognizes academic or professional credentials, according to an Education Department spokesman.
So students in the U.S. are generally left on their own to decide a nonaccredited private institution's value. It’s possible the system’s opacity, coupled with the wealthy makeup of an overwhelmingly international student population, allowed a school like the European School of Economics to continue enrolling students and issuing degrees from its New York outpost for as long as it did without a license or accreditation.
The U.S. Department of Education warns would-be students at private schools to be good consumers and beware of diploma mills: “schools that are more interested in taking your money than providing you with a quality education.”
Whether ESE falls into that category is up for students to decide.
One student, who joined the admissions staff in 2009 because she was able to speak three languages—a plus at a school with almost exclusively international students— also confirmed ESE’s commitment to recruiting an elite student body with an ability to pay the school’s exorbitant tuition. She told The Daily Beast that, with a few exceptions, the students and staff were “non serious.”
“It was more like a club,” she said.
Still, she decided to attend ESE herself for her MBA.
“Even though I got my master’s, I feel like it’s less legitimate than my undergraduate degree [at the University of Virginia]. ESE felt more like a business than a school. They care about what the school looks like. They had lots of parties.”
And ESE never got her that internship they promised, she claims. As Angelica Matseyev, ESE’s director of operations, explained in an interview, students are asked to fill out a “dream form,” and placement counselors will place them in the internships of their dreams. But the former student’s goal was to work in mergers and acquisitions, and her eventual internship was at an insurance office.
“That wasn’t my dream. And that’s not what they told me in the beginning,” she claims. (Matseyev did say in our short interview that they had "some challenges" when it came to placing finance students in internships because of licensing.)
“To be honest I wouldn’t tell anyone to go there. If the person is serious, I’d suggest NYU or something. I was naive because I had a Bachelor’s, had just moved to New York, and wanted to do something different,” she said. “I’d rather go to community college. You’d get more out of it.”
When students don’t get exactly what they pay for in for-profit colleges, their recourse is now legally limited because of a 2011 Supreme Court case.
Jonathan Tycko of the law firm Tykco & Zavaree handled several cases of students who believed they were defrauded into enrolling in for-profit schools, but those cases “didn’t go anywhere,” he said, because of the verdict of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.
The 5-4 ruling essentially states that any time a business imposes a mandatory arbitration clause in a contract, those rules must be followed.
“This killed students’ rights. A lot of these students sign these arb clauses not knowing what they’re reading,” said Tycko.
When students apply to Legacy Business School on the school’s website, the application page reminds the student that—once admitted and committed to attending—he or she is then on the hook for the entirety of the up-to $105,000-per-year tuition.
“Having applied to Legacy Business School, I understand that Legacy Business School’s decision about my application is irrevocable,” a disclaimer reads. “If I am admitted and I accept a place in my program of interest, I agree to abide by the rules and regulations of Legacy Business School and ensure payment of all fees.”
Legacy promises students a “white glove” experience for its tuition—which can rise above $100,000, but does not include accommodations—and features “spa services in New York” and a “Quintessentially Bespoke Elite Membership” that “is dedicated to the proposition that everything is possible.”
The school itself will offer non-degree certificates in finance, management, marketing and business, as well as a few others like entrepreneurship and fashion management.
It sounds a lot like what The European School of Economics offered—which makes sense, since Nomellini is the CEO for both schools and since the New York State Education Department claims that in January of this year, the ESE applied to become a non-degree granting institution in New York, and then applied to change its name to Legacy Business School.
ESE offered those same four programs—finance, management, marketing and business—as part of its no-longer accredited MBA program.
Legacy is now in Candidacy status, which allows it to “operate unlicensed for an initial period of 12 months,” until January of next year.
One expert said that part of the problem for ESE in the past was setting up shop in a state like New York, which has more rigorous rules regarding accreditation.
“As long as they’re not going after any federal financial aid or subsidies, in other states, they might be just fine doing what they’re doing,” said SUNY-Albany Professor Kevin Kinser, a researcher focusing on public policy regarding for-profit institutions and international cross-border higher education. “But not in New York. Anybody operating has to have the recognition of the Board of Regents.”
He added he’s never heard of any case like ESE’s—where the school leaned on its international accreditation publicly, yet apparently never got permission from the Board of Regents to operate in New York until now—but he can see how it would happen.
“I could understand how the school would operate without the Board of Regents’ approval. They can operate below the radar that way,” he said. "But that doesn’t make it legal.”
In the meantime, it leaves those searching for a new school particularly vulnerable—and reliant on Internet searches that are scrubbed of criticism.