Arts universities struggle for survival in US

Institutions struggle to cope with changing student tastes, demographic shifts and the difficulty of scaling up their model

February 13, 2019
Naughty dog

It’s no secret that the US’ private, non-profit art colleges have been showing cracks in recent years.

In just the past several months, the Oregon College of Art and Craft explored mergers with two different institutions, only to have talks fall apart. The University of New Haven decided in August to end degree-granting programmes at Lyme Academy, whose academic programmes it took over under an agreement five years ago. Last week, the Cornish College of the Arts announced that it is cutting tuition fees by 20 per cent in the 2019-20 academic year, adopting a “tuition reset” strategy that has frequently been deployed by institutions seeking a shot of attention to help boost enrolment. And the New Hampshire Institute of Art is in the midst of merging into New England College.

A bit further in the past, the Memphis College of Art announced in October 2017 that it would be closing and has laid out plans to shut down after graduating the last of its students in May 2020. The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston reached an agreement to have its educational operations acquired by Tufts University in 2016. The Art Institute of Boston, which merged with Lesley University in 1998, moved from Boston to Cambridge to join its sister colleges in 2015, taking on the new name of the Lesley University College of Art and Design along the way.

Also in 2015, the Montserrat College of Art explored merging into Salem State University, but the two sides ultimately ruled out the move. That decision came the year after George Washington University decided to acquire the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington.

Those cases alone mean that about a fifth of the 43 institutions that were members of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design as of the start of 2014 have attempted to merge, closed, relocated or drastically changed their tuition structure in the past five years.

They’ve done so while facing some pressures unique to art schools, according to leaders in the sector. Curriculum changes make it more difficult for some students to take classes before they graduate from high school, meaning art schools must work harder to reach prospective students at an early age. Meanwhile, art schools remain capital-intensive operations to run, as supplies, equipment, small class sizes and generous faculty-to-student ratios keep expenses high.

But art schools have also been under pressures that cut across the higher education landscape and are bearing down on many liberal arts colleges. Population and demographic shifts are changing where high schoolers are graduating in the greatest numbers, who those students are, what they can pay and what they value in a college education. And as the cost of providing students with a good education rises annually, many small institutions struggle to keep costs in line without the benefits of efficiencies of scale.

“I often say we are a microcosm of the higher ed environment,” said Deborah Obalil, president and executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. “There are challenges in particular to the very small, under-500-student institutions. I think that is applicable across all of higher ed, because the challenges they face are not special to them because they are art and design institutions. It is really about their scale.”

The art school market is bifurcating based on institution size. Although enrolment remains strong across a core group of institutions, those with more than 500 students are much more likely to see their fortunes rise than are those with smaller enrolments, observers say. Some of the best-known larger institutions, such as the Rhode Island School of Design and the California Institute of the Arts, are considered to be doing quite well, even though they are not huge, with reported enrolments of about 2,500 and 1,500, respectively.

The pressures playing out at colleges of art may resonate particularly strongly now because some struggling private liberal arts colleges have been taking steps that could make them resemble art schools. Strategists sometimes counsel endangered liberal arts colleges to find an area of focus or a special niche to fill – paralleling art schools, which arguably embody the ideal of specialisation.

Now, that ideal has been called into question after Green Mountain College, which had carved out a niche in environmental liberal arts, decided last month to close in the face of financial challenges.

Backers of art schools say the personalised education they provide and the creative thinking they inspire are more important than ever in a world where students from all disciplines will need to be able to adapt their skills to a fast-changing workplace. But as pressures play out in the market, it’s become increasingly clear that some institutions have been able to continue to attract students and pay their bills, while others have fallen behind.

It’s also growing more and more clear that small institutions with negligible endowments and other disadvantages can’t always count on clever strategy alone to save them – whether that strategy is merger, debt reorganisation or specialisation. Art school presidents think that sound decisions can still strengthen most institutions, but they need to be deployed with increasing sophistication.

Specialty institutions can remain viable if they examine their business models and revenue streams, said Kurt Steinberg, president of the Montserrat College of Art and a former executive vice-president at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who spent a year as acting president there. Only they must be making the right choices quickly “and defining who they are and why they have a competitive advantage”.

By some measures, art schools are enrolling more students than they did a decade ago.

As a group, the institutions in the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design enrolled 34,466 undergraduates in 2018. That’s an increase of 2.4 per cent from 2008, which would be roughly in line with projections showing very little growth in the number of high school graduates over the same period.

But the data include only 32 institutions that are based in the US, fully independent and still enrolling new students. They don’t include small institutions that merged with larger institutions in recent years, nor do they include closing institutions, such as the Memphis College of Art.

With a few exceptions, most of the association’s member institutions that enrol more than 500 students have seen enrolment rebound in the past few years, while those with fewer than 500 have seen it fall, Ms Obalil said. It’s not clear whether 500 is a firm dividing line or just happens to be the current level at which institutional fortunes are diverging.

“In terms of the schools that have actually closed or merged, each picture is unique, to some degree,” Ms Obalil said. “What commonalities I’ve seen often line up, again, with size and the inability to scale.”

Such institutions have failed to differentiate themselves from the rest of the marketplace, or they have not reconsidered their curricula in five, 10 or even 20 years, she added. Some can’t add another programme because they are too small to afford it, and others are faced with a high level of debt.

Art schools don’t tend to have large endowments, so a combination of high debt and a failure to attract enough students can be a fatal combination.

Such a combination helped to bring down the Memphis College of Art. The college saw its undergraduate enrolment fall from 362 in 2009 to 338 in 2016, according to statistics in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. By 2017, enrolment had fallen to 278.

The college struggled to attract students in the post-recession era, said its president, Laura Hine. Students and families were questioning the value of a four-year art degree and emphasising job skills even as the college grappled with its identity.

“There was a sense that we’re a fine arts school, and we can’t abandon our history and our roots,” Ms Hine said.

Looking back, Ms Hine thinks the college could have built sustainable programmes while balancing the need to stay true to the fine arts with new investments. It could have used its animation programme, which is the only one of its kind in the region and was in demand, as a foundation.

As it faced new challenges related to enrolment and programming, the college’s past decisions caught up to it. The college was struggling with debt from real estate purchases made in the past, Ms Hine said. Although leaders attempted to reduce debt levels and to secure lower interest rates, they couldn’t do enough.

In October 2017, the college announced that its board had decided to stop recruiting new students, to dissolve the institution’s assets and to teach out existing students. At the time, it cited “declining enrolment, overwhelming real estate debt, and no viable long-term plan for financial sustainability”.

Without a large endowment to draw on, the college had been relying on revenue from enrolment and the philanthropic community, which had been exceptionally generous, Ms Hine said. Major donors were tapping out, though.

Soon after announcing its plans to close, the college staged a transfer fair, encouraging new freshmen to enrol in another institution, Ms Hine said. It moved to teach out remaining students, which has been a challenge because tuition revenue shrinks as students leave and new classes aren’t recruited. The college expects to graduate its last students in May 2020.

Larger colleges with more diversified funding from states or other sources might be better positioned to survive or thrive in the face of pressures, Ms Hine said. Some college presidents worry that too many art schools being affiliated with states could diminish students’ freedoms, however. State funding brings in political considerations that budding artists don’t always appreciate.

Ms Hine also worries about the students who are “born artists” and would have enrolled at the Memphis College of Art were it not closing.

“We were attracting and have attracted kids – a lot of kids – that were coming out of poverty,” Ms Hine said. “Some of our kids live with their family members. They can’t up and move to Sarasota, Florida. They don’t have the capacity to do that and the support to do that.”

The experience leaves Ms Hine, who has worked in workforce development, worried about the future of art schools and education more generally.

“The disparity between people’s ability to pay for college now and what it used to be, I think, is growing increasingly greater,” she said. “And in a situation where colleges and universities today have a lot of costs – technology, security, Title IX compliance, accreditation burdens that have become more and more onerous on the cost side – and you don’t have it being offset by this burgeoning middle class or upper middle class that can send their kids to school, I think it’s a crisis brewing.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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