Getting Lost in a College Merger

If you’re like me, the Corcoran Gallery and its School of Art has long been a familiar part of the Washington landscape, with its location near the White House. I did not know the school was in deep financial difficulties, or that it “saved itself” last year via a merger wherein it was taken over by George Washington University. You can catch up on that development, and more importantly, on how students get lost in the transition in college mergers, from a new piece at College Guide by Daniel Luzer.

In 2014 the Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art, and George Washington University announced that the Corcoran College of Art and Design would become a part of GW and be known as Corcoran School of the Arts and Design within GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. GW would assume ownership of the Corcoran buildings, and the art would go to the National Gallery, beginning in October, 2014.

This generally seemed like a pretty good move. Corcoran was in trouble and GW could save it and make it financially stable. It was also opportunity for GW, always on the hunt for greater prestige, to pick up, on the cheap, a top-rated arts school.

This appears to have worked out pretty well for George Washington University, but perhaps not so well for Corcoran students.

A series of arguably hostile and at a minimum nontransparent steps were taken by GWU that alarmed many Corcoran students, including a sudden and unexplained fee increase (gradually rescinded), restrictions in class offerings, and new requirements for continued matriculation. Some of the problems were ultimately worked out, but the impression was left that GWU wanted Corcoran’s assets and prestige but not necessarily its students.

As Luzer notes, this precedent is worth pondering because college mergers are becoming much more common:

In the last few years the country has seen a lot of academic mergers, usually a large and relatively financially stable institution absorbing a smaller, often arts or liberal arts focused, college.

In November, 2013 Georgia’s Kennesaw State University announced a merger with Southern Polytechnic State University. In February last year the Medical University of South Carolina announced a proposed merger with the College of Charleston. In April last year the University of New Haven took over the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.

Other talks—between Georgia’s Point University and North Carolina’s Montreat College, between Virginia Intermont and Florida’s Webber International University, and between Southern New Hampshire University and New Hampshire Institute of Art—broke down due to student or alumni opposition.

There’s a very good reason for students to worry about these mergers. They’re often very good for the acquiring institutions, but the students there at the transfer are often treated as unfortunate and irritating legacy costs.

There can be good things about mergers as well; in Georgia a number of former public community colleges that “graduated” into four-year status are being merged with nearby existing state colleges now that their rationale for independent status is gone. But clearly, everywhere the needs of students need to be taken fully into account.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.