How College Mergers Can Screw Students

What happened when George Washington University took over the Corcoran School of Art.

For 125 years the Corcoran School of Art occupied a unique position in Washington. Founded with money provided in the estate of banker and art collector William Wilson Corcoran to promote art education in the nation’s capital, Corcoran was an example of a now rare institution very common in the 19th century, the museum-college hybrid. It worked pretty well for much of the 20th century, producing generations of painters and sculptors (as well as Project Runway’s Tim Gunn and filmmaker David Lynch) but it eventually became victim to changing times and finances.

By 2012 gallery attendance reached an all-time low of only 85,441 visitors, and the institution was running a deficit of $7.2 million. The landmark building in which both the museum and part of the school operated, at 17th Street and New York Avenue, needed $30 million in engineering and architectural improvements, and $100 million to bring it up to contemporary museum standards.

After talks with the University of Maryland collapsed, the institution finally settled on a partnership with one of DC’s most ambitions institutions: the George Washington University.

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 the 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 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 well for George Washington University, but perhaps not so well for Corcoran students.

Corcoran

We’re likely to see more academic mergers in coming years. The Corcoran story offers a useful lesson about the future of American higher education.

In the spring semester of 2014 Kate Brooks, a student studying graphic design in the certificate program at the school, went from being a Corcoran student to being a GW student. This transition had been in the works for a while but no one, students, professors, or even GW administrators, was really sure how it would go down.

The transition was messy. All Corcoran students officially had to reapply to their programs. This is the sort of thing that seemed to Brooks like it could have been automatic—no one was rejected—but ended up being time consuming and inefficient. Students had to submit extensive forms, get records of their immunizations, and then pay an application fee in order to be eligible to sign up for the classes they needed that semester.

And even after submitting the forms, it didn’t go so well. Students sign up for classes early but they weren’t actually “enrolled” in them until they paid the fee. When Brooks and other students checked student accounts they found something odd late last year.

Brooks characterized the transition as “just awful.” “Normally it costs about $3,000 a class, she said. “They added about $1,300 to the bill. No one knows why.”

$3,000 is significant, for sure, but affordable for the (generally) working adults enrolled at Corcoran. Some students pay for classes (Brooks is earning her certificate in graphic design taking one class a semester) by working several jobs, or living at home. There is not financial aid available. Many students also have jobs where their employers are paying for Corcoran certificates. In all cases students were unwilling or unable to pay an extra $1,300.

Everyone knew this was a mistake. GW had promised that tuition for Corcoran students would remain the same until the end of the spring 2015 semester. The higher number was largely due to a “Corcoran legacy fee” of about $1,000 and a smaller library charge, a fee charged to all other GW students.

No one seemed to understand why these new fees were there. Students were told to call up student accounts to get it resolved. Even though everyone knew this extra money was a mistake, there was no assurance this matter would get resolved before the system dropped from their classes for failure to pay.

Another Corcoran student called student accounts at GW. The person who responded to her call said that that the account did look funny and she would have someone look into it. She called up again after a few days. The person who talked to her that day said the person in charge of that hadn’t been in the office in office in several days. She just couldn’t get a straight answer.

And then she did. A few days later, she got a call from someone in the office of student accounts. “The figures are accurate,” the voicemail said, “please call back.” She received another voicemail with the same message a few days later.

Eventually student accounts resolved the issue and reduced the fees back to $3,000 a class. All except for a “voluntary library fee” of $50, which students had to call to get removed.

These experiences aren’t exceptional. Many things about the merger didn’t go well. The Washingtonian published an article in December that showed the switch didn’t go well for Corcoran students who were military veterans, either. GW policy made it much more difficult for “students who served in Iraq and Afghanistan… to obtain their GI Bill benefits,” bringing many of them serious financial trouble.

Some of this difficulty was understandable. It was a transition. Transitions are bumpy. And GW did get around to fixing it, eventually, before it became a serious problem.

But several students suggest that this is, in the words of one, “the sort of thing that you do to a group of people that’s maybe not so important” to you.

The general concern that these students have is not so much about the budget mistakes, but that the fact that GW made such a mistake, and then was in no hurry to fix it, speaks to the ultimate importance of the program. They worried that GW was just going to eliminate the certificate program in graphic design altogether.

There were other changes. The professor of the Fundaments of Design course has grumbled that there have been changes to his course, not of his own choosing. “I would like to do it this way, but the school says I have to do it this other way.” The class has cut guest speakers and presentations altogether.

Last semester they had to spend their second-to-last class of that course printing out their work for a GW exhibition. They didn’t want to do an exhibition. They wanted to learn the material that was on the schedule for that day, which they were paying for. Instead they had to take everything they’d done so far that semester, print it out and put it in book form for GW.

Brooks has to earn 16 credits to get her certificate. She has accumulated 6 so far. But, “there no guarantee about any of this. I don’t even know if the program will even exist next semester, much less how much it might cost.”

Brooks explained that Corcoran is now reducing the number of days in which needed classes are offered. A student in the graphic design certificate program has to take certain specific programs in order to receive a certificate. But if a course that students need used to be offered three times a week and every semester is now only offered once a week every other semester, that’s a huge problem for working students, which is to say, most of them. Not all courses will be offered every semester.

At the same time, however, Corcoran, under its new GW leadership, recently instituted a policy such that a student gets dropped from the program if she’s not taking any courses. “This means we’ll have to take, and pay for, classes we don’t need just to stay enrolled,” Brooks said.

Students emphasized that the Corcoran gallery would be fine; they just weren’t so sure about the students.

They’re probably right to be a little concerned.

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 studying at the time of the merger are often treated as unfortunate and irritating legacy costs.

A George Washington University spokeswoman acknowledged that the transition was “not ideal”—and the institution regretted any billing errors—but pointed out one of the reason for the difficult had to do with the fact that Corcoran was, before the announcement, involved in a lawsuit about the future of the school.

After GW, Corcoran, and the National Gallery first announced their deal a group of museum donors, current and former students, and former faculty and staff members, organized as a group called “Save the Corcoran,” sued to prevent the institution’s undoing. They lost, but the case wasn’t resolved until August, 2014.

The university said couldn’t begin to make the transition until the case was resolved. If they had more time it would have gone more smoothly, GW suggested.

Furthermore, many of the original Corcoran people “had left” by the time GW took over, making the transition more difficult.

She wasn’t immediately aware of how the overcharging happened but “it appears every Corcoran student was initially over charged.”

GW says that it doesn’t have “any plans to discontinue the graphic design certificate program, at this point.”

The school now has an interim director, Alan Wade. GW says that the school will make decisions about academic matters once administrators have chosen a permanent new head of the program. GW offered no assurance about the long-term stability of the graphic design program, though GW pointed out that under a new director the school might also offer new programs.

This is also standard for institutions in merger mode. Like when corporations acquire other companies in order to capture new profits or eliminate competition, they often find many things about the acquired institution that don’t really work for the new owners and their goals and culture.

As the number of college students declines, due to both a plunging birth rate and increasing college costs, and college budgets get tighter we’re seeing an uptick in mergers and are likely to see a lot more. And in such fusions, existing students often get hurt; their interests are secondary to the reasons for the merger, after all.

“We are,” as a George Washington University spokeswoman put it in an email to me, “evaluating Corcoran academic programs, so it is possible some new programs will develop and other programs may change or phase out.”

But then, as the school put it, GW did save Corcoran; “the alternative was for the school to close.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer