High costs, enrollment issues drive Corcoran student departures

Media Credit: Mike Shanahan | Staff Photographer

Three Corcoran students said they already transferred or are waiting on an admissions decision, while 13 more are considering switching away from the school.

Amid growing concern about the value placed on GW’s arts programs, students in the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design are considering transferring.

A year after the school officially merged with the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, 16 current and former students said in interviews that the high costs of projects, cross-listing of courses and feelings of alienation on campus contribute to their overall dissatisfaction with the program. Of the 16 students who study photojournalism, fine arts photography and graphic design, three said they already transferred or are waiting on an admissions decision from another school, while the rest are considering switching to other schools at GW.

All current students spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from the University, fearing they would be singled out in the small Corcoran program.

The Corcoran has come under fire in recent months for disruptive construction that posed health concerns for students. Officials hosted a town hall in December for about 30 students and faculty to voice concerns about the noise, pests and dust that have covered the Corcoran’s flagship building since renovations began in 2016.

Sanjit Sethi, the director of the Corcoran, said applications for the school’s undergraduate programs have continued to grow, though renovations, faculty departures and curriculum adjustments have presented the school with “challenges.” He said administrators are aware of student complaints about the school and will continue to “proactively make improvements to future class offerings and schedules.”

Sethi declined to say how many students have transferred out of Corcoran since it merged with CCAS.

He said in the fall, Corcoran will launch a new program in which students will work with local organizations on projects, and the school is also developing partnerships with the history and anthropology departments, and the School of Media and Public Affairs “to build more intentional pathways to benefit student experience.”

“The Corcoran is working to educate the next generation of cultural leaders and is working hard to improve the experience of our talented students,” Sethi said in an email. “We always welcome hearing concerns and feedback on how we can better support our community.”

Cost burdens and malfunctioning equipment
A freshman majoring in fine arts photography said she is planning to transfer because expensive materials like film are often needed for projects and are a burden on top of already-high tuition costs.

For one project, the freshman said she spent about $100 on film, but because she used one of the school’s cameras with a broken shutter, the large majority of the film was ruined. Another camera had mold in the lens, she said.

For her two photography classes’ final projects, she said she spent almost $400 on materials needed to develop film.

“It’s a really big financial burden because this stuff isn’t included in our tuition, and it actually ends up being more expensive than any of the textbooks from my other classes,” she said.

Another freshman majoring in fine arts photography said broken cameras and malfunctioning thermometers, which measure the temperature of chemicals involved in developing film, hinder his ability to complete projects.

“All photo programs at other schools have quality equipment – we are not quite getting this because, I guess, it seems GW is not making the arts a priority,” he said.

Feeling alienated
Delaney Hoffman, a former Corcoran student who transferred to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque this past fall, said high tuition costs made her think about switching, but the final straw was feeling like the administration wasn’t invested in her arts education.

Hoffman said she was repeatedly ignored by administrators when she asked officials to give her tap access to the Flagg Building after hours to complete her projects. She added that students outside of Corcoran also often hold negative opinions about the school, which leave the small number of remaining Corcoran students feeling like they are not part of GW and are alienated from the rest of campus.

“I can’t name how many times I said that I was a photo major and was immediately dismissed by an Elliott or CCAS student as not being as capable, intelligent or employable, which was entirely maddening honestly,” she said.

One sophomore majoring in photojournalism said she often feels overlooked by the University and peers in other schools because of the small class sizes.

“I have constantly had to fight and advocate for myself to not only get what I need to be a successful student, but to also feel a part of this community,” she said.

Conflict with classes
A sophomore who was majoring in digital media design said she is transferring to the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida in the fall after being told last semester that the Corcoran stopped offering her major.

“When I questioned the faculty about what this meant for my future, a professor said, ‘You can still graduate with a digital media design degree, but you’ll take graphic design classes,’” she said.

She added that when she applied to Corcoran, she expected to learn and create a digital media portfolio to help her get a job, but the graphic design major option did not provide that same opportunity.

“I decided to transfer because I realized I wouldn’t be getting the education I wanted and that administration was not remotely helpful or sympathetic,” she said.

After Corcoran combined with CCAS in 2016, the school’s classes were required to have at least 10 students – the minimum class size for all CCAS courses. Officials were lenient with low enrollment as students who enrolled in Corcoran before the merger approached graduation, Dean Kessmann, the program head of Corcoran’s studio arts program, said in emails to students that were obtained by The Hatchet.

As these students graduate, Kessman said on April 9 that officials would allow non-Corcoran students to register for fine art photography and photojournalism core classes this fall to hit the enrollment requirement. After students in the programs raised concerns that cross-listing courses would dampen the quality of the classes, officials went back on their decision three days later, according to the emails.

Another freshman majoring in fine arts photography said the quality of classes would decrease if cross-listed because professors would lower expectations and work more closely with non-art majors.

“It’s really hard to expect the same quality of work out of somebody who’s spent their entire life working to go to art school versus someone who’s just taking it for a fun class,” she said.

Another student said the decision to cross-list classes – though rolled back later – demonstrated the lack of importance placed on the quality of education at Corcoran.

“It’s pretty sad to be attending a greater institution where administrators and classmates don’t care about us and the arts,” she said. “I honestly don’t know who is advocating for us and who wants us to succeed because, as of now, it seems like we are on our own, as our program just deteriorates away.”

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