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College of Visual Arts in St. Paul sunk by recession

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College of Visual Arts
The College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minn. offered a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in fashion design, fine arts, graphic design, illustration, and photography. It will close in June 2013, administration says.
Photo courtesy College of Visual Arts

The College of Visual Arts in St. Paul will close its doors in June. 

According to the school's administration, it was unable to weather the current economic crisis and continue to meet the financial and academic needs of its students. 

The College of Visual Arts' easy-to-miss offices are in a stately old home on Summit Avenue, and other buildings are sprinkled throughout the Ramsey Hill neighborhood.

It's a four-year art and design school that offers Bachelors of Fine Arts degrees in fashion design, fine arts, graphic design, illustration, and photography. The college serves 170 students and employs 29 full-time staff as well as 45 adjunct professors. 

College President Ann Ledy explains that while the school was founded back in 1924, it was only in 1996 that it became an accredited four-year institution and only in the fall of 2011 that it became fully accredited as a school of art and design.

"But it takes many, many years as a fully accredited four-year college to establish the deep roots that attract donors," said Ledy.

DECLINING ENROLLMENT

The college was pursuing a five-year plan to increase enrollment and thereby strengthen its financial base, and the accreditation was a key part of that plan. But instead of enrollment going up last year, it went down, and sharply. 

Director of Financial Aid David Woodward said this past fall the school took on 50 first-year students, when it had hoped to have 80.

"The economy has tanked since 2008 and many of the families that come to CVA are either in foreclosure of their home [or] they've lost jobs," Woodward said. "More and more I'm seeing families that are at their very wit's end in terms of their finances." 

College of Visual Arts
The College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minn. offered a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in fashion design, fine arts, graphic design, illustration, and photography. It will close in June 2013, administration says.
Photo courtesy College of Visual Arts

Also, banks and other loan-granting institutions are now demanding parent co-signatures on student loans. And many parents are unwilling to take on the added risk.

Classes will continue as planned this spring semester, and all promises of financial aid will be met through the end of the academic year. Vice President and General Counsel Sue Short said CVA has reached an agreement with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to take those students who would be seniors next year. 

"If they're in good academic standing with CVA they will be accepted at MCAD," said Short.

The remaining students will need to apply for a transfer, but MCAD will take their circumstances into strong consideration when weighing applications. Short said CVA plans to create a scholarship fund for its students transferring to MCAD to help them cover the higher tuition costs.

CVA NOT ALONE IN STRUGGLING

The College of Visual Arts is not alone in its declining enrollment — just last week Moody's Investors Service released a report that found nearly half schools surveyed expected enrollment declines for full-time students.  MCAD President Jay Coogan acknowledges his school is also feeling the pinch.

"We've made accommodations so that we are able to stay as strong as possible financially," said Coogan. "Of course, in education the scale of your institution makes a difference because you have to offer many of the same basic services that a larger institution does with a smaller financial base."

MCAD currently serves 700 students, almost four times the CVA enrollment. MCAD also has a much larger endowment to help it get through tough times. Coogan stresses that colleges of art and design are incubators of creative talent that prove extremely valuable to businesses, and losing one of those incubators is a blow to the community. 

Joe Spencer, director of arts and culture for the city of Saint Paul, said it's no secret that times are tough for non-profits all across Minnesota. 

"We've seen other organizations like the Minnesota Museum of American Art or Penumbra Theatre that go through some struggles and fortunately those organizations most of them are able to take a step back and retool and come back," Spencer said. "But with the College of Visual Arts, an accredited college — they don't have the opportunity to step back and take a year off and retool."

Spencer said the loss of the College of Visual Arts will be hard on the Ramsey Hill Neighborhood; many of the students live there, and frequent local businesses.  

President Ann Ledy said what made CVA vulnerable — its small size — was also what made it special. She said they really know all their students.

"We were able to meet both their academic and other needs, because we really understood who they were and what was involved with being a college student," she said.

When asked what the legacy of the College of Visual Arts will be, Ledy didn't hesitate in saying it's the students and their future contributions to the community, which she knows will be extraordinary.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the College of Visual Arts was accredited and became a four-year college. The current version is correct.