Emily Kobert remembers when the dreaded email landed in her inbox that strange day in March 2020. The Maryland Institute College of Art, like most other institutions of higher learning in the United States, instructed students to head home as the coronavirus snaked its way across the country and upended everything in its path. Campus would remain closed to students for more than a year.
Now a senior, Kobert, an animation major from South Florida, felt the ground shift beneath her feet again earlier this month as MICA administrators prepared the campus community for cuts to faculty and staff as well as college-wide “rescaling” that will condense departments. It’s the second time in a year the college has announced cutbacks, citing drops in enrollment.
“It devastates us,” said Kobert, noting the sense of uncertainty and unease that has spread around the school.
MICA is one among a constellation of small colleges and universities finding themselves at a painful crossroads as the dust from the pandemic settles. A new college landscape has come into focus, one that must factor in inflation, an aggressive labor market pulling away prospective students, and reduced demand for higher learning in general.
The losses have been drastic at the historic Baltimore arts institution: Revenues dropped more than 25% from fiscal year 2020 to 2021, according to its latest consolidated financial statements. Expenses, salaries and wages, and other line items, including instruction, academic support and student services, also decreased, the statements show.
Those who study and advise colleges say MICA’s problems are not new or unique in higher education. But several factors — MICA’s size, stature and arts niche, for example — may make its challenges more pronounced and tougher to resolve.
“It’s expensive to run an art school,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who researches college finances. “There’s the cost of equipment, the cost of supplies — it’s one of the more difficult ones to fund.”
At MICA, small class sizes and high student-to-instructor ratios have made the campus tight-knit and congenial; several alumni have returned as employees, and a strong cohort of graduates have stayed in the city to work and make art. Now, some worry that the culture of the community may suffer as administrators work to restore the bottom line from the loss of the precious residential undergraduate dollars over the last three years.
Kelchen said a “financial storm” is heading for some U.S. colleges, particularly the smaller public and private schools that have fewer resources and less flexibility with what they offer. MICA, with its specialized mission and identity, may not be able to pivot as easily as other institutions with more offerings.
A small college with fewer than 1,400 undergraduates enrolled, MICA may also be at a disadvantage compared to its peers. The much larger Savannah College of Art and Design, for example, can entice students with collegiate athletics and a wider array of majors. The Rhode Island School of Design, which has roughly twice the number of undergraduates MICA enrolls, allows students to cross-enroll at Brown University. “They have more resources. They can weather the storm better,” Kelchen said.
MICA still may fare better than other similarly sized institutions. “They’ve got good assets, they’ve got an endowment worth near $118 million, they seem like they’re trying to cut costs. The big question at this point is, what’s the goal of these changes?” Kelchen said.
Representatives from MICA declined to make campus administrators available for comment for this story. In October, MICA president Samuel Hoi, in an interview with The Banner, said the cuts preempting fall 2022 were done to make the college more financially sound.
“I would say we’re on the path of recovery,” Hoi said in October after the college eliminated about 20 positions, including vacant positions that hadn’t been filled. “We also have to boldly look at the future and say, how [do we] not be complacent and add to our existing legacy?”
MICA administrators had expected increased enrollment heading into the 2022 to 2023 academic year, Hoi said, but are seeing smaller incoming first-year class sizes than the pre-pandemic averages. He said MICA must now adjust to the new reality of being a smaller college.
He repeated that message March 1 during an assembly with faculty and staff announcing the need for more cutbacks.
In effect, Hoi said some 18 specializations, each with one degree program, would be combined into seven areas of study. One general fine arts area of study will serve as an umbrella for several smaller degree programs that did not meet predetermined enrollment thresholds.
Rachel Czarnik, a senior whose ceramics major is likely to be condensed into the general fine arts catchall, said MICA stood out during the college selection process for its faculty, many of whom are experienced working artists. One favorite instructor now is considering retiring early to spare younger instructors, Czarnik said, and others working in the departments soon to be condensed have expressed concerns about job stability.
Meanwhile, tuition keeps rising, Czarnik noted, but student services, faculty and staff, and other campus amenities have been scaled back.
“They [administrators] have promised that things won’t affect students currently enrolled, but that’s such a lie,” Czarnik said. “It won’t be the same without the faculty here currently.”
Hoi acknowledged the criticisms — including around his own salary, which amounts to more than $600,000 a year, according to the college’s latest public disclosure forms — but also said campus community members’ standards for him and the school may be too lofty.
“You cannot meet everyone’s expectations,” he said in October. “They hold themselves and the school to the highest standard possible. And when you’re in a challenging situation, there are some expectations almost impossible to meet.”
Hoi said MICA’s next chapter entails offering more options for students, including online graduate school programs, more emphasized career readiness training and more interdisciplinary studies. He said he expects fewer students to pursue four-year degrees at MICA given concerns around affordability: MICA’s sticker price stands at more than $50,000 for tuition and another $12,000 for a year of room and board, plus thousands more for meal plans and student fees.
Though MICA often receives public pushback against its high cost of attendance, most students receive financial aid to attend, Hoi said.
That’s common among private institutions in the U.S., said David Strauss, principal at the Art & Science Group, which provides consulting services to higher learning institutions. Still, families are rethinking college affordability more now than ever before, he said, and an institution’s listed price may scare off prospective students from even applying.
“It has a lot to do with value: Why bother spending that much, even after financial aid, for what?” Strauss said about consumers’ concerns about tuition. “It’s true that small schools have fixed costs to distribute over a smaller number of students, and that it’s harder to find efficiencies. You also are delivering a more personalized and individualized product, which makes them more expensive.”
There also are now fewer students to sell the vision to, Strauss added, as the U.S. high school population shrinks and fewer teens go straight to college. “You’ve got institutions doing battle, if you will, competing for the kinds of students they’ve always competed for, and then figuring out new populations not traditionally at the center of the model. That phenomenon is putting pressure on them.”
Strauss said small, liberal arts colleges and small public schools must contend with “a great deal of strain” for the time being, and several have responded with deep cuts, leadership changes and unrest among board members concerned about survival. He said most won’t shut their doors completely, though they may operate differently in the future: “It’s survive versus thrive,” he said.
That provides only some comfort to MICA students, who said they have lost faith in the college’s ability to meet the moment.
Kobert, the senior animation major, said many of her peers feel disillusioned. Some are worried about losing mentors, seeing their specialty areas shrink and paying more for less. Would she still recommend the experience to others?
“So much has changed,” said Kobert. “The actual teaching and community are great, but it feels like there’s just something hanging in the air. I don’t have the confidence to recommend with my full heart that they go here.”