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In the days when art colleges were simply informal classes or certificate programs, applicants were selected for admission based solely on how promising their art skills looked. Nowadays, almost all art schools and university studio art departments offer baccalaureate programs, requiring their students to be far more well-rounded academically, more “college material” rather than just skilled in the arts. Most art college admissions offices now require applicants to provide high school transcripts and grade-point averages, submit SAT or ACT test scores, as well as a portfolio and a recommendation from a high school art teacher.

Still, the academic requirements for admission to most independent art colleges tend to be low. At above a 2.2 high school grade point average or an ACT score of 18, accepted students at the Memphis College of Art in Tennessee qualify for a scholarship – and the rate of acceptance generally is high, at the levels that the college guides refer to as “less competitive.” The Maine College of Art in Portland accepts 97 percent of its applicants, and the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio accepts 78 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report, and four-year graduation rates are well under 50 percent at both institutions, the result of accepting a high number of academically low-achieving students.

For admissions directors at art colleges, the numbers boil down to one question: How do you get the students interested in art who also do well academically to go to art college?

In most B.F.A. degree programs, general education courses account for between one-quarter and one-third of the credits required for graduation, yet these classes are rarely highlighted in art college catalog and tours. One might call this a conspiracy of silence, with art colleges not emphasizing the academic courses required of students and many incoming students not asking about the non-studio classes they will have to take. As the director of the liberal arts program at a West coast art college said, “they may show applicants the library but otherwise direct them away from the classrooms. It’s seen not as a selling point for an art school.”

Because of this, he noted, “some students come in thinking they’ll never crack another book or write another term paper.”

As a result, the attrition rate is often high at art colleges, 30 percent between the first and second year at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts and Monserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts, 44 percent at the San Francisco Art Institute.

There are often considerable differences between academic courses taught at art colleges and those at liberal arts colleges and universities. Typically, there are no science labs or language departments at art colleges. Reading lists are usually shorter at art schools, and the percentage of professors with doctorates also is smaller (the Art Academy of Cincinnati and Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Connecticut have exactly one Ph.D, apiece, while the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design has two).

Of course many at art colleges say that the instructors who are artists offer their students what they need. The instruction may include greater visual reinforcement of information, using films, maps and slides, and more hands-on projects. A few art college liberal arts chairmen spoke about art students processing information in a “right-brained way,” requiring classes that are more interactive and less “chalk-and-talk.”

Students with strong portfolios but weak grades or test scores tend to be given the benefit of the doubt. Mark Takiguchi, director of admissions at the Oregon College of Art and Craft and former director of admissions at the San Francisco Art Institute, noted that “we like to look at the whole package. Many students don’t succeed in the standard academic environment. An interview can make up for a weak G.P.A.” It also can make up for low SAT math scores, and some art colleges, such as New York’s Cooper Union, don’t even require that test.

Slowly, there has been a shift in thinking on the part of a growing number of art college admissions directors, in which an applicant’s high school academic history is receiving equal attention if not always equal weight with that person’s portfolio. “Students who have done well in high school, even if they haven’t had as much art training as other students, are more likely to do well here than students who haven’t demonstrated high achievement in high school,” said Judith Aaron, admissions director at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, who noted that a typical Pratt student’s high school grade point average is 3.7 and the average SAT scores are a cumulative 1100 for reading and math. Ten years ago, the average grade point average was closer to 3.3 and SAT scores nearer to 1000.

“We have studied this and found that there is a strong correlation between the composite verbal and math scores and the retention and graduation rates,” she said, adding that no correlation was evident with just SAT verbal scores alone. “Those with higher scores and a higher grade point average in high school will do better here, will be willing to keep working even when they encounter difficulties in their studio and academic classes, because they already have learned to overcome difficulties with their classes in high school and know that they will succeed.”

Campus-wide, 87 percent of Pratt freshmen continue into their second year, which is higher than that of many other independent art colleges, such as Columbus College of Art and Design (79 percent), Cornish College of the Arts (70 percent), Maine College of Art (77 percent), Memphis College of Art (66 percent), Minneapolis College of Art and Design (80 percent), Pacific Northwest College of Art (57 percent), San Francisco Art Institute (56 percent) and Savannah College of Art and Design (82 percent).

“With the millions of emails we send out to people interested in applying here, with all the packets of information we send out, we talk about the necessity of keeping their high school grades up,” Aaron said. “Art school is not just about the acquisition of skills but a place where a broad level of learning takes place, and we want students who are intellectually curious.”

At the far end of the spectrum is an alternative method of recruiting academically talented students to go to art school, the dual-degree programs that Brown University established in 2008 with the Rhode Island School of Design and that Tufts University created in the 1980s with the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts. These both are five-year programs in which graduates earn a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of fine arts degree, satisfying a parent’s (or student’s) wish for a diploma from a Brown or Tufts while pursuing a (student’s) interest in art school.

All four colleges are highly competitive, although the universities’  standards for admissions tend to be higher. “There is no lowering of standards,” said Christopher Dennis, deputy dean at Brown University, who is in charge of the dual-degree program. “Those admitted are above RISD standards academically.”

Tufts and the museum school, as well as Brown and RISD, had long maintained relationships, although at Brown and RISD it was more informal. RISD students would walk up the hill to take language and science classes, while Brown students would walk down to take an art course. The more recent dual-degree option is a more specialized program for the select few.

Back in 2015, Tufts took over the administration of the museum school, although art students still live at the Boston campus and take their studio art courses there.

The arrangement between Tufts and the museum school has revealed the significant difference between B.F.A.-only students and their dual-degree counterparts, Nancy Bauer, the Tufts-based dean of the museum school, noted. The dual-degree students, who must be accepted by the traditional Tufts admissions staff, as well as by museum school admissions counselors (all done under one roof now), “are absolutely phenomenal, firing on all cylinders, thinking analytically and creatively with their right and left brains,” she said.

The B.F.A.-only students, however, are more of a mix, with some “very interested in ideas, oriented toward intellectual pursuits,” while others have “spotty” high school academic records. “They probably sat through world history in ninth grade and thought, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Also, ‘Why study geometry?’ and they may only have been interested in art. They don’t want to be in college. They aren’t interested in school, but their parents think that a B.F.A. is better than not having their kid go to college at all. Some of them rise to the occasion when on the Medford campus, but others are not able to do as well.”


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