canada africa partner reservation The closure of the Delaware College of Art & Design is accelerated by the FAFSA debacle

The closure of the Delaware College of Art & Design is accelerated by the FAFSA debacle

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The closure of the Delaware College of Art & Design is accelerated by the FAFSA debacle

By means of Jacob Owens

(Spotlight Delaware is a community-powered, collaborative, nonprofit newsroom covering the First State. Learn more at spotlightdelaware.org)

For 27 years, the Delaware College of Art and Design (DCAD) has helped generations of local artists strengthen their skills and confidence, but after years of declining enrollment, the small school of fine arts will close its doors in downtown Wilmington.

That unhappy ending was caused, at least in part, by this year’s federal student aid debacle, leaders said.

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, is a federal form used to determine eligibility for Pell grants and federal student loans, as well as financial aid from many universities. On December 30, the U.S. Department of Education switched to a new, shorter FAFSA form, but its rollout has been riddled with problems and errors that have delayed the approval of funding for millions of American families.

These issues have particularly affected the ability of low-income families to confirm a student’s enrollment in colleges and universities next fall, and DCAD may be the first institution to blame the FAFSA for contributing to the its closure.

“Like many independent art and design schools, DCAD is facing long-standing challenges related to declining enrollment, a smaller number of college-age students, rising costs and unexpected issues with the rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid. DCAD President Jean Dahlgren said in a statement announcing the closure. “We have not taken this decision lightly and have tried every possible way to avoid it. Our declining enrollment numbers in recent years and for the upcoming school year have prevented us from adequately supporting our educational purposes and programs. The Board of Trustees has worked hard to find other funding solutions, but none will allow us to overcome the long-term problem of too few students.”

When reached by Spotlight Delaware, Dahlgren said she could not comment on her public statement.

A van displays artwork and the university logo outside the Delaware College of Art & Design in Wilmington, Delaware.
The Delaware College of Art & Design (DCAD) was already experiencing years of declining enrollment before the pandemic. | SPOTLIGHT DELAWARE PHOTO JACOB OWENS

Weakening finances

Like many small private universities, DCAD has struggled to attract growing enrollment. Enrollment fell nearly 10% from 2017 to 2022, to a total of 129 students, according to federal data. Compared to 2010 levels, this was approximately 42% lower.

With annual tuition around $30,000, declining enrollment put pressure on the university’s future. The university’s outdated facilities on the Market Street campus in Wilmington only exacerbated the problems, and in recent years the residence halls and dining halls were sold.

As of June 30, 2023, DCAD held $2.9 million in financial assets, including $1.4 million in cash or equivalents. These totals were both up over the past year, but rising program costs led to an operating deficit of nearly $1.3 million – the first deficit in at least three years.

Despite having cash on hand, DCAD also faced an impending loan payment this month of approximately $381,000 – more than four times the typical loan payment the college faced over the next four years.

For years, DCAD teetered on the brink of insolvency, and accountants expressed concerns about its ability to continue operating. College leaders set a goal of reaching an enrollment of 200 or more students by the 2024-2025 academic year by implementing more assertive marketing and communications software and hiring industry consultants. It also received a $1.5 million match grant from the state government, but had to raise $1 million on its own before it could benefit from that money.

Perhaps most promising was the completion earlier this year of a $400,000-funded Student Technology Center that helped the college receive more than 500 applications for fall 2024, officials said.

FAFSA issues

Despite the increase in applications, it appears that issues with FAFSA approvals could have played a significant role in DCAD’s rapid demise.

As of 2022, 93% of students at DCAD received a Pell grant, while 83% had a federal student loan – both are byproducts of the FAFSA process. Delays in loan or grant approval could mean the difference between going to college or not for many students, and these problems occurred at a time when DCAD could not afford to see another decline in enrollment.

Deborah Obalil, the president and executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, a nonprofit consortium of the leading specialty art and design schools in the U.S. and Canada, said FAFSA has been a major issue for its members this year . including DCAD.

“There is a whole group of students, particularly those who are in greatest need of support in pursuing their college education and where university in many cases is really a key route to shaping their future lives and even the lives of their families and communities improve, which is really left in limbo,” she said. “These students are still waiting for information about what it will cost them to go to university next year, and that obviously concerns colleges because so many of them are financially dependent on tuition fees.”

DCAD is not alone in its financial struggles, as the much larger University of the Arts in Philadelphia recently announced its closure and Woodbury University in California agreed to a merger.

“Nationally, there has been an increase in the closure of colleges and universities of all types, and so art and design colleges are not immune to the same pressures that all different types of colleges and universities face. We know from data that the recovery from the pandemic has not been uniform across our membership,” Obalil said, noting that some schools are seeing increased enrollment.

One option that was not available to save DCAD’s future was its endowment, which as of June 30, 2023 was just under $1 million and was limited in use to scholarships only.

DCAD student artist Juli drew ‘Shocking Self Portrait!’ during her time in college. | PHOTO COURTESY of @JuliBirb
DCAD student artist Milo C. painted “Enter Stage Left” during his time in college. | PHOTO COURTESY of @Artbl0ck_central

A sudden ending

For the 50 students enrolled in DCAD’s associate degree programs between their freshman and sophomore years, the closure came as a shock, with no notice before the public announcement that came just weeks after the end of the college’s academic year.

Many told Spotlight Delaware they learned of the closure through an email sent on May 23.

“I had heard that DCAD wouldn’t be in the best shape financially, but nothing close to the level of full closure. There was no notice or semester/year delay to get things in order for either students or staff; we were informed at the same time as the general public,” said Jinx McDonegal, a rising sophomore. “This whole situation has been so sudden and, to be honest, quite stressful. It has been difficult having what seemed like solid plans for my education imploded. We were all registered for classes next semester, there was no reason to anticipate this, at least not immediately.”

As part of the phase-out agreement with its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, DCAD has developed transfer agreements with the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. The University of Delaware and the College of New Jersey also recently announced efforts to place affected students as well.

Another rising sophomore, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Juli, said she was disappointed with the way the university informed its students and led them to believe they would return next fall. She has started helping other classmates by searching forums like Reddit for recommendations from alumni of local colleges about their programs.

“A few students who wanted to enroll in DCAD right out of high school contacted me and asked where they should go next. It truly broke my heart to see how many students truly counted on DCAD as their path to achieving their dream career, and now that is over,” she said.

Although many students said they planned to transfer to another school, these moves will not be without problems. Juli, who commuted to DCAD, noted that this wouldn’t be possible at PCAD and she would have to spend thousands more on rent each year.

McDonegal cares for her mother, who is disabled and has a chronic and progressive condition, and they will now have to create an entirely new network to ensure her care.

“This sudden shift in schedule affects not only myself, but also the people around me,” they said. “Now I have to deal with leaving her behind much more quickly, and make an effort to put together resources for her while I’m gone.”

Community supports students

Although the experience of losing their school was traumatic, the DCAD students said they were overwhelmed by the support from the local arts scene.

Juli made an Instagram post shortly after the announcement featuring the work and CashApp profiles of many DCAD artists, and supporters have donated to support their journey.

Those efforts have grown into a full-fledged art exhibition at The Sold Firm, the small independent art gallery near the DCAD campus.

“There was no way I could sit back and watch and not take action for the displaced DCAD students,” said Nataki Oliver, the gallery’s owner.

Support the community
The three-day exhibition and art sale, titled “Breaking News DCAD Student Art Sale,” runs June 28-30 at the gallery at 800 N. Tatnall St. The Sold Firm is offering its space commission-free with all sales proceeds going to the student artists.