St. Paul's College of Visual Arts will close at end of June after 89 years

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2013 - 9:18 PM

Falling enrollment, rising costs since recession hurt St. Paul school.

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About 170 students currently attend the College of Visual Arts, based in a Summit Avenue mansion. The school will cease operations after the spring semester. “We’ve done our best, but it’s very sad,” President Ann Ledy said.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Spring semester will be the last for the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul. The small art and design school, housed in a handsome mansion on Summit Avenue, will close at the end of June, officials said Wednesday.

Founded in 1924, the college had struggled since the recession with falling enrollment, rising costs and families unable to pay tuition, President Ann Ledy said. "As a small institution, what we lack is an endowment, the kind of endowment that one needs to weather the storm."

About 170 students attend the school, studying fine arts, fashion design, graphic design, illustration and photography. Spring classes will be held as planned, and juniors will be guaranteed a spot next year at the similarly focused Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

"We've done our best, but it's very sad," Ledy said. "By making this decision now, by recognizing this is our reality, we have had the opportunity to establish a relationship with MCAD. This really is what we consider to be the best option for our students."

In some ways, the college's struggles mirror those faced by others across the country. A survey by Moody's Investors Service, out last week, showed that almost half of colleges and universities expect their enrollment to drop. A third of those that responded expect their tuition revenue to drop or to grow more slowly than inflation -- a much bigger share than before the recession.

Without a strong endowment, CVA depended on tuition to cover its costs. But since the recession, students have struggled to pay full price. The college upped its scholarships and cut its staff. But the equation was dependent on more students. Over the past year, enrollment dropped by a fifth. An outside consultant determined that "CVA is no longer viable under any scenario," according to a statement.

Agreement with MCAD

The St. Paul school has forged a formal agreement with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design guaranteeing that its juniors with a GPA of 2.0 or higher can complete their degrees at MCAD. Freshmen and sophomores may apply to MCAD through the competitive transfer process. The Minneapolis college has invited CVA students to a special open house in February.

While CVA has struggled with enrollment, MCAD brought in its largest incoming classes in more than six years. It has about 700 students in undergraduate and graduate programs. It also boasts more alumni and a deeper endowment.

"Many employers are looking for creative people who can help them navigate a world that is becoming rapidly more visually oriented," MCAD President Jay Coogan said. In that way and others, the community will feel a loss when CVA closes, he said.

In 2011, the College of Visual Arts earned accreditation with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. But that good news was followed with bad.

When Ledy started as president in 2004, "my role and responsibility was to grow our enrollment" to 300 students, she said. Since then, the school has "teetered at 200." Over the past year and a half, enrollment dropped by 21 percent. Fewer students enrolled, and once they did, "we experienced greater attrition than ever before," Ledy said.

'Shocked' at news

Sawyer Rademacher, a sophomore studying photography, was "shocked" by the news that his college will close. Last year, when the school announced its accreditation, he and other students had felt as if "our school had reached a new level," he said. "It felt really validating."

But he also remembers a big number of his freshman classmates dropping out, mostly for personal reasons. Some couldn't pay tuition.

"Looking back on that, it's understandable how the college could have been struggling," Rademacher said.

He is looking at schools to which he might transfer, including MCAD. But he will be sad to leave. "I would brag that I knew all my instructors by their first names," he said, "and even knew their personal phone numbers."

MCAD's tuition and fees are higher than CVA's, which this year reached $25,761. The St. Paul college is hoping to transfer its small endowed scholarship fund to MCAD, where former CVA students might use it to cover the bigger price tag. Some of the income from selling the college's buildings, scattered around the Ramsey Hill neighborhood, could also go toward such a fund.

The College of Visual Arts "always filled the niche of being the small, personal, in some ways underdog to MCAD," said Nick Zdon, an alumnus and adjunct instructor. "We made up for it with how hard we worked and what we did afterward."

Zdon, a graphic designer, said that he could list a bevy of graduates who now work in powerful ad agencies, own their own studios and are creating important work. "That to me is the real downer, to see that CVA will no longer be contributing to the legacy that they built," he said.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna

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