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American art schools brace for positive discrimination policy ban

Affirmative action efforts by American colleges and universities to improve educational opportunities for members of minority groups and women, which were first declared constitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1978 and reaffirmed by the same court in 2003, are expected to be struck down as unconstitutional by the majority of members of the current high court. The court heard arguments on 31 October 2022 defending the practice by lawyers representing both the University of North Carolina and Harvard University and by those attacking it from a group called Students for Fair Admissions, which initially brought lawsuits against the two universities in 2014. College admissions departments, including those at art colleges, are preparing for what many see as inevitable.

Eliminating affirmative action does not mean that universities will no longer seek to create a student body with a wide mix of races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. “There are other ways of finding out someone’s race than asking,” says Ravi S. Rajan, the president of the California Institute of the Arts. “We use a variety of diversity indicators.” One of these is placing greater emphasis on in-person interviews, as well as interviews through Zoom calls.

Many art colleges are increasing their recruiting in low-income communities, targeting certain postcodes, with admissions staff also paying attention to what applicants disclose about themselves in their application essays. Standard portfolio assignments for applicants, such as “draw a bicycle”, have been replaced by recommendations that prospective students submit images that reflect their families, their upbringings and themselves. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, admissions counsellors receive “cultural competency training” in order that they not show bias against portfolios that do not reflect extensive training and to enable them to “read applicants’ essays for what they indicate about an applicant’s background”, Elissa Tenny, the school’s president, says.

The older system, on which art colleges traditionally relied, emphasised the quality of a prospective student’s portfolio, which accompanies the admissions application form and includes a variety of drawings and other artworks. “There are problems in focusing so strongly on the portfolio,” Rajan says, specifically that a strong portfolio may reflect the fact that an applicant attended a high school where there was an ample quantity of art instruction or that an applicant might have taken a portfolio preparation class, both of which suggests that the applicant came from a wealthy background and likely was white. “Technical prowess doesn’t measure if someone is creative,” he says. “We look at the ideas and stories being presented, the voice of the artist.”

Of the 725 current students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), 62% are categorised as white/Caucasian, with African Americans making up 7% and Hispanic/Latinos and Asian Americans equally comprising 9%, according to Sanjit Sethi, the president of the college, who notes that a long-term goal is to reduce that white/Caucasian percentage to just half while increasing the proportion of other groups. “This is part of the demographic shift that all of us are facing,” he says. “Multicultural identity will become more prevalent and enriching.”

There are other ways of finding out race than asking. We use a variety of diversity indicators

Ravi S. Rajan, president, CalArts

MCAD’s demographic numbers and percentages are typical for most private art colleges. At the Kansas City Art Institute, white students make up 66.5% of the student body, while African American students comprise 6.5% and Hispanic/Latino students 12.2%. At Moore College of Art and Design, 60.8% of students are white while 14% are African American and 7.1% are Hispanic/Latino. The student body at Maine College of Art and Design is 75.3% white, 7% Hispanic/Latino and under 5% African American. California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) is 42% percent white, 15% Hispanic/Latino, 16% Asian and 7% African American.

Yvette Sobky Shaffer, the Cleveland Institute of Art’s vice-president for enrolment management and marketing, says the college’s admissions requirements will be adjusted based on the Supreme Court’s ruling. She adds that the college has already emphasised working with high school students in the region to prepare them for an art college experience, for instance by providing lower-income prospective applicants with “low-cost and free programming that helps them build up a skill set” so that they are able to submit high-quality portfolios. “My best chance of making an impact as a leader in higher education is to first serve local students who have local support structures in place,” she says.

Tough grades for art schools

To a degree, the challenges that art colleges face in attracting and retaining a diverse student population are no different than those at nearly all non-profit colleges and universities in the US, as they are enrolment-driven—determining how many full-time faculty need to be hired, how much discretionary funding can be devoted to student programming, faculty research or other programmes, and the amount of salary increases in a given year for staff and faculty—and tuition-dependent (nearly all colleges and universities in the US rely on tuition revenue for the majority of their annual operating costs).

Art colleges, however, have additional obstacles in producing a diverse student body. According to a 2014-15 report by the US Department of Education, most of the colleges with the highest net tuition (the cost of attendance less any grants and scholarships for which a student may be eligible) in the country are art colleges, conservatories and architecture schools. Topping the list of the 20 most expensive schools are CalArts, Ringling College of Art and Design and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; others on that list include Pratt Institute, Otis College of Art and Design and the Art Center College of Design.

“Tuition at art colleges isn’t higher than at other elite colleges,” says Rachel Schreiber, a faculty member and, until last year, executive dean at Parsons School of Design at the New School and a member of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD) committee on diversity, equity and inclusion. The problem is that art colleges “have smaller endowments and can’t give as much in aid to needy students”, she says. Additionally, art students have “higher material costs” than their counterparts at liberal arts colleges and those expenses come out-of-pocket, she adds. The high costs of paying for art school itself works against efforts to promote diversity.

Even when art colleges are able to recruit from minority populations for whom the cost of art training is not prohibitive, “the long-held belief that studying art only leads to a lifetime of unemployment” works against the willingness of parents to underwrite this type of education, Schreiber says. As a result, according to Deborah Obalil, the president and chief executive of the AICAD, “Our data has shown that student diversity has continued to trail the national population even if marginal gains have been made over the years.” The more positive trend, she adds, is that the faculty at the AICAD schools has generally become more diverse. “We’ve seen significant gains in non-white hires.”

A decision in the cases before the Supreme Court is expected by June.

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