Krista Rothwell recalled the first time she saw the future site of the Delaware College of Art and Design (DCAD), a two-year art school in downtown Wilmington. It was 1997. She had just finished up her portfolio interview in the Chase Bank building, where the new school had temporarily set up shop, and the director of admissions offered to give a tour to the prospective students.
When they reached the main building on Market Street, Rothwell found to her surprise that it was still a construction site.
“She handed us hard hats, and said ‘OK, we can’t actually go all the way in. You have to just look,’ ” she said.
Rothwell said an older, wiser version of herself may have been discouraged. But she was eager to start her education. She had taken a year off after high school and settled on studying art. The question was whether she would make the leap to an expensive, four-year school, far away from her home in rural Maryland, or pick the two-year option.
She decided on DCAD, and graduated in 1999. After getting her bachelor’s degree at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, she joined the faculty at DCAD and is now the registrar and assistant dean.
Built inside the former headquarters of Delmarva Power & Light, DCAD was never your average art school. It fashioned itself as a practical starting point for students interested in art and design. Two decades later, DECAD has stuck to that model. But the school has also learned to adapt, tweaking its programs to attract new students.
One metric for success has been the number of students attending DCAD, which has fluctuated between 150 and 250. The current number is 160, according to Rothwell, which is down from a peak in 2011. The drop reflects a slow decline sparked by the recession in 2009.
That same year, Stuart Baron, a professional artist turned teacher and administrator, took over as president. He said the downturn wasn’t fully felt until at least 2012.
“There’s always a lag in higher education between the time when there is any kind of general economic downturn and when it finally hits colleges and universities,” Baron said.
One reason for the delay, Baron explained, is that families who have money saved up for their child’s educa-tion are often optimistic at first. Then, as the downturn wears on, saving accounts shrink and so do options.
Rothwell singles out another factor: increased competition for students from larger institutions.
“Some of these bigger [schools] were sort of latching on to the pool of students that we normally would garner,” she said. “So there was some adjustment there.”
DCAD responded to the downturn by offering “tracks” within each of its six majors intended to give prospective students a clearer sense of where their degree could take them professionally.
Within the photography major, for instance, the school now offers tracks in commercial photography, photojournalism, and fine art photography.
“It was difficult for students in high school to know what the majors entailed just by their description,” Baron said. The tracks added clarity for the more career-minded students.
More recently, the school started developing a co-op program that would connect students with companies for extended internships. The administration started working on the idea three years ago after visiting Drexel University, which is known for its robust co-op program.
“Art and design schools do not do this,” Baron said. “They will allow students to do internships as a three-credit course at some point in their college career. However, we didn’t see that as quite enough for what our students wanted to do.”
The school will offer two internships that together will span two semesters — an entire school year — and take place between a student’s first and second year. The official launch is next fall.
Specific programs aside, Baron said the school’s two-year model is an advantage when it comes to attracting students, particularly during tough financial times.
“Our students may not be able to gain entrance to some of the best art and design schools in the country coming right out of high school,” he said. “But they come here for two years, and they can practically name any school they want to go.”
Cost is also part of the appeal. DCAD’s tuition is just over $23,000 per year, which is about half what most private four-year art schools charge, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
“I don’t think there’s any interest in becoming a four-year college,” Rothwell said. “I think the model that we have is really successful and works well for our students.”
According to its own analysis, DCAD graduates who transfer to a four-year art school generally have a
30 percent higher chance of graduating than students who started college at those schools. Baron chalked up this success to the level of preparation that the school provides.
For many students, however, the appeal still lies in school’s tight-knit community.
Whitney Thompson, a second-year student who is the first in her family to attend college, knew coming out of high school that she wanted to study art. It was just a matter of finding the right fit. She said that, at first, a four-year college was on the table.
“I thought about that, too,” Thompson said, “and I felt that DCAD was nice because it was like a head start. There are only two years, and after that, you transfer somewhere else.”
Rothwell said the sense of community that formed during the school’s early years has endured.
“The community piece of that has never gone away,” she said. “You would think over time with things growing that something would get lost in the shuffle or there would be other priorities. But I think that’s part of what makes this such a good place for a certain kind of student.”