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Corcoran Students Say They Do Not Feel Welcome at George Washington University

The merger was supposed to boost Corcoran students. Instead, they feel snubbed.
Photograph via Flickr user SBC9.

The Corcoran School of Art and Design is nearly finished with its first semester under the aegis of George Washington University. While university administrators spin confidently about the merger, the Corcoran’s students say it’s been a bumpy—and in a few cases, financially ruinous—experience, with some students reporting difficulty in obtaining student loans, finding unexpected fees on their semesterly bills, and feeling a larger sense of being overlooked by their new university.

Kara Frame, a second-year graduate student studying new media and photojournalism, says she had a “WTF” moment when scanning her bill for the spring 2015 semester and noticing a “Corcoran Legacy General Fee” of $200. While Frame says the Corcoran levied a similar fee when it was still an independent institution, it was only paid once per academic year, instead of every semester. But more pressing on Frame’s finances is the $12,000 in personal debt she accrued this year when she charged the tuition for her summer classes to her American Express card because, she says, the Corcoran’s financial aid office neglected to make itself available for graduate students before the summer session began this past May.

“I’m getting calls from this debt collector,” she says. “Well, I sure as hell don’t have it.”

While Frame says the Corcoran College (now School, under GW’s auspices), was already lurching to an administrative halt before the court order, she and her fellow 550 Corcoran students are having a “bumpy and rough” time in the GW community. Besides the now-twice-yearly legacy fee, Frame says lab fees have jumped from $450 per academic year to $700. There’s also a library fee of $25 per semester, she says.

That Corcoran students are paying more than what they expected to when they matriculated appears discredit the merger’s stipulation that students’ costs would remain what the Corcoran announced in April, when it set tuition for the 2014-15 academic year at $31,858 for undergraduates and $1,404 per credit hour for Frame’s new media graduate program. (Other graduate tracks charge $1,258 per credit hour.)

Screenshot from Kara Frame’s bill for the spring 2015 semester.

The former Corcoran organization, effectively broke after 145 years, announced in February the plan to divvy up its museum and art school between the National Gallery of Art and GW. The arrangement went forward in August after a DC Superior Court judge ruled against Save the Corcoran, a group of students, staff, and faculty who tried to block the institution’s dissolution. The verdict came down just one week before the start of classes, leaving GW to integrate 370 students, 21 faculty, and 28 staff from Corcoran on the fly.

Still, Corcoran legacy students say the process is far messier than it needs to be. Frame’s new-media classmate, Caroline Lacey, says Corcoran students have no reliable point-of-contact to speak with about their concerns—a condition caused by GW‘s higher-ups not putting any Corcoran employee into an administrative, dean-like position within the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Instead, Alan Wade, a theater professor, is serving as the Corcoran program’s interim director.

“Symbolically, it says a lot to us about the way we are being integrated,” Lacey tells Washingtonian. “It’s critical for us to have someone in that position who understands the culture and climate of our small community. It feels like we’re in this on our own, totally rogue.”

Candace Smith, GW’s assistant vice president for media relations, acknowledges the crunched window between the court ruling and the start of the academic calendar, but says the university has been forthcoming with the Corcoran bunch, including an invitation to freshman orientation. She also defends the merger as one that will be ultimately beneficial to the Corcoran program.

“They’re still in a small school, but it’s part of a large university,” Smith says. “They have access to all these other programs. And, hey, we’re like a top university in the country, too.”

However prestigious GW is, it’s being lumped into a school with 25,000 other students that also has Corcoran students worried about their program’s future.

“The thing with GW is that the problem they had with us in the first place, they were concerned Corcoran students wouldn’t have to pay for the same things,” says Lacey Irvin, a first-year graphic design student. “We’re not required to take those BS liberal-arts requirement things.”

Irvin feels GW is trying to churn through the current crop of Corcoran students as quickly as possible, and the school does have an obvious financial advantage to graduate them in a timely fashion. Corcoran tuition is nearly $17,000 less than the university’s regular undergraduate rate of $48,700, which makes GW one of most expensive four-year colleges in the country. Current Corcoran students will pay Corcoran rates, adjusted annually, but none of the documentation on GW’s admissions website suggests future applicants won’t pay the full freight.

“It seems like GW isn’t interested in the legacy students,” Irvin says. “We’re the ones who are going to be a burden on them.”

Like Frame, Irvin has also had some billing problems. The student accounts office told her November 24 that she had overpaid by $840. Anticipating a refund, Irvin went Christmas shopping. But last Wednesday, the office called back, saying it had made a clerical error on her spring 2015 bill and that she actually owes an additional $1,500.

Frame says the basic problem is an absence of transparency, something that gnaws at her while she finishes up her thesis project, a documentary and photo collection about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on the marriages of veterans of the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

“It’s upsetting we’re dealing with this when we should be focusing on finals,” Frame says.

To Caroline Lacey, the first semester’s unpleasantness can be summed up in GW’s athletic mascot:

“All of it brings a new meaning to ‘Colonials,’ because that’s exactly what’s happening.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.