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Fine arts program sees continuously failing retention rates

The College of Fine Arts (FA) has struggled with retention numbers in recent years due to faculty changes, a lack of student advising and stereotypes about careers in fine arts.

According to an email sent to The Volante from fine arts dean Larry Schou and from the chairs of each department in the FA, the retention for sophomores this year in visual arts is at 58.3 percent; music is at 68.2 percent and theatre is at 86.7 percent.

As detailed in the fine arts strategic plan, retention rates must reach 85 percent for all departments by May 2020.

Cory Knedler, chair of the art department, said students typically leave the major for issues with funding or bad grades. Another factor which contributes to low retention rates is the political climate, he said.

“Money-wise, I blame that on the economy,” Knedler said. “Since 2008 when the housing bubble burst, a lot of people across the United States have been reluctant to go into liberal arts and fine arts is going to be part of that. In fine arts, people always assume there aren’t going to be good-paying jobs in fine arts, but that’s simply not true. The jobs are out there.”

Knedler said a goal of student advising every semester would create more of a personable approach to working with students and seeing what their needs and interests are.

“I think (advising) has had something to do with the declining grades that I’ve seen, and also with not knowing if (students) need help financially,” Knedler said. “First-year students are not comfortable asking for help. I think we need to do a better job of meeting with the freshman class one-on-one.”

Tasha Determan, a junior fine arts major with an emphasis in sculpture, said students often face a pressure from family when they pursue an art major, which could contribute to the issue of retention.

“I think it’s important for us to educate first-year students about the possibilities of occupations and what you can do with a BFA,” Determan said. “If we could have another class that’s specific to students’ emphasis, like Sculpture 1, that’s a suggestion.”

Reasons for retention drop

David Holdhusen, chair of music, said the lagging retention in music results from faculty turnover, recruitment issues and the political climate.

“In the last few years, we’ve had a little of a downturn,” he said. “We have a lot of new faculty in our department. Any time you have faculty instability, it’s going to hurt recruitment and retention.”

Holdhusen said as the music department recruits more students, some of those students are likely to change their major or make another decision when they come to USD.

“We have really been attempting to recruit more students,” he said. “Sometimes we have recruited students into our music major that… decided that performance or music education is not going to be their calling and found a different avenue for their professional studies. It’s not that they’re leaving the university, it’s that they’re moving to different majors within the university.”

Holdhusen said as the university grows, retention is going to be a concern.

“I don’t think it’s a long-term, serious problem,” he said. “I think we are in the middle of a re-tooling of the department just because of the high number of turnover. I think once everybody, now that we are locked in and our faculty is stable again, I think that our numbers will increase.”

Damon Lamberty, graduate assistant for athletic bands, said the faculty turnover within the music department has been a main contributing factor in regards to retention.

We have had a lot of turnover in the music department in recent years, and I think the lack of consistency with the personnel and the faculty has led to breakdown in communication with some students who were interested to study (music),” he said. “It’s just the way that things are right now.”

SGA fine arts senator Kevin Huizenga, a senior musical arts major, contributes the retention issue to issues with the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts building itself, and to the intensity of a BFA program.

“Students see that the building is run down and can be difficult to work with,” he said. “Fine arts majors are very intensive, and not in the same way that high school or a regular major is. A lot of people come in loving music or art or drawing or something like that and then studying it all the time is a lot on anybody.”

Huizenga said the major can be time consuming, and doesn’t exactly meet students’ expectations of the typical college experience.

“I know people want the full college experience of going out and spending time with friends and doing fun stuff, but practices and performances cut into your extracurricular time. It’s hard to be a super involved student outside of the FA,” he said. “It’s hard for students to really know what they’re getting into until they get here.”

Raimondo Genna, chair of theater, said while the department has surpassed the 85 percent retention goal, ideally, the goal would be a 100 percent retention of students.

“The goal is 100 percent,” he said. “A nice consistent goal would be 85 percent.”

Genna said the department has improved retention rates by identifying marginalized students and pushing them into more active and inclusive roles in the department.

“Getting them active in the shows, even if it’s working backstage or in the shops, making them feel like they’re part of a community has helped tremendously,” he said.