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College grapples with value of arts education in tough times

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In a food truck parked outside the Maryland Institute College of Art — known as MICA — Russell Imwold works the lunch rush. This week’s special: a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Last week I did, like, bacon chili cheeseburger french fries, and that was really popular,” he says.

A food truck near a college campus? Not much new there. Except this truck is actually owned by the college. Maggie Sabo works the counter. She says MICA needed a mobile kitchen to serve a growing campus of far-flung buildings near downtown Baltimore. “We realized that to meet the needs of the students and where the students are…it’s easier for us to go to them,” she says.

Never mind all the fuss these days about the need to get a “practical” education. Enrollment at MICA has grown by more than 50 percent in the last decade, to about 2,200 students. It’s added seven new graduate programs in the last few years. That’s a lot more mouths to feed with reasonably priced vegan falafel patties and hand-breaded chicken tenders.

“There’s nothing on the menu that’s over $8,” says Sabo.

Full disclosure: my husband works at MICA. When he first told me about the food truck, students and faculty had been asked to vote on the name. They chose the Starving Artist, but the Administration thought better of it. “A lot of people…took exception with that, I guess because so many artists after graduating are starving,” Imwold says.

That’s not quite the message you want to send when you charge $38,000 a year tuition. They went with the Artist’s Palate instead. Get it?

MICA is well aware that many families are starting to question the price of art school. Theresa Bedoya is vice president for admission and financial aid. She says applications fell last year for the first time in 20 years. The college is spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to reduce costs.

“It’s absolutely in the forefront of our thinking at this time, because the economy has been in a recession, people are asking these questions more and more about the value of higher education,” she says. “But we for years have said this is not a sustainable model.”

MICA senior Erica Sadler stopped by the food truck for a quick $4 quesadilla on her way from a work-study job. She’s an interdisciplinary sculpture major, which includes performance art and installation. “This year my thesis is all about outdoor survival and outdoor living,” she says. “I’m making a hammock and I’ve made some herbal tinctures and stuff like that.”

Sadler says she’ll graduate with $120,000 in student loans. “I kind of wish someone would have, like, knocked some sense into me,” she says. “I was, like, 18 years old, thinking I had to go to college and not thinking about the financial issues and now I’m like, ‘Oh my god. Why did my parents let me go here?’”

MICA’s Theresa Bedoya says she has those conversations with students — to make sure they understand what they’re getting into. But when studying art is their dream, she says they often don’t want to hear it.

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