High dropout rate for SMFA program

    Tufts’ five-year combined degree program with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) has experienced dropout rates of up to 50 percent in recent years, largely due to financial and scheduling difficulties imposed by the program.

    The combined degree program provides students accepted to both Tufts and the SMFA with the opportunity to graduate with both a Bachelor of Fine Arts and either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree at the conclusion of the five-year program.

    The program in 2009 graduated nine out of the 18 students who had originally entered the program in 2004, according to Susan Lush, associate dean of academic affairs for undergraduates at the SMFA. Similarly, nine of the 16 students who enrolled in the fall of 2005 completed the program in 2010, Lush said.

    Students typically drop out of the combined degree program in their fourth year, opting instead to receive only a Tufts degree rather than both the Tufts and SMFA degrees conferred through the program, according to Lush.

    Lush said that although the dropout rate is high, the small number of students in the program means individual dropouts alter the statistics significantly year to year.

    “The dropout rate has been as high as 50 percent at certain points depending on the number of students,” Lush told the Daily. “Considering the economy, we are actually surprised at the retention rate we’ve been able to maintain.”

    Students often drop out of the combined degree program for financial reasons, she said.

    “Typically, it’s a money issue,” Lush said. “Combined-degree students have to pay for an additional year of tuition. Students see their friends graduating and get burned out.”

    Combined-degree students pay five years of tuition to Tufts and receive five years of financial aid from Tufts. The SMFA does not provide any financial assistance to Tufts students, according to Lush.

    Although financial demands can play a role in whether students choose to stay in the combined degree program, students said that logistical difficulties and academic restraints also affect their decision.

    The SMFA reduced its graduation requirements in 2006 from 93 studio art credits to 84, in addition to 24 academic credits required by Tufts, in recognition of the fact that many students could not complete the program, according to Lush. Four SMFA credits are equivalent to one Tufts credit.

    Amy Connors, a Tufts junior who withdrew from the program after two years, said she was not surprised by the dropout rate.

    Connors said the large number of studio classes the SMFA requires can make it difficult for combined-degree students to switch their major at Tufts.

    “The credit requirements are definitely an issue,” Connors said. “If you don’t have a concrete plan on what you’re going to major in at Tufts and the SMFA, it’s hard to catch up.”

    The SMFA is planning to make further adjustments to the credit requirements for incoming students, although the school has not yet decided the specific changes, according to Lush.

    By giving students greater flexibility in scheduling, reduced requirements could improve the retention rate of the program, Lush said.

    Scheduling classes at both the SMFA and Tufts can be complicated. A typical studio class at the SMFA lasts from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which often prevents combined-degree students from taking Tufts and SMFA classes on the same day and limits their course selection, according to Lush.

    “There’s no magic bullet for the scheduling issue,” Lush said. “Our schedule makes it very challenging for students to come up with a schedule that works, especially if they want to take a lot of academic classes.”

    Starting next fall, the SMFA plans to add more evening classes in order to accommodate the schedules of combined-degree students, according to Lush.

    Fourth-year combined-degree student Suzanne Grossman said that a lack of academic support from SMFA administrators makes it difficult for students to complete the program.

    “It’s difficult as a combined-degree student because they don’t look out for you in a way that’s different from the art students. We all get lumped together,” Grossman said. “I really love the program, but the advising system is a weak part.”

    Lush explained that students are assigned faculty mentors at the beginning of the program, and most of the mentors only teach day classes. Students transferring into the program after their first semester at Tufts or students who only take evening classes typically are not assigned a mentor and tend to “fall through the cracks,” according to Lush.

    “We need to make sure combined-degree students are plugged into that system better,” Lush said.

    “Because it’s not structured and a lot to keep track of, its easy for people to lose motivation,” Grossman said. “I’m able to navigate [the combined-degree program] because I’m very confident in what I want to get out of it.”

    Lush noted that with new SMFA President Christopher Bratton, the school plans to make additional changes to the program that would make it easier for Tufts students to graduate with a combined degree rather than choosing to pursue just one degree halfway through the program.

    Tufts Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeanne Dillon and Connors pointed out that logistical and academic demands are inherent in the combined degree program, but the potential benefits of the program outweigh its downsides.

    “Students have to navigate two different worlds, but it’s two four-year degrees we’re smashing into five years,” Dillon said. “Students can definitely get a lot out of that.”

    “It’s a great opportunity, but it’s very different on paper [than] it is in actuality,” Connors said. “People have to understand that you’re splitting yourself between two campuses and getting two different college experiences, but that shouldn’t deter people if they really want the degree.”