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PORTLAND, Maine — Just beyond the entrance to the onetime department store that now serves as the home of the Maine College of Art & Design is a long room with high ceilings in which students in the gaming and animation programs work.

What sets this room apart isn’t just the colorful sketches and storyboards everywhere, the shelves of action figures or the ubiquitous technology. It’s that there aren’t any walls, and the desks and other furniture can be easily rearranged as students’ interests change.

The gaming and animation workroom at the Maine College of Art & Design doesn’t have any walls, and the desks and other furniture can be easily rearranged as students’ interests change. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

It’s an illustration of the way this tiny college is adapting to the demographic realities that have been shrinking enrollment in higher education for 10 years and that have only gotten worse since the start of the pandemic, with declining birth rates frustrating hopes of any rebound.

As the enrollment crash becomes an existential crisis, what’s happened at this nearly 140-year-old art school shows that colleges and universities can, in fact, transform, by quickly adding programs in response to student and employer demand, better connecting academic offerings to workforce opportunities and generally challenging a culture that resists change.

“The numbers are undeniable,” said Ian Anderson, vice president of academic affairs and dean. “You have to innovate your way off of this demographic cliff.”

In the last five years, more than 60 colleges have closed, merged or announced they will close, including at least 13 since the start of the pandemic.

So MECA&D has loosened up and done something higher education has been slow to do: Give students what they want.

“All of these students want animation and gaming. So let’s give it to them,” said Laura Freid, the college’s president. “We all need to look at, ‘What does an 18-year-old want?’ ”

Demand for traditional arts and crafts majors has fallen nationwide, according to the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, while interest in game design and animation have soared; where 30 percent of MECA&D’s students 10 years ago majored in design, now 60 percent do, college data show. So the school has amped up those programs and created spaces like the flexible workroom that can quickly adjust to future changes in interest.

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It printed up recruiting materials for prospective applicants that, instead of listing majors, list the jobs graduates go on to get, and changed its name in August, adding “& Design.”

It absorbed the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, which teaches the hot subjects of podcasting and documentary film, and added a minor in music — the only music minor at a freestanding art school, MECA&D says — and another minor in entrepreneurship.

“There’s much more attentiveness to how they will be using their degree in the world,” said Jessica Tomlinson, director of the career counseling office.

The college also started what it calls “& Lab,” a course run in another open space with rolling walls and collapsible screens, in which students solve real-world problems and get practical experience, creating work they can add to their portfolios; as its first project, & Lab created the college’s new graphic presentation in conjunction with its name change.

The & Lab is a course housed here, in which students at the Maine College of Art & Design can solve real-world problems and get practical experience, creating work that they can add to their portfolios. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

MECA&D now stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a seemingly small step that acknowledges students’ real-life time constraints but that at other institutions Freid said might be met with disdain.

“Most of those beautiful campuses, the lights aren’t on between 8 p.m. and 10 a.m.,” she said. “But creativity doesn’t come only at 10 a.m. Our students love that they can be connected to the tools they need when they need them.”

Enrollment has increased from a low of less than 330 in the last recession to nearly 500 now, and was up this fall by 15 percent, federal and college data show. This at a time when other higher education institutions saw their numbers drop by 3.2 percent, on top of a 3.4 percent decline last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“We all need to look at, ‘What does an 18-year-old want?’”

Laura Freid, president, Maine College of Art & Design

Students “are voting with their feet,” said Anderson, looking very much like an art school dean in a plaid purple suit, a yellow knit cap and red Adidas sneakers.

If it seems like an obvious idea to attract students by giving them what they want — “modernizing the program portfolio to be responsive to the real needs of the market,” as Huron Consulting Group managing director Peter Stokes, who specializes in higher education, put it —many other colleges and universities still aren’t doing it.

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As enrollment elsewhere continues to erode, “there’s a lot of dialogue going on, and many, many more senior leadership teams are confronting the big questions,” he said. “That does not mean that the faculty are ready [for change], and it does not mean that the alumni are ready, so there are still all kinds of speed bumps and obstacles in the way.”

Among some of these constituencies, he said, “there isn’t yet the widespread recognition that we need to trim, we need to reinvest, we need to focus on this and not that.”

This lack of urgency persists despite the fact that, in the last five years, more than 60 colleges have closed, merged or announced they will close, including at least 13 since the start of the pandemic.

Still, MECA&D and the handful of other institutions that are making wholesale changes appear to be exceptions to that longstanding culture of inertia.

The Maine College of Art & Design, housed in a onetime department store, has responded to falling demand in some majors by amping up its animation and game design programs and adding “& Design” to its name. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

Another small school, private Hartwick College in New York, provides a similar case study. There, enrollment troubles were compounded by the state’s Excelsior scholarship, which provides free tuition at public universities to residents who meet certain income cutoffs. When the program took effect in 2017, Hartwick’s enrollment fell nearly 14 percent, college data show — enough to force “a top-to-bottom change,” said President Margaret Drugovich.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” Drugovich said. “We sat down and said we need a much bolder plan than nibbling around the edges.”

Related: From Google ads to NFL sponsorships: Colleges throw billions at marketing themselves to attract students

The result is a new approach Drugovich calls “radical” for a small, liberal arts college: a focus on postgraduate employability called FlightPath, in which students from the time they arrive are put into classes and experiences on- and off-campus to assess their strengths, figure out their goals, get work experience, create digital resumes and network with alumni, all under the supervision of a guidance team that includes career and success coaches and a faculty adviser.

“The numbers are undeniable. You have to innovate your way off of this demographic cliff.”

Ian Anderson, vice president of academic affairs and dean, Maine College of Art & Design

That, too, is what students say they want. More than eight out of 10 first-year students say improving their chances of getting a good job was very important to them — the most important among their reasons for going to college  — according to a national survey by a research institute at UCLA.

There are other colleges and universities “where the leadership understands they need to push those buttons, but there are faculty who still believe it’s art for art’s sake or education for education’s sake and it’s not their job to get you jobs,” Stokes said. “But parents are absolutely looking at those outcomes.”

Enrollment at Hartwick has begun to inch back up, college figures show.

Annabelle Richardson, a 21-year-old senior at the Maine College of Art & Design, at work in the & Lab. “It felt like the other art schools were big and impersonal and focused on one medium,” Richardson says. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

Back at MECA&D, a student in an animation course presents the storyboard she’s drawn for her short feature, as classmates wearing superhero T-shirts and fluorescent hair await their turns.

“Most of these jobs are still here in the U.S.,” the instructor, animator Adam Fisher, said, gesturing from the doorway at the classroom in which every seat was filled. “It’s definitely an area we want to capitalize on.”

Upstairs in an audio lab, Salt Institute head Isaac Kestenbaum is saying the same thing about the podcasting program. “Audio is obviously having a moment right now. There’s a real demand.” Among other things, he said, “A lot of students want to lift up voices that aren’t usually represented,” telling stories about race and climate change.

Related: College degree doesn’t pay off as well for first-generation grads

While small colleges have faced some of the greatest challenges from the enrollment decline, their size means they can adapt more quickly, said Freid, who is unusual among university and college presidents in that she has an MBA.

Smallness is also something many students say they want.

“I don’t like a huge campus. I didn’t want to have to commute 20 minutes to my next class,” said Lucas Cadena, a sophomore at MECA&D from Dallas, who said he also appreciates the tutoring, counseling and mentorship.

“It felt like the other art schools were big and impersonal and focused on one medium,” said Annabelle Richardson, a 21-year-old senior from Austin, Texas, as she worked in the & Lab. Here, she said, “there are rules, but there aren’t as many rules.”

Freid wonders why more colleges aren’t making changes like these.

“It’s so interesting to me that an industry that’s so transformational for students is itself so conservative, so rigid,” she said.

She declined to speculate about the reason higher education is so change-averse.

“You’d have to talk to somebody else,” Freid said. “A therapist or someone.”

This story about colleges’ enrollment challenge was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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