The Benefits and Drawbacks of Dual-Degree Programs

"Smart" and "cool" needn't be kept apart, and many smart kids who want to be artists and artistic kids who want a rigorous academic program have been frustrated by the need to make a choice.
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Each year, approximately 150 students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design go back and forth, up and down the hill, to take a course at each other's institutions. The RISD students are most apt to take a foreign-language or natural-sciences course at Brown, while Brown students come to take a studio art class.

The relationship between Brown and RISD has existed for decades, and a number of independent art schools have similar arrangements with nearby colleges. There might be more such students if it weren't for the administrative and scheduling hassles they must overcome. For instance, Brown operates on a trimester system, while RISD goes by semesters; the school calendars are not aligned; and the two institutions count credits differently. There is a healthy respect between the students on each campus. Stephen Lassonde, deputy dean of the college at Brown, noted that "the kids at Brown think that RISD students are cool, and kids at RISD think everyone at Brown is smart." But the logistical problems have limited the interaction of the students and perhaps narrowed their career paths.

"Smart" and "cool" needn't be kept apart, and many smart kids who want to be artists and artistic kids who want a rigorous academic program have been frustrated by the need to make a choice. So, in 2008, Brown and RISD inaugurated a five-year dual-degree program in which students who have applied and been accepted into both institutions (between 13 and 15 per year) can take a full course load of academic classes at Brown and studio-art courses at RISD. They earn a B.A. at Brown and a B.F.A. at RISD, the hitch being that they have to shell out a fifth year's tuition.

"One of the things that schools are very good at doing is compartmentalizing knowledge and inquiry," said David Bogen, associate provost for academic affairs at RISD. "One of our aims with the dual-degree program is to disrupt that compartmentalization, so that students with, say, strong scientific interests, as well as strong art and design skills, can bring all their talents to bear."

During the program's first year, students live on the RISD campus, taking foundation courses and getting a taste of what art school is like, although they are permitted to take up to two classes at Brown. The second year, students live at Brown, taking a full load of academic classes, and they are allowed to take up to two courses at RISD. In the third year, they may pick the campus on which to reside; and, during the fourth and fifth years, they may live on either campus or off-campus. Over the five years, these students earn 40 percent of their credits at Brown and the rest at RISD. Most will have completed their academic requirements early on, devoting the last two years to studio-art classes, so it is likely that they will be principally at RISD for those.

The dual-degree program has worked well with students who can take advantage of the strengths of both institutions. Elizabeth Soucy, of Farmington, Conn., who is in her third year, is majoring in industrial design at RISD and environmental studies at Brown. "There is a huge connection between the two," she said, "and I am focusing my studies within their intersection of sustainable design."

While it's the most recent, the Brown-RISD dual-degree program is not the only one of its kind. Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, have run a combined degree program since the late 1970s. That also requires applicants to be accepted by both institutions and has 12 to 15 students entering each year. It isn't as easy to go from Tufts to the museum school -- a shuttle bus between the two operates throughout the day on a two-hour schedule, and the trip takes about 40 minutes -- and the experience has been only partly successful.

"There is a lot of bouncing between schools," said Susan Lush, associate dean of academic affairs at Tufts. The program's dropout rate is about 50 percent, she said, with dropouts generally occurring in the program's last two years, when those students tend to choose to attend Tufts full time.

"Some students run out of money or get burned out," Lush said. "In most cases, the students decide they want to graduate with their class" -- the students with whom they entered college. Because they took the bulk of their academic classes at Tufts early on in the combined degree program, with their last two years principally taking studio-art classes at the museum school, it is easier to leave the art training behind.

College, of course, is not just a time to train for a career; it is also a time when students form strong, personal bonds with their peers, and that may be the largest hurdle for dual-degree students and the administrators of such programs. Spending a year here, a year there, going back and forth between institutions, and being in a program that few of their classmates know anything about, lessen their ability to establish and maintain relationships. There can also be a bit of a culture clash.

Nora Chovanec, of Arlington, Va., is a 2010 graduate of the Tufts-Museum School program who studied photography and printmaking at the art school and women's studies at Tufts. She said students at the two institutions often viewed their counterparts less as individuals than as types -- the snobby smart kids at one, the artsy kids at the other -- and "you have to work to overcome stereotypes."

Students in the Brown-RISD dual-degree program have experienced some of the same difficulties in attaching themselves to students on either campus. "RISD is great for making close friends in the way that the curriculum and housing were set up," said Caitrin Watson, a third-year student from Stamford, Conn. "But when we switched schools, many of us lost the close connections that we made freshman year with the pure-RISD students."

Still, for some students, and sometimes their parents, the dual-degree program is the only way they can accept the idea of going to art school. "My parents always told me that art was a hobby, not a career," said Soucy. And Watson said, "RISD is the only art school I applied to, and I wouldn't have considered going just to art school."

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