Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Other schools struggle, but art and design center is growing
“If you follow the institutions in higher education across Wisconsin, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a school that’s grown, purposefully, that much.”
As the school year got underway just a few weeks ago at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, the signs of rapid growth were everywhere.
Summer renovations hummed along right up to the moment students arrived. Work carts sat out; wet paint and varnish couldn’t dry fast enough. Students settled into the campus’ single residence hall and into overflow apartments in the Third Ward, where the school is housing parts of its unexpectedly large freshman class.
Today, the school year has settled into a comfortable rhythm.
But the signs of growth remain — they’re just a little more subtle. MIAD is busy investing in opportunities for students through the year-old Innovation Center, through expanded partnerships with companies around Milwaukee and the country, and through plans for expanding its footprint and adding new programs.
While universities and colleges around the state are struggling to keep enrollment strong, MIAD has surpassed even its own leaders’ expectations. In five years, the small art and design school has grown by about 40%.
“If you follow the institutions in higher education across Wisconsin, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a school that’s grown, purposefully, that much,” MIAD President Jeff Morin said.
The success, leaders say, is traceable to some very specific goals: attract and support a diverse student body, maintain strong connections with employers, and give students the chance to apply what they’re learning out in the real world. All those things seek to address students’ greatest fear upon graduation: getting a job.
“We know with our students coming in, they’re already very career-focused,” Morin said. “It runs counter to the myth or the stereotype of an art and design school (in which) people are laissez-faire or casual or not career-oriented. Really, for our students, none of that is true.”
MIAD President Jeff Morin
In a five-year plan for the future, Morin and his team set an enrollment goal of 820 students by fall 2022. They hit that goal and then some — 860 students — at the start of this year.
“Were we expecting it? No,” Morin said. “We thought at the beginning 820 is an ambitious goal. (We thought) it’s a stretch goal and if we get close, we’ll feel good.”
Now, MIAD is already planning for enrollment to hit 1,000.
“The people that come here, they’re already dedicated to their craft at 18,” Morin said. “They’re already focused on their career. So there’s a lot of passion there. The job of MIAD is to provide purpose to that, to provide context.”
And that context is broader than many would expect.
MIAD students and alumni are growing in visibility across Milwaukee and beyond, from interning at NASA to making the art that hangs in Fiserv Forum. MIAD seniors present final projects that range from designing palliative care systems for cancer patients, to air conditioners that work in places with unreliable electricity, to suicide prevention campaigns for trans gender and gender non conforming youth.
“Yes, you would expect that from (the Milwaukee School of Engineering). You expect some of that work coming out of the Medical College (of Wisconsin),” Morin said. “But it’s coming out of MIAD.”
Connor Sannito was only weeks into his college career when he decided to enter into a campuswide design challenge through MIAD’s Innovation Center.
When he won, the sophomore industrial design major got a chance to work with Drew Maxwell, the center’s executive director, on possibly taking his idea — a design for a children’s toy — from a proposal to reality. It was the start of Sannito working on multiple professional projects under Maxwell’s tutelage.
He’s learned to pitch ideas and products, he’s taught himself how to use new technology, how to build a professional persona.
“Working with Drew, through the (Innovation Center), I’ve gotten to learn quite a bit of what the real world after college is like,” Sannito said. “I’m feeling very confident. I’m fueled by passion, and I know MIAD has prepared me and that I’m passionate enough to go for anything.”
The year-old Innovation Center allows students to work on projects “in a space outside grading,” Maxwell said.
“Students can come in and really practice the art of failing upward and really trying something (that doesn’t work) and then reassessing and trying again from a more informed space,” Maxwell said. “To me, that’s something that’s pretty rare for any institution. They’re coming from high school, where they’re just like, ‘Jump through these hoops, get an A, don’t ask why.’”
The center is also a place where MIAD intersects with local businesses year-round, allowing students to spend their time getting paid to do the professional work many art students simply hope to secure post-graduation.
The first of these collaborations came from ink360, a company that prints and designs small batches of bottle labels. The company wanted mock-up illustrations for 60 product lines. Maxwell assembled a team of illustrators.
“They were completely blown away, so much so that in the end, they offered each student a job upon graduation,” Maxwell said.
Other Innovation Center clients include the Milwaukee Ballet, the Marcus Performing Arts Center, Grafton-based printers Philipp Lithographing Co. and Saint Kate - The Arts Hotel.
The chance to learn how to interact with clients, determine the worth of a design, protect intellectual capital, meet deadlines and make pitches is crucial to students’ success post-graduation, said Maxwell, who left a career in the creative fields to come to MIAD. Those who work with the Innovation Center are graduating with a list of contacts and clients right out of the gate, he said.
The connection to potential employers is not just in the Innovation Center. In MIAD’s regular classrooms, students are working on projects involving the likes of Colectivo, Delta Faucet, Harley Davidson and General Motors. About 40% of MIAD industrial design students are graduating with senior projects that have pending patents.
“Working with those instructors, it kind of takes away a little bit of the fear that a lot of students face with graduation. A lot of them think, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to do this?’” said Estephanie Mendoza, a senior studying illustration who returned to school in her 30s to pursue being a comic book cover artist. “When you’re working with instructors who are currently in the field, it gives you that confidence that, ‘Yeah, this is possible.’”
Such “soft skills” are crucial to employers who increasingly ask colleges for empathetic leaders, collaborators, problem-solvers and self-starters, educators say.
“When I first got here, I was so impressed by the amount of intellectual property that our students are developing, regardless of their major,” Morin said.
Art and design education for all
At face value, MIAD is far from the cheapest place to get a college education.
Tuition at the private nonprofit college is $38,850. Add in room and board, art supplies (ranging from $450 to $600 annually for freshman and $600 to $1,000 annually for upper-level students) and the estimated cost of attendance can approach $50,000 before financial aid, which all students receive.
Still, MIAD continues to attract students from a broad demographic. This year, 37% of the student body identified as people of color. Just under half the school’s students are from Wisconsin. Nearly half the incoming class came from low-income households.
Morin, who was a first-generation college student himself, said MIAD’s increased visibility in Milwaukee and beyond has helped recruit and retain more diverse students.
One example is the school’s pre-college program, which provided summer classes to more than 180 students this year. In addition to giving students a taste of MIAD, the programs give participants practical skills, like how to finance college. In another 11-week course, high schoolers finish with a full portfolio in hand, so they can apply to any art program they choose. If they decide to apply to MIAD, they are eligible for a $2,500 scholarship.
A third effort, MIAD’s Future Designers Program, aims to address the underrepresentation of people of color in design industries. It reaches 375 Milwaukee high schoolers annually.
The support continues once students enroll at MIAD. In their first semester, students are connected with mentors, they get connected with alumni and get guidance on majors. MIAD pushes students to declare a major within that first semester.
“We need to make sure, even in the first semester, that we’re talking about the ‘majors dialogue’ where students are seeing what the majors are,” Morin said. “I know a lot of other institutions try to postpone that as long as possible. But we know from our student thinking that that’s what they’re focused on so we might as well relieve that anxiety and build a structure where they can still change their major and not lose too much ground.”
Once they graduate, data indicates MIAD students are finding success. Many intern or land jobs in the Milwaukee area, some at companies and startups in the Third Ward already populated by alums.
On par with national statistics for private schools, only 6.3% of graduates defaulted on their federal student loans in the first two years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. And nearly 40% of MIAD students who come from low-income backgrounds move into the upper middle class, according to Money Magazine’s “Best Colleges for Your Money 2019” ranking. That’s the highest rate for art and design colleges nationwide, Morin said.
Morin said increasing access to MIAD will shape more than just the school.
“Because we have so many students of color, we know that down the road, we will affect the graphic design industry, the industrial design industry, the interior architecture industry because we will be moving a much boarder representational population into those majors and then into those professions,” Morin said.
And if trends hold, four in five of those MIAD graduates will stay in Milwaukee for their first job.
“There’s the big conversation about the brain drain: people coming in for the education and then running for the coast,” Morin said. “We talk about brain gain here. For the creative economy locally, we’re adding to the brain gain.”