Commencement was particularly bittersweet Saturday at the Corcoran College of Art and Design as diplomas were granted to the last class to know the institution as an independent school.

Starting next semester, George Washington University will take over one of the country’s oldest art schools, a move forced on the Corcoran by financial troubles. No longer able to support the school’s own programs, the administration fashioned a plan it hopes will maintain the school’s legacy while providing more resources to its students.

This final commencement marked both a death and a renewal for the school, placing the remaining student body, the faculty and what school officials call the “Corcoran spirit” in the hands of GWU as it integrates them into its academic structure.

For board members who have struggled to keep the school alive, the ceremony was an occasion to embrace the impending change.

“Over the last several months, I have reflected on the word legacy,” said board member Anne Edwards. “The graduates of 2014 will inherit the Corcoran’s future.”

Graduates fill out forms for event photos before the ceremony. 2014 will mark the last graduating class before the school merges with George Washington University. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)

Over years of decline, Corcoran classrooms deteriorated, studio space was scarce and students had limited access to supplies and technology, said Peggy Loar, interim director and president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the College of Art.

The National Gallery of Art will absorb and manage the Corcoran’s art collection, and GWU will maintain the building. Tuition will not be increased in the fall, and full-time faculty members will be given one-year contracts.

There is no guarantee that dozens of adjunct instructors and staff will have jobs after the 2014-15 academic year.

But some things will not be altered. The school name, for example, will still be emblazoned on diplomas along with the GWU seal.

“You will always be a graduate of this institution, the Corcoran,” Loar assured students during the commencement ceremony Saturday.

“We have had our times of disruption at the Corcoran,” she added, noting that without the Black Death, “we would’ve never experienced the Renaissance.”

Next year, students will have greater resources, better facilities, innovative tools and access to other disciplines within the larger institution, Loar said.

But to some graduates, and those who remain, the future is fraught with uncertainty.

James Bonilla looked over the faces in his graduating class — some of his colleagues posing for pictures, others laughing and a few just eager for the program to begin at the DAR Constitution Hall.

The 22-year-old graphic design major said he chose Corcoran because it was an intimate community of artists — a characteristic he worries will be difficult to maintain when the school becomes one small part of a large university.

“It’s lost its autonomy, but I hope it will not lose everything,” he said. “It’s like a family. Everyone knows each other. Its size and accessibility makes up its identity.”

As a new-media photojournalism student two years ago, Oliver Contreras said he fell in love with the Corcoran spirit.

“I love the community because it’s small . . . and am happy with it as it is,” said Contreras, an immigrant from Chile.

The close-knit college of about 1,000 students will be swallowed by an institution with a student body 20 times that size.

Contreras said he is optimistic, although he sympathizes with classmates who fear the college’s distinctive voice will be eroded.

“GW is the entity that’s going to help us, and we have to believe Corcoran administrators are doing their best to keep the community and spirit,” he said. “It’s our identity. We are not GW.”