Conventional wisdom (and statistics) suggests that getting a degree in art is, financially speaking, a complete waste of time.
Arts program graduates are more likely to end up in low-paying jobs and a Wall Street Journal study found that art school grads actually rack up more debt than those who attend other types of colleges.
But the choice to pursue a higher education isn’t always just about financial gains. And in a world where graduates from all fields are struggling to find decent employment opportunities, does taking a creative path make more sense in the long term?
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"Creativity and innovation are increasing in value in the workplace, and art and design graduates are uniquely prepared to contribute,” says Chris Bliss, the VP of Communications at the California College of The Arts.
“As students, they learn through making in a project-based way. They often work collaboratively and build their ideas through iterative, progressive modeling,” Bliss says.
“Art and design schools have a culture of critique, where students must present their creative work to peers, instructors, and outside experts in a public forum. All great preparation for today’s workplace.”
(Photo: California College of The Arts)
Many arts school graduates would agree with her.
“Studying for an arts-related degree has allowed me to be a creative thinker,” says Alexis Wallsh, who graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree from the University of Syracuse and now works as a publicist for a fine jewelry company.
“The way I visualize projects, strategies, plans etc always keeps me pushing the needle forward and thinking out of the box. I’m constantly asking myself, ‘what else? What else?’ in order to expand upon my original idea.
"I also think I’m able to absorb constructive criticism and make better use of people’s feedback, as we were constantly critiquing each other’s work in class.”
These sentiments were echoed by Alli Rath, a Stanford graduate who majored in Studio Art, and is now studying for a Masters degree in East Asian Studies.
‘If the arts degree has an art history component, I think you will leave with really strong writing and analytical skills that you can use in a whole host of careers, both related to and unrelated to the art world,” she says.
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Like Wallsh, she feels that the creative aspects of an arts-based degree help develop skills that are adaptable to any career path.
“Being able to be creative in my daily life and actually being forced in my coursework to push myself to think outside the box, to consider the issue from every angle, to talk to people about art—all of these skills translate to the real world. So much of art is communication, so I find that artists are really great at connecting with other people and expressing ideas clearly when needed.”
Rath plans to move to China and pursue a job in the art world there after finishing her master’s program. She also intends to continue working on her own art projects.
(Photo: Alli Rath)
But is studying at a well known designated Art School more beneficial than attending a regular university?
“Not everyone has to go to get an $80,000 art degree at Art Center in Pasadena or the like,” says designer Danielle Axelgard.
“I got my art degree at BYU, a regular college rather than a specific art school, and my tuition was much less,” she says.
"If you are passionate about a program, then it’s not about the status or name of the school you are going to, or how much money you are spending. It’s about whether or not you have good professors and are learning things that are beneficial.”
Axelgrad says her path is working for her.
“My degree cost around $10,000 for 4 years, while some of my coworkers had to pay off their $80,000 student loan years after they graduated and we are making the same amount of money and have the same job title.”
Rath agrees with this notion, and suggested that a regular university might better prepare students for their future.
“I would recommend that students get art degrees right now, though I might tend to recommend an arts degree from a university—not a dedicated art school,” she explains.
“I feel that the distribution requirements and general education at a university are stronger and will better prepare artists and art historians for careers in the real world in the event that they decided not to pursue art creation as a job.”
(Photo: Courtesy of the California College of Arts)
So what kind of career paths can an art major hope to follow?
“There is a pressing need for creative people across a broad range of industries,” says Bliss, the Cal Arts official.
“Innovation isn’t the exclusive domain of scientists, programmers, and engineers. Companies and organizations that have traditionally looked to large research universities for talent are now looking for artists and designers—creative people who bring to the workplace unique problem-solving skills, entrepreneurial spirit, and a deep understanding of the user experience.”
Art graduates are also having a huge impact on social innovation by bringing to light and helping to solve important global issues in today’s society.
“Architects and designers have a unique and ethical responsibility to develop environmentally creative solutions,” Bliss says. “Artists play an increasingly significant role in addressing societal challenges as many artists now engage in work that is collaborative and community-based.”
Aside from developing an array of invaluable skills that can be utilized across many career fields, the one resounding positive sentiment that seems to come from any arts graduate we spoke to is the resounding love of the actual academic process.
A recent survey by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) showed that Americans with arts degrees are highly satisfied with their educational and career experiences. Nine out of 10 (87 percent) of the 36,000 arts graduates responding to the survey who are currently employed are satisfied with their jobs.
“I loved being an art student,” Wallsh says. “The world needs more creative people out there. College provided me with the tools for self discovery and risk taking.”
Alli Rath agrees “I genuinely put everything I had into my coursework because I absolutely loved what I was doing.”