To the Editor:
In his recent essay, “The Great Master’s-Degree Swindle” (The Chronicle Review, August 5), Kevin Carey is right to raise concern about accelerating educational debt from graduate and professional degrees. He’s not wrong to hold schools responsible — whether for-profit, nonprofit, or public — when they are inconsiderate of or less-than-transparent about the earning potential of those credentials. He’s not wrong to endorse policies that protect consumers and taxpayers from intentional exploitation of student borrowing and unintended consequences from imprudent educational debt.
But he is wrong to indiscriminately condemn colleges and graduate programs in the arts, design and creative industries: “The whole apparatus of university-based arts education is a financial catastrophe for students.”
Worse than wrong, he panders to a persistent prejudice against arts colleges, art students, and an entire class of creative workers who make incalculable contributions to our economy and culture.
It’s worth remembering that extremes, however graphic and worrisome, are not typical.
Master’s degrees in many disciplines often cost more than $50,000 a year. It’s not hard to find students who have imprudently borrowed $100,000 or more to complete them — or worse, dropped out with huge debt and no credential. But this is not the norm.
ROI analyses of post-secondary arts education reveal more cases of satisfied arts graduates with improved earning potential, professional advancement, and job and life satisfaction than cases of imprudent or exploitative borrowing and dead-end careers. (It’s worth noting that visual- and performing-arts graduates make up fewer than 5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees conferred each year in the U.S.)
The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) was created more than a dozen years ago through support from the Surdna Foundation, among other funders, to measure and monitor outcomes for art-school graduates. This voluntary effort at data collection informs art and design colleges about how well or poorly they are doing based on graduate success, prosperity, and happiness. Since it was created, more than 300 schools and colleges have asked their alumni to participate in SNAAP surveys, which have included more than 200,000 respondents across several decades of graduates.
One of SNAAP’s research reports in 2018 looked closely at “recent alumni” graduates. That report revealed that over 30 percent of recent alumni earning a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree in the arts incur no student debt at all to attend their institutions. For alumni of graduate art programs (master’s and doctoral degrees) fewer than 50 percent reported incurring more than $30,000 of debt for their studies.
That same study revealed that:
- 56 percent of early-career undergraduate arts alumni report being “somewhat” or “very satisfied” with their incomes. Fewer than 16 percent report being “very dissatisfied” or unemployed.
- 87 percent of undergraduate arts alumni and 84 percent of graduate alumni rate their educational experience as “good” or “excellent.”
- And while it doesn’t reflect on a financial ROI, recent graduates of art schools report very high rates of “overall job satisfaction,” 74 percent for undergraduate alumni and 76 percent for graduate alumni.
Art and design schools, like other colleges, need to work toward improving the ROI on their programs. Point accepted. But a uniform “financial catastrophe” for art school graduates? No. There’s clear evidence that many art schools are performing well both on a straight-up ROI analysis, but also in terms of career advancement and satisfaction among their alumni.
Finally, many professionals with degrees in the fine and performing arts, design, filmmaking, or creative writing, like those with education or social work degrees, are not compensated like doctors, engineers, or computer scientists. That’s not news to anyone. It’s also no surprise that graduates with art degrees have a greater challenge repaying loans. They should be counseled to avoid excessive debt by the schools collecting their tuition.
What’s gotten lost in the current distress over educational borrowing is the question of why our society rewards this creative workforce so poorly. Why are artists and performers’ career earnings so poor as not to cover moderate levels of educational borrowing? Why do those most concerned about debt among art school graduates just take the poor earnings of these “creatives” for granted? Why conclude that the modest ROI on these degrees warrant less scholarship aid rather than more?
Colleges and universities surely need to work toward more affordable, successful educational methods in these creative fields. We just as surely need to be thinking hard about how to improve financial aid and future earnings for these artists, performers, and designers, the very creative class without whom we would surely be a much-diminished nation and culture.
Douglas Dempster, University of Texas at Austin
Robert Sabal, Emerson College
Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP)