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That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn't provide much guidance on managing a career.
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(Photo: Rsinha/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Rsinha/Shutterstock)

Given the economic malaise of the past five years, opting to earn a degree in the arts—never a surefire route to a big salary—has been widely viewed as particularly risky. But a new survey suggests those recent alumni, as a group, are actually doing more than OK.

"Arts graduates are among the happiest professionals in the U.S.," insists the just-released report Making It Work: The Education of Recent Arts Graduates from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project based at Indiana University.

Disputing the "gloomy myths around the value of an arts degree," the report finds overall job satisfaction for people who have graduated with an arts degree over the past five years is quite high, at 75 percent. That figure is down only slightly from that of older graduates, 82 percent of whom say they are satisfied with their current job.

The study suggests universities and other institutes of higher learning are getting better at training arts graduates in the more practical aspects of pursuing their craft.

The report tracked 17,000 alumni who completed an undergraduate or graduate degree in the arts up to five years before being surveyed, along with 88,000 who earned degrees before that time. By far the biggest group of recent graduates—32 percent—earned a degree in fine and studio arts, including photography. Another 15 percent earned a degree in design, with nine percent earning theater and music degrees.

Unsurprisingly, one of the problems they're facing is the same one faced by graduates in virtually every discipline: Higher debt loads than previous generations. Only 31 percent reported they graduated with no student-loan debt, compared to 46 percent of those who graduated before the recession struck. Fourteen percent carried debts of $16,000 or more, which was true of only four percent of their older counterparts.

"Fifty-eight percent of recent graduates report that the amount of debt they incurred has had at least some impact on their career or educational decisions, compared to less than a third of non-recent graduates," according to the report, whose primary author is Jennifer Lena of Columbia University.

Overall, 65 percent of recent graduates report they were able to find work in arts-related fields—down only slightly from the figure reported by older graduates. A slim majority of recent grads, 52 percent, said they were satisfied with their income. That figure is far below the 63 percent of their older counterparts, but is surely reflects the fact they are younger and more likely to be in entry-level jobs.

The study suggests universities and other institutes of higher learning are getting better at training arts graduates in the more practical aspects of pursuing their craft, but this effort remains relatively weak and in need of expansion.

"Only 25 percent of recent graduates and 21 percent of non-recent graduates indicated that their institutions helped them 'some' or 'very much' to acquire or develop financial and business management skills," the report notes. "Only 30 percent of recent alumni and 24 percent of non-recent alumni said the same about entrepreneurial skills."

Somewhat surprisingly, only 27 percent of recent arts graduates reported they received strong training in teaching, while another 32 percent said they received "some" instruction in this regard. "Since so many arts graduates include teaching in their work portfolio later in life, institutions might consider adding workshops or other programs that address teaching skills," the report states.

So while university arts programs do a great job of teaching the techniques of different disciplines, the report suggests they need to do much more to help their graduates navigate the real world.