Good News, Art Students: Your Degree Is Actually Paying Off


The news: With many Americans still feeling the effects of the Great Recession, a frequent refrain about college education is that an arts degree simply isn't worth it. Studying the creative arts is economically risky: Sure, you'll spend four years poring over famous paintings and releasing your creative energies, but your post-graduate life will be one of low income, low employment and misery as a "starving artist."

But a massive new survey from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) suggests those recent arts alumni are actually doing more than OK. People who have earned degrees in the arts are actually thriving, despite the stereotype of the "starving artist" and economy-wide setbacks from the 2008 recession. 

SNAAP argues that arts graduates have actually "found meaningful employment, are satisfied with their lives, and are pleased that they chose to go to an arts school." In fact, they're "among the happiest professionals in the US."

The survey: In their 2014 survey of recent arts graduates, SNAAP analyzed responses from 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. The biggest group of recent graduates (27%) earned a degree in fine and studio arts, while another 15% earned a degree in design.

Strategic National Arts Alumni Project

The survey results show that finding a job wasn't actually as hard as analysts made it out to be. Some 65% of recent graduates report they were able to find work in arts-related fields, and 52% of recent grads said they were satisfied with their income. "That figure is far below the 63% of their older counterparts," notes Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard, "but [it] surely reflects the fact they are younger and more likely to be in entry-level jobs."

Arts graduates aren't just holding their own in the workforce: They're happy doing it. Multiple surveys, SNAAP notes, have repeatedly shown that artists "are among the happiest professionals, according to several national and international surveys — reportedly happier than lawyers, financial managers, and high school teachers." And despite fluctuations in the economy, artists remain happy. Overall satisfaction with the job in which they were spending the majority of their time, among both recent and prior graduates, was very high, at 75% and 82%, respectively.

Strategic National Arts Alumni Project

In contrast to the traditional archetype of the "starving artist," the majority of currently employed SNAAP alumni also indicated they were satisfied with their income, and the majority of arts alumni reported being satisfied with the extent to which their work "reflected their personality, interests and values."

Good news, with caveats: While artists may be doing far better than expected in terms of occupational success, the levels of satisfaction reported by recent arts alums were generally lower than pre-recession graduates, probably due to the changing expectations and requirement for employment and wages in the post-recession economy. 

Part of this responsibility rests with schools themselves. While 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, university arts projects have more work to do to better prepare arts graduates for the modern workforce. 

"Only 25% of recent graduates and 21% 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% of recent alumni and 24% of non-recent alumni said the same about entrepreneurial skills."

And while arts graduates may be happier and better prepared for the workforce than previously thought, they're still facing the same issue virtually every college graduate has to deal with: a higher debt load than previous generations. Some 14% of recent graduates say they left college with more than $16,000 in debt, up from 4% who graduated prior to when the recession struck. Only 31%  of recent graduates reported they graduated with no student-loan debt, compared to 46% of those who graduated before the recession. 

"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," states the report.

Strategic National Arts Alumni Project

The takeaway: If the goal of going to college is to earn a high starting salary, you may want to consider leaving the paintbrushes at home to study engineering instead. But for aspiring artists who pass over arts school in favor of something "more practical," rest assured for that arts degree actually pays off.