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Fine-Arts Degree Myths

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As we approach Thanksgiving, current college-bound high school seniors are in the midst of their college application processes. Those who have applied Early Action or Early Decision are waiting for their decisions, which will be coming out in about a month or so. Others will be applying Regular Decision after the first of the year.


Many of those applicants already know which fields of study they will pursue once enrolled on campus next fall. Others may be undecided and will explore their distribution requirements to get a feel for the direction they want their higher education to go. The goal for most of these students is to get a meaningful job after graduation that will put them onto the path for a successful life's work. In many cases, the type of their degree will determine the arc of accomplishing that goal.

Let's take a look at one particular type of degree and address some issues surrounding it. I'm talking about the fine-arts degree. I graduated with a degree in music history and literature. Technically, that's a fine-arts degree, but in looking back across the courses I took, I consider it more of a general liberal arts degree. I had many courses not directly related to music that have helped me manage my life's work and thus, I think quite favorably about fine-arts degree programs.

Filter out the Misconceptions

There's a big misconception out there among (especially) parents and others that getting a degree in the liberal arts, particularly in the fine arts, is a waste of time and money. The thinking is that unless you can graduate from college with some kind of degree in an area of technical expertise (engineering, biology, economics, accounting, etc.), you're destined not only to live a life of quiet desperation but also to make low wages for the rest of your life. At least from my perspective and experience, that's simply not true.

I've always believed that passion, motivation, creativity and a little luck can go a long way toward overcoming the myths about the worth and potential of fine-arts degrees. I have done well, overall, across my working life. The skills I learned in my liberal arts/fine arts curriculum gave me enough resources and focus to survive a number of economic ups and downs.

The simple fact is that not all of us are cut out for those technical degree programs. I started out in a business administration major my first year in college. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life then, so the gravitational default back in those days, and even today to a large extent, is to do something "meaningful" (whatever that means). I hit the wall early after having to stay up all night several times, working on accounting projects. My balance sheets never seemed to balance. That's when I discovered I was not a "numbers" guy.

Coincidentally, that same first year, I took a music history survey course, and somewhere in the midst of that, my true passion emerged for classical music history and literature. So I switched majors from business to music. The rest, as they say, is (music) history. To emphasize my point, let me cite an encouraging article from the 2013 Wall Street Journal: A Fine-Arts Degree May Be a Better Choice Than You Think. This article is behind the Journal's paywall, so if you don't have an account, you'll have to rely on my excerpts here, but they should be enough to substantiate my point.

Study Finds Happy and Employed Artists

Writer Daniel Grant notes, "Think that art school dooms graduates to a life of unemployment? The numbers paint a very different picture." Well, I don't think that way, but maybe you (parents) do. Let's see some highlights from what those "numbers" (back then) said. Grant leads off with this encouraging note:

"Artists can have good careers, earning a middle-class income," says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "And, just as important and maybe more, artists tend to be happy with their choices and lives."

A 2011 report from the center found that the unemployment rate in the first two years for those graduating with bachelor of fine arts degree is 7.8%, dropping to 4.5% for those out of school longer. The median income is $42,000 … [a figure from eight years ago]

I particularly love that comment, "And, just as important and maybe more, artists tend to be happy with their choices and lives." That's my story.

… Other studies have also found relatively high levels of employment and satisfaction. The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University conducted a survey of 13,000 graduates of visual and performing college-arts programs between 1990 and 2009; 2,817 were in the fine arts.

Among the findings: Almost 83 percent worked the majority of their time in some arts occupation, such as art teaching or in a nonprofit arts organization.

Okay, I didn't become a concert pianist or compose a symphony, but I have worked as a broadcaster, having had my own classical music radio program on FM for over 14 years. That endeavor brought me untold satisfaction, as the big box of happy-listener letters in my basement confirms.

… Bruno S. Frey, research director of the Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts at the University of Zurich [reports] … Of all arts professions, fine artists, writers and composers were found to be the happiest, because "the profession they have chosen gives them autonomy, and that makes them happy …"

There it is -- the key: Happiness! I think it has something to do with the soul. True happiness radiates from within. What good does making a big six-figure income do if the work involved is depressing, stressful or completely unsatisfying? Granted, money can make life easier, but should our goal be to get through life with the least-possible amount of resistance?

In related comments about the WSJ article, Chris Morran, writing for Consumerist.com notes in his article aptly titled Busting The Myth That Fine-Arts Degrees Lead To The Poorhouse:

There's a widely held conception that people who earn degrees in the fine arts — painting, sculpture, dance, music, theater, among others — are throwing money away on a degree that can reap no long-term benefits. But the fact is that a fine-arts degree is no real hindrance to making a decent living in the real world …

… While some people leave behind their easels and trombones when they graduate and go get jobs unrelated to their studies, the Journal cites a Vanderbilt University study of around 2,800 fine-arts graduates and found that, between 1999 and 2009, 4 out of 5 of these artists had found work related to their studies.

So if your kids are talking about wanting to go to college and pursue an education in the arts, don't assume that this is necessarily a dead-end full of debt, when it could be the start of a long and happy career (or at least a good way to spend four years).

Arts Degree Holders Report High Job Satisfaction

That's excellent advice, and to add to that, in a quantitative sense, I found some additional information that further disputes the myths of fine-arts degrees being bad for a life's work. A 2014 Smithsonian.com article, Arts Degrees: Not Entirely Worthless, notes that recent graduates of arts degrees report high job satisfaction and employment numbers. Here's an excerpt:

An education in the arts is widely acknowledged to be good for the soul: it promotes creativity, lateral thinking and an appreciation for some of the more beautiful or interesting parts of human endeavor. But as a way to make money, arts degrees are often seen as a gamble. Compared to fields like business, engineering or technology, the arts just aren't the easiest place to make a living. Yet according to a new report, most arts students are making it work — even if the arts education they received wasn't quite up to snuff.

A new survey by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project that looked at the successes of people who've graduated with arts degrees—getting higher-education training in everything from fine art, film, design and architecture to creative writing — found that most graduates go on to get a job in the arts, says Pacific Standard.

"... 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 lesson of this story, then, is that following your heart into the arts doesn't guarantee that you'll become a starving artist. If you're thinking about higher education in the fine arts, don't allow common wisdom (a.k.a. "myths") to derail your focus. Do your homework and make the best possible decision. After all, it is your life.