The Value of an Art Degree

Many majors and degrees sometimes don't seem to track into obvious jobs.
Parents and prospective students often ask:

"What's the Value of an Art Degree?"

The following four examples and case studies should help to answer this question.

I.  In the past 10 to 15 years, an increasing number of studies have emphasized different ways of looking at the
21st-century job market and the desirable educational background, skill set, and attitudes of the new work force. It is within this context that ART degrees emerge as increasingly important. Although an undergraduate degree in ART may not translate into more traditional-looking “jobs” for graduates, in fact, it does prepare students
exceptionally well for economic life in the 21st century. It is important to note that almost everything we wear, sit on, look at, hear, and touch was created with input from creative professionals, a field to which artists belong and in which they engage with hearts, minds and hands. This applies not just to “digital arts” but also to painting,
drawing, sculpture, ceramics, photography, and printmaking.

According to the US Department of Labor, an average worker will have eight different careers during his/her
productive work life. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine that any particular degree or job training would prepare a student for such an environment. A degree in ART is an exception to this rule because it incorporates a variety of proficiencies—the flexibility, adaptability, and creativity needed to succeed in the 21st-century workforce.

Most research recognizes that the best jobs available in 10 years do not exist yet and that most jobs are
changing so fast that specific training and knowledge acquired during the first two years in college may be
outdated by the time of graduation. Luckily, ART is different because it focuses on developing lifelong attitudes, values, and ever-applicable skills.

Life “satisfaction” relative to a career in ART reports 87% satisfaction—a much larger percentage of
contentedness than reported by other alumni groups (compared to a 47% satisfaction score in accounting).

ART majors show a higher degree of entrepreneurship than business majors, another necessary skill required to survive—and thrive—in the 21st-century economy.

Below are a few of the key proficiencies acquired by all ART students during the course of their studies—each proficiency critical to success in navigating future job markets (based on data available through STRATEGIC NATIONAL ARTS ALUMNI PROJECT).

  • ART students tap into creative flow
    The sketchbook-toting ART student may be a cliché, but that sketchbook (and its contemporary digital equivalent) is really a capture source for an outpouring of ideas. Ideas for projects are sketched or notated, collaged and outlined—invariably each assignment yields more ideas than can be carried through at that
    moment. A surplus of visual and thought concepts exist, which can be returned to again and again. Most
    importantly, having been required to brainstorm project ideas, students understand this important
    21st-century skill.
  • ART students synthesize
    Unlike many undergraduate degrees which require students to analyze, interpret, deduce, and break down a subject into smaller parts for closer examination, undergraduate artists are also asked to unify complex and often contradictory ideas into a larger whole. Successful artwork balances form and content, so artists bring in ideas and learning from many fields of knowledge and transform these ideas into something new by paying close attention to the historical, cultural, and symbolic context of their chosen media.
  • ART students research

    In order to create an image or object, an ART student sifts through historical and contemporary sources. He/she makes written notes or reflections on these sources. He/she considers appropriate materials,
    methods, and techniques that emerge from this conceptual process to emphasize ideas. In many educational fields, this type of original research is not expected of students until upper-division undergraduate or even graduate classes. In an undergraduate ART degree program, students are expected from day one of their freshman years to develop original research projects—their artwork.

  • ART students learn discipline and focus

    The level of focus of ART students as they work on their projects is intense. Students learn not just by
    looking or reading, but by experimenting, trying, and trying again and then again to get better and better. They see progress occur in increments over time, as they accumulate techniques and recreate versions of an idea or object. By the time they are ready to exhibit their culminating artwork, even though they have not yet “mastered” their chosen medium (this can take a lifetime), they have a visceral understanding of the time, tenacity, and ongoing disciplined practice it takes to get really good at something.

  • ART students learn to give and take criticism

    The primary pedagogical contribution of the Art classroom is known as the critique. Here, students and
    faculty critically discuss and analyze student work. This process can be both brutally soul-crushing and
    powerfully nurturing, depending on the philosophy and sensitivities of the faculty steering the discussion and the particular dynamic of the individual class. Students become familiar with exposing themselves to
    criticism, discerning the value of critical feedback, and learning how to interpret and respond to the work of others. They also become comfortable with disagreement and debate and are capable of advocating for their ideas in a group. One can see how this would be of value in any work setting that involves teamwork.

  • ART students learn resourcefulness
    Many students may learn to operate on a limited budget—but ART students are guaranteed to learn this
    important life skill. Materials and class fees can be expensive (especially for an ambitious student), and time in a specialized studio must be planned in advance and utilized to the fullest. Artists learn how to make the absolute most of what they have at hand, inventing new uses for common, cheap, and even discarded
    materials. Artists also learn how to maintain their tools and take care of equipment so that it last, for years. Art students also learn the value of human resource and community, because they regularly collaborate and support one another when a project outgrows the ability of a single artist to make, move, or hang a project alone.
  • ART students learn how to scope and scale

    By the time they graduate, ART students understand the need to scope and scale their ideas to fit their time and budgets or a client’s needs. During the first years of their education, students may be challenged by ideas that regularly strain the confines of the assignment period or fall short of what is expected for a more ambitious end-of-term project. However, by the time they receive their degrees, students understand that most projects can be scaled way up or down. Ideas often need to be realized with the audience and display context in mind. All ART students produce, as a requirement of their degrees, a culminating exhibition of their work. They learn the ins and outs involved in preparing, designing, mounting and publicizing a
    professional show. This involves attending to all details, including securing of specialized facilities, equipment, and permissions—scope and scale.

  • ART students learn in intimate settings

    ART students enjoy small classes. Studio courses are regularly capped at 20 or less because of the focus on students’ personal engagement, equipment access, and/or safety issues. At MSU, courses are taught by
    faculty who care and who are active artists in their fields. For the student who enjoys close interaction with and mentoring by talented professionals—you can’t beat an ART major. As one Art student who recently graduated enthused, “I can walk down the hall and four professors know me by name and can talk to me about the work I just exhibited…who would have expected that in a big university?”

    Adopted for MSU by ZB Smetana from the blog of Adriene Jenik, Director, Arizona State University School of Art

II.  According to a major IBM Global Study (May 18, 2010), more than 1,500  CEOs from 60 countries and
33 industries believe that—more than rigor, management, discipline, integrity or even vision—successfully
navigating an increasing complex world will require CREATIVITY.


In such an environment, an ART background fostering creative and critical thinking (essentially thinking
“outside the box”) gives potential job applicants an edge over their competition. This view is also supported by Warren Buffet in his well-publicized views on leadership and hiring practices:  “I think a liberal arts education is
invaluable in preparing one for the working world. I look at the people I have hired these past 30 years, and to be candid, most of them have had a more general background than a strictly business background.”

III.  Closer to Home:
According to the Kentucky Creative Industry Report of December 3, 2014, creative employment (defined by the study as employment positions in visual arts, crafts, music, dance, theater, and literature), produced 108,498 jobs in 2014 and as a whole generated 1.9 billion dollars in earnings.

In comparison, Coal Mining in Kentucky (progressively shrinking over the past 40 years due to automation; see the report) produced less than 12,000 jobs and about 1.2 billion dollars in earnings in 2013, with a net loss to state revenues of almost 115 million dollars.

Also in comparison, according to the 2012 Kentucky Equine Survey completed by the University of Kentucky, different branches of the equine industry had various economic impacts on the state of Kentucky. Breeding (stud farms) had the highest employment figure of 16,198 with an economic output of $710 million; racing had the
highest economic output impact at $1.28 billion while employing 6,251; recreation employed 594 with $166 million in economic output; and therapeutic and other riding facilities employed 14,914 with a $194 million economic

These figures should not diminish the historic importance of the coal or horse industries in Kentucky.
However, the fact that “creative industries” employ more people than mining and equine industries combined
(despite their fame and political clout) deserves recognition and consideration. It is also important to note that this trend is global—especially in developed countries—and not limited to Kentucky.

 IV.  A Fine Arts Degree May Be a Better Choice Than You Think:
For Art graduates, job prospects and stisfaction are surprisingly high.


Think that art school dooms graduates to a life of unemployment? The numbers paint a very different picture. "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."

Not Exactly Starving

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. "Artists' income is comparable to other liberal-arts majors," he says. "They do a little better than
psychology majors, since counseling and social work is a very low-wage occupation." For artists who go on to graduate degrees, the most common of which is the masters of fine arts, the unemployment rate for recent
graduates drops to just under 5%, and their median yearly income increases to roughly $50,000. 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% worked the majority of their time in some arts occupation, such as art teaching or in a nonprofit arts organization. "Arts graduates are resilient and resourceful," says Curb Center Associate
Director Steven J. Tepper. Sixty percent of the fine-arts graduates in the survey work more than one job, he says, "but they are happy with what they put together."

A Rosy Picture

Bruno S. Frey, research director of the Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts at the University of Zurich, echoes that finding. He says he has done "happiness research for some time" and found that "artists generally are happier than the rest of the population." 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," he says. "Actors and musicians, on the other hand, are less happy, because they are
disciplined by various rules and have less autonomy."

departmnet of labor                 snaap                     kentucky arts

I hope that these examples have answered some of the questions about the value of studying
Art & Design and further encourage those genuinely interested in ART. When you imagine what lies beyond the horizon of the current job market, you might consider one final point: that studying ART is serious preparation for the creative, critical, and resource demanding 21st-century environment and workplace, and that according to the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), ART alumni have reported
overwhelmingly that they are gainfully employed and leading happy and fulfilling lives. Supporting creative students’ choice of an ART major helps them achieve this ultimate goal.


Zbynek "ZB" Smetana, Chair
MSU Department of Art & Design