(For a quick summary of this post, see “Strategic National Arts Almuni Project: The Condensed Version.” SNAAP has responded in the comments.)
Is an arts degree worth it or worthless? Many an art or art history major has had to defend the value of her studies. Indeed, in a Kiplinger article that used data from payscale.com and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce to determine the “Worst College Majors for Your Career,” fine arts, studio arts, film/photography, graphic design, drama and theater arts all made the list. The article warns college students who are tempted to major in fine arts that the unemployment rate for recent grads is 12.6% (almost twice the national average of 6.8%) and they are 1.8% more likely to work in retail than the average college graduate.
The employment situation for recent art-school grads is anything but aesthetic. Slow job growth and an abundance of fine-arts majors means unemployment is high – the second highest on our list. When fine-arts majors do find jobs, they generally don’t pay well. Even experienced artists can expect to make 20% less than their college classmates. While few people have ever gone into art for the money, the East Village isn’t as cheap as it used to be.
So the recent Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) report that finds that the unemployment rate for arts alumni is less than half the unemployment rate for all Americans is heartening, but surprising. Moreover, the report claims that most arts alumni “are satisfied with the opportunities their ‘primary job’ affords to demonstrate their creativity.” The sunny outlook that SNAAP presents in “A Diverse Palette: What Arts Graduates Say About Their Education and Careers” seems to be in conflict with both the aforementioned Kiplinger article and conventional wisdom. But is it? Let’s analyze what the SNAAP report actually has to say about the prospects for arts alumni.
SNAAP, based at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, was founded for the stated purposes of providing a comprehensive look at artist development in the United States, and identifying how best to connect arts education and training to artistic careers. SNAAP defines “the arts” and “art” as inclusive of
a broad range of creative activity including performance, design, architecture, creative writing, music composition, choreography, film, illustration, and fine art.
Since 2009, SNAAP has distributed a yearly report based on the results of an annual online survey that it gives to alumni of participating institutions. These institutions include arts high schools, comprehensive colleges and universities, liberal arts colleges and special-focus arts institutions. Institutions pay to participate in the project, with fees for post-secondary schools ranging from $3300 to $7800, depending upon the size of the arts alumni population. The survey comprises eighty-three questions and takes 20-30 minutes to complete.
The most recent 2012 report, based upon results from the 2011 SNAAP survey, presented many positive findings, or at least findings that appear to be positive. Most SNAAP respondents are currently employed. In fact, for the past two years, the SNAAP respondent unemployment rate is less than half the national unemployment rate for all Americans. What’s more, 87% of currently employed SNAAP respondents are “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with their primary job. Even most of those who are working in non-arts fields report general work-satisfaction, and most also say that despite working in an area outside of the arts, their arts training is still relevant to their work.
When asked if they would “do it all over again,” 77% of SNAAP respondents said that yes, if given the chance to go back in time, they would make the same choices as they originally had in terms of institution and major. Indeed, 92% reported that their overall experience at their institution was either good or excellent, and 88% would recommend their school to other prospective students.
Furthermore, arts alumni are also likely to participate in the arts outside of work. The report explains why this is meaningful:
One of the arguments for public support for the arts is that the presence and contributions of artists add depth and meaning to the human experience, thereby enhancing the quality of life for all. Thus, it’s important to know how arts graduates contribute to the arts and their communities independent of their income-producing work.
More than a quarter of SNAAP respondents have volunteered for an arts organization in the past year, and 45% have donated money to an arts organization or artist in the past 12 months. These are significantly higher rates than those in the general population, where just 2% of Americans volunteer for arts, cultural or humanities organizations, and only 6% of US households with incomes under $100,000 have given money to the arts. Moreover, in their leisure time, 72% of SNAAP respondents remain active in the arts community by creating, exhibiting and performing.
But it isn’t all coming up roses for arts graduates. Despite the encouraging employment data, 50% of survey respondents were “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the career advising they received at their school. Nearly half were unhappy with the opportunities for degree-related internships and other work that their institutions provided, and 41% found occasions to network with alumni lacking.
Additionally, 40% of currently employed respondents have two or more jobs, which may be a sign that they are unable to find full-time work or that their primary job does not provide enough income to live on. In fact, the majority of respondents from all arts majors except architecture earn less than $50,000 per year in their primary job.
Still, the 2012 SNAAP report concludes:
For many of these graduates, going to an arts training institution was “worth it”; they gained invaluable skills that they continue to draw upon whether or not they work as professional artists—both at work and in their non-work time.
Certainly the value of an arts education must be measured as more than the average earning potential of its graduates. Even so, the SNAAP report findings are inconsistent with data reported in the Kiplinger article, which states that there are higher unemployment rates for arts graduates. Why might this be? Let’s analyze the methodology of SNAAP’s research.
The 2011 SNAAP Questionnaire is only available online, and SNAAP relies on the individual institutions to disseminate information about the survey. This means that SNAAP survey respondents maintained valid email and/or mailing addresses on file with their alumni institutions, or had been active enough on social media to be located either directly by their schools or by Harris Connect, the “people finder” service contracted by SNAAP. Respondents who take the time to remain in email contact with their alumni institutions may be more likely to think favorably about those institutions than those who haven’t. And of the alumni contacted, those motivated to respond to the 20-30 minute survey may have been more likely to hold positive viewpoints about their institutions and present career situations.
The exclusive online availability of the survey, as well as the fact that information about the survey is primarily disseminated online, means that respondents most likely have regular internet access, and that they’re comfortable navigating the web. The survey delivery method may skew toward a more well-off demographic who are able to pay for internet in their homes. The questionnaire takes 20-30 minutes to complete. If you’re using your local coffee shop’s internet to look for work and e-mail resumes, you may not be as inclined to use a half hour of that time to complete an alumni survey as someone who is sitting at home after work watching hulu and cruising Facebook.
Anecdotally, I often hear of individuals from well-off backgrounds enjoying success in the arts, in part because they are able to afford to take unpaid internships, or participate in residencies where they generate no income for months at a time. These opportunities may lead to greater things. Additionally, these are pleasurable experiences, and although one may not be earning a large income, a SNAAP respondent may still reflect on them positively, especially if paying rent and buying food isn’t a concern. Thus, it’s possible that the SNAAP respondents are more financially comfortable in the aggregate than arts alumni as a whole, and if so we might expect to see this bias reflected in the responses. (Unfortunately, while the SNAAP survey asks the age, gender and ethnicity of each respondent, it does not ask any questions about the socio-economic background of the respondent, or whether he or she has additional financial support or means beyond his or her income.)
Danielle J. Lindemann and Steven J. Tepper’s recently published follow-up report on SNAAP’s 2010 survey, which was structured and delivered in the same way as the 2011 survey, acknowledges the survey’s potential response bias: “It is plausible that more financially successful arts graduates are more likely to fill out a survey about their experiences.” However, they counter that results from an earlier study indicate that the SNAAP results are not skewed in this respect. In 2009, SNAAP conducted a shadow study using a variety of incentives, such as a $15 gift card and inclusion into a lottery for a $100 award, as well as different modes of delivery, including paper, web and phone. Their report explains:
We found that there were no meaningful differences in the characteristics of the graduates in the high response rate group compared to the low response rate group. Related to the question of employment, for example, respondents from the higher-response rate sample indicated that they were currently doing paid work an average of 31 hours per week. Comparable individuals from the full SNAAP sample in 2009 indicated that they were doing paid work an average of 34 hours per week.
Still, even if alumni who are financially better off weren’t more likely to respond to the SNAAP survey, the issue of what alumni the SNAAP survey reached remains. More than 36,000 alumni responded to the survey, for an average institutional response rate of just over 20%. But, alumni who have updated their institution with current contact information may already be more inclined to respond positively about that institution than those who haven’t.
Even if there is no bias among respondents to the survey, however, the selection of institutions participating in SNAAP is not random. The 2011 SNAAP survey was sent to alumni from 183 programs in 66 institutions, including 8 arts high schools, 20 private nonprofit postsecondary schools, and 38 public postsecondary schools. These postsecondary institutions include colleges and universities with top-ranked arts programs, such as Maryland Institute College of Art, New York University Tisch School of the Arts, University of California – Los Angeles and Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a number that are less known for their arts programs. At first glance, this seems like a reasonable cross-section of higher arts education across the nation. Still, these institutions have all chosen to participate in SNAAP, and paid a fee for the privilege of doing so. This suggests that they are already paying above average attention to students and alumni of their arts programs. What’s more, of the 58 postsecondary institutions, more than 30% have art programs in disciplines that include fine arts, ceramics, graphic design, multimedia/visual communications, painting/drawing, photography, printmaking, and sculpture, ranked in the top 20 by US News. To put this in perspective, the College Arts Association’s directory of Graduate programs in Studio Art and Design includes almost 250 individual institutions. These arts graduates, with degrees from esteemed institutions, may be more financially successful and happier with their arts training than arts alumni from second- and third-tier schools.
SNAAP’s efforts to increase and test response rates, through its use of Harris Connect and the shadow survey, are commendable. Still, the report repeatedly uses “arts alumni,” “arts graduates” and “SNAAP respondents” interchangeably. Are respondents to the survey representative of arts alumni as a whole? Unfortunately, there is no way for us to know.
As mentioned earlier, participating institutions pay to have the survey sent to their alumni. This potentially creates a bias, if not in the survey’s responses, then in how this data is ultimately interpreted in the final SNAAP report and “packaged” to a broader audience. SNAAP explains why it requires fees from participating institutions:
…as a self-sustaining research project, institutional participation fees underwrite the cost of survey administration, data analysis, and school reports.
In other words, SNAAP needs these fees in order to remain viable. Although the individual institutions’ reports aren’t made public, schools might understandably be hesitant to participate in a study that openly casts doubt on the value of an arts education. In turn, that lack of participation could mean the end of SNAAP. Indeed, the SNAAP report does include negative statistics, but they are always countered with a positive statement, so that the overall tone and takeaway is optimistic. For example, the following passage from the SNAAP report came after a list of mixed results about alumni satisfaction with various aspects of their education:
While the results suggest a variety of strengths and weaknesses for institutions to consider, they also indicate that despite any less than stellar experiences alumni may have had, most who obtained an arts degree have few regrets. When asked if they would still attend their institution if they could start over again, over three quarters (77%) say definitely or probably yes. Furthermore, when asked if they would recommend their institution to another student like them, 88% say yes.
Although the 2011 report findings are not drastically negative overall, it’s unclear whether SNAAP would be in a position to draw attention to a significant and sustained deterioration in these numbers in the future.
SNAAP reports that the SNAAP respondent unemployment rate is less than half the national unemployment rate for all Americans, which in 2011 was 8.9%.This figure becomes less impressive when compared with the unemployment rate of college-educated Americans, which most SNAAP respondents are. The 2011 national unemployment rate for college graduates is 4%; for SNAAP respondents with a bachelor’s degree, it’s also 4%, and for those with a master’s, it’s 5%. Still, it would appear that arts alumni are not significantly better or worse off than college graduates with non-arts majors, which conflicts with the Georgetown research cited in the Kiplinger article. How could this be?
SNAAP explains that unlike Carnevale, Cheah and Strohl’s Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce study, its employment figures are based upon different measures than those used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The difference in employment numbers between data from SNAAP and from other sources may be due in part to SNAAP’s employment measures, which include intermittent work—not uncommon among professional artists—as among the ways of being employed. The U.S. Census, for example, would label such people as unemployed.
In particular, SNAAP may be counting severely underemployed respondents as employed because they identify as self-employed/ freelancers. Freelancers are often more affected than traditional employees during a recession, from which the US continues to recover. When pockets are tight and businesses aren’t growing, customers are more likely to view purchases of goods like art as luxuries, see participating in a continuing ed or community art class as optional, and need services like design less. In fact, BLS projects that employment opportunities for craft and fine artists will grow by 5% over the next decade, which is slower than the average 14.3% projected for all occupations.
Because of the nature of SNAAP, the project only collects data about arts alumni. However, in order to truly draw conclusions about the value of an arts degree, we would need to see data collected in the same way for a cross-section of majors. Unfortunately, one of the few metrics that could potentially serve as a common yardstick is complicated by SNAAP’s alternative approach to measuring employment status. SNAAP could easily have designed its survey to enable analysis of unemployment figures comparable to BLS statistics alongside numbers derived from the alternative method. It’s unclear why this path wasn’t taken.
Considering the Alternatives
Many of the questions in the SNAAP survey ask alumni about subjective impressions, like these:
In your opinion, how much did [INSTITUTION] help you acquire or develop each of the following skills and abilities?
Please describe how your arts training is or is not relevant to your current work.
Describe how your arts training at [INSTITUTION] is or is not relevant to your participation in civic and community life.
Certainly most arts alumni value the arts—that’s why they chose an arts major—and the SNAAP survey provides them with the opportunity to opine about the importance of the arts. But for most arts alumni, the choice was not between pursuing an arts degree or doing nothing. Instead, the choice was between studying the arts and studying something else. Or perhaps it was between pursing an arts-related graduate degree and gaining additional experience in the workplace, or investing in a home. Respondents weren’t asked to reflect upon the sacrifices that they might have made in choosing their field of study.
I have no doubt that the education that arts alumni received contributed to skill sets that are relevant to their primary employment and civic engagement. But it’s also possible that alumni may have developed equivalent or better skill sets related to their current employment with an alternative course of study. Still, it is encouraging to learn that most SNAAP respondents have found work “congruent with their values and dispositions” that affords them the opportunity to “demonstrate their creativity.”
So what does this mean? Certainly not that the SNAAP study has no value, nor that arts education is worthless. But the SNAAP report is largely inconclusive. SNAAP respondents are not necessarily reflective of the larger pool of arts alumni. A significant proportion of the participating institutions have top-ranked arts programs. It’s possible that a sample with alumni from a greater range of arts programs would produce the same results, but it’s also possible that SNAAP’s sample is biased. The report also presents an alternative way of measuring employment data, which could be valuable in creating a more accurate view of the employment situations of those who freelance or are self-employed, regardless of whether that work is arts related. Unfortunately, absent a comprehensive employment survey across fields using SNAAP’s method, it tells us very little about arts alumni as compared to holders of college and graduate degrees as a whole.
As an artist, arts educator, and arts administrator, I want to believe that an arts education is always worth it. Certainly the median salary of arts alumni should not be the sole factor in determining its value. However, with the average student loan debt for recent college graduates at over $26,000, and many borrowing beyond that to pursue graduate degrees, financial considerations shouldn’t be eliminated from the equation entirely. As I read the SNAAP report, I found myself thinking about Vanderbilt University Law Professor Herwig Schlunk’s groundbreaking 2009 academic essay, “Mamas Don’t Let You Babies Grow Up To Be… Lawyers,” in which he calculates opportunity and out-of-pocket costs for law students, and the likely return for different types of students, depending upon their class rank and the prestige of their program. He concludes that for many, particularly average students graduating from second and third tier schools, law school is a losing proposition.
It’s not possible to determine for whom an arts education is a worthy investment because no similar study has been done for art students. The difficulty for SNAAP is that its first responsibility is to analyze data for paying customers, not to use that data as field research to draw larger conclusions. Still, at this time SNAAP is the most comprehensive data resource available for pre-professional arts education.
Few people go into the arts for the money. It’s likely that most of us instinctively knew that the median salary of an arts major would be significantly less than that of an engineering or business major, even before Georgetown released their report. SNAAP’s report does tell us that although a career in the arts may not be incredibly lucrative, not all artists are starving. But it also reminds us that an education should be valued for more than the average earning potential of its graduates.
… the worth of an arts degree must be measured by both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits. Much has been made of recent reports using national income data showing that arts graduates have lower than average earnings… Tangible economic benefits are unquestionably important, but calibrating the success of arts graduates only by how much they make does a disservice not only to those who practice their art and apparently derive great satisfaction from doing so, but also to the communities they enrich with artistic contributions through sharing their artistic creations, teaching, and supporting other artists.
For those who would like to dig in to SNAAP’s data in more detail, the 2011 Aggregate Frequency Report is what you’re looking for.
Danielle J, Lindemann and Steven J. Tepper’s SNAAP special report, “Painting With Broader Strokes: Reassessing the Value of an Arts Degree” addresses potential bias issues and further analyzes the 2010 survey findings.
Daniel Luzer critiques the SNAAP survey bias in Washington Monthly.
The Kennedy Center discusses the survey.
SNAAP manager Sally Gaskill blogs about SNAAP’s findings for Americans for the Arts.