‘Tis joyful commencement season. If you took home a diploma for a four-year degree in the visual or performing arts last weekend, you’re not alone: in the U.S., more than 91,000 college graduates are venturing out into the world with BFAs or their equivalent in hand. They are more likely to be from upper and middle class households than grads from other majors, with an average family income of $94,381. Only about 10% of them, if one report is to be believed, will actually become full-time professional artists.

In “the real world,” 84% of working artists—defined by BFAMFAPhD’s controversial “Artists Report Back” study as people who make their primary living from their artwork—do not have degrees in the arts, and 40% have no college degree at all. (It’s important to note that due to data limitations, these figures exclude artists with master’s degrees or beyond in any field; however, the number of artists affected is relatively small.) If arts training programs continue to climb in popularity while budding artists from less affluence are deciding against studying the arts in college, does that mean the college-to-career trajectory is a myth? Has the arts degree become a luxury, or are artists from less advantaged backgrounds missing out on something?

Graphic by Shawn Lent for Createquity. Source: Artists Report Back

Graphic by Shawn Lent for Createquity. Source: Artists Report Back


An Incubator of Artistry or a Waste of Precious Prime Time?

What can we make of the implication that higher education is not the golden ticket to creating or performing art for a living? It would be overstepping to say that arts degree programs provide students with no value at all: for one thing, they offer important time to refine one’s craft within a supportive but highly disciplined and similarly-skilled community of peers, critical mentors, and potential networks. Such credentials can serve as a signal of high artistic quality and capacity, a prerequisite for certain grant funding. We should note, though, that artists move freely between the nonprofit and commercial sectors in their pursuit of paid work and the value of a degree likely varies by context. It looks like a person doesn’t necessarily need a BFA or MFA to become a professional artist, but the degree could help an artist reach a higher level of industry success or make a full-time living as an artist.

At the same time, arts students may not have this expectation of working as artists. Across the board, most graduates (73%) work in a field outside their major. Arts students, in particular, might be prepared to thrive in other sectors, and they seem fine by that; the ongoing Strategic National Arts Alumni Project survey (which likewise has its limitations) finds that arts graduates are generally satisfied with their experiences and would do it again if they had the chance.

B.A. and Arts Double-Majors at Commencement 2016, UMD School of Theatre Dance and Performance Studies | Photo by Karen Kohn Bradley

B.A. and Arts Double-Majors at Commencement 2016, UMD School of Theatre Dance and Performance Studies | Photo by Karen Kohn Bradley

For pro artists, the necessity or desirability of arts degrees may vary considerably by discipline. Although full-time symphony orchestra musicians are selected by audition, it is hard to find one these days without a degree in music. On the other hand, from the Oregon Ballet to Bally’s Jubilee, dance artists often delay or skip college because of the early retirement age in most dance forms (90.5% of working dancers and choreographers are under age 40, compared to 39.6% of working musicians). Examples like these leave arts degree programs vulnerable to the charge that they are building up a profession (academia) that isn’t necessarily serving artists. Sarah Anne Austin questions, “If opportunities in American modern dance are disappearing, and if being a tenured faculty member at a university is the only stable job available for dancers and choreographers, and having this job depends on being able to attract students… does this make American modern dance a pyramid scheme?”


One Option in a Long Line of Pricey Career Strategies?

Such questions wouldn’t be so charged were it not for the very real concern that arts degrees perpetuate inequality in the sector. Professional artistry has a lengthy and complex gestation period that is slammed with socioeconomic obstacles. Factors that may make, or break, one’s professional success as an artist include personal networks, the prestige of the teacher, portfolio materials, membership in a union/guild, affordable housing in a city with available arts jobs, and a myriad of other opportunities such as showcases, apprenticeships and internships.

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Graphic by Shawn Lent for Createquity. Source: Playbill

Like aspiring athletes, emerging professional artists benefit from school and community members who identify and develop their interest, regular and rigorous private lessons, and pre-professional training. These present quite the financial hurdle for families: a recent calculation estimates that it takes $100,000 to raise a professional ballerina. Against this backdrop, the cost of college may only exacerbate what is already a yawning opportunity gap.


The Greatest Risk or the Great Arts Equalizer?

We may not know definitively whether arts degrees provide added value to aspiring artists, but we do know that they pose quite a bit of risk, particularly for artists coming from low socioeconomic status (SES). Although artists with bachelor’s degrees in any major earn more than artists who went pro after high school, new BFA holders quickly face the reality that artists experience lower returns to formal education than they would in other professions. Anywhere from 10-20% of artists with bachelor’s degrees report a “major impact” on their career decisions due to debt from higher education; this debt load comes on top of a heavy earnings penalty across the board for artists (8.4 percent lower than the rest of the labor market, according to 2000 Census data).

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Graphic by Shawn Lent for Createquity. Source: U.S. Department of Education IPEDS Survey

Particularly on a discipline-specific basis, the conditions leading up to the decision to pursue professional artistry may represent disparities of access. If it were the case that high school graduates who aspired to artistic careers couldn’t pursue their dreams because of the risk aversion associated with low SES, that would be a major failing of a healthy arts ecosystem.

Given that, it’s probably a blessing in disguise that you don’t need an arts degree to become an artist. In fact, the preponderance of upper-middle-class students in programs offering those degrees might well indicate that poorer, emerging artists are making informed decisions that are in their best interests. Everyone’s situation is different, and statistics can only tell us so much about an individual case. But if you’re worried that an expensive four-year degree is your only way to the top of the arts heap, you can take heart in the knowledge that many, many creators and performers have made it there without one.

In the latest Createquity podcast series, Createquity and Fractured Atlas team members illuminate the major factors that contribute to artists (or prevent artists from) establishing successful careers. We also focus on some of the tools Fractured Atlas has developed to support artists, with the larger goal of helping create a more navigable and equitable ecosystem for professional artists. 

Cover image: “Hiram College Commencement 2015,” courtesy of Kasey-Samuel Adams via Flickr Creative Commons license. 

  • Morgan

    I personally wouldn’t go to performing arts college 1. because it costs WAYYY TOOO much money and 2. because its whitewashed and lame. There is no culture in the universities. I prefer dancing with the street kids learning the new styles that are being created on the streets like tutting and house dancing. Currently I’m doing a trade with my friend Leland he is teaching me tutting and I’m giving him the connections I made throughout my career to help him succeed. He just started dancing two years ago and is booking more jobs than the dancers here with college degrees who can only perform ballet, modern and jazz. It seems the only shows those people get is in theaters where everyone’s nose is up in the air. The thing is with dance the best way to succeed now is to learn some technique at a young age and then throw it all out and learn from the streets. The streets is where you make connections to real life dancers, people who are REALLY passionate about what they do and gave up a traditional life of college and kids to follow their passions. A dancer can book jobs without a college education, they can become a dance teacher and choreographer without a college education, they can learn MANY more styles in the street than going to college with a focus on Modern, Jazz and Contemporary. There is just nothing that proves having a college education in dance is helpful at all. I don’t even know one successful dancer that was a performing arts graduate. Most people that graduate with Dance go on to own theaters or start some contemporary dance company and only because they have parents with money and some connections from their college studies. Having a mentor is much more helpful than taking 4 years out of the scene to learn from 3-5 teachers when you can learn from 20 different dancers in your city. Everything I learned I learned from a mentor. Dancers love to give and share knowledge, we also like to get paid but most times dancers will pass off connections and new dance styles for free. Dancers are about community and it takes us all to create the community and keep it going. When you step out of that community and attend a 4 year college you are also stepping out of the community that is changing and morphing every year with new styles. Going to college for dance just never made sense to me. And if I was a person of color I would DEF not want to be a part of that college experience as I would have lost all the roots. There are dance classes in every major city where you learn the same stuff you learn in college for only 8-20 dollars an hour, also YOUTUBE!!!! You can learn anything on youtube! I know many dancers that come to me and tell me “I learned from youtube” I think that is AMAZING!!!!! Dance life is a struggle with or without a college degree. The arts degree is a luxury but in the same breath its not and also dancers usually don’t want to go to college. Dancers want to dance haha. I don’t feel held back one bit because I couldn’t afford to go to a performing arts college. But then again I was living in a place where dance was thriving. That is just my personal experience. I don’t know why people feel like if someone cant go to college then “poor them” no, not poor me. I feel sorry that the performing arts college kids went to some white washed college and didn’t get any culture while they were there and wasted so much time just to graduate and have no connections to the dance world and be an outcast to the street dancers and only fit in with the theater world. I don’t feel not going to performing arts college limited me but I do feel going to college limited them. I wish I could have gone to college for other things but DEF NOT dance.

  • This article is such an odd bundle of assumptions and fuzzy logic. You seem to build on a faulty premise that undergraduate education is primarily about employment. It certainly is for some, and it can be. But to assume that all undergraduate majors are essentially professional or trade degrees is a significant stretch.

    Even if we were to accept the painfully narrow definition of success, we couldn’t conclude much from your analysis, since you leave out any context. A quick look beyond the arts would show that the majority of undergraduates do not get a job in their selected major, arts or not (see this article, for example, there are others: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/05/20/only-27-percent-of-college-grads-have-a-job-related-to-their-major/).

    There’s a whole lot to be concerned about in the structure, content, curriculum, cost, promises, and equity of the arts in higher education. This analysis doesn’t open or inform that conversation.

    • Hi Andrew,
      We always welcome dissenting views at Createquity, particularly yours, but I think you’re being a little unfair in this case. We made the point you brought up and linked to the same Washington post piece that you cited in this passage: “At the same time, arts students may not have this expectation of working as artists. Across the board, most graduates (73%) work in a field outside their major.”

      More fundamentally, though, you seem to be reading the piece as a hit job on academia generally, which is not the intent. We are looking at things through the lens of barriers faced by people who come from low socioeconomic status and have a goal of making a living as an artist. For that specific slice of the population, income earned as an artist is pretty darn relevant, I would contend.

      • I don’t mean to be unfair. But if your goal is to explore an extremely narrow question (which is entirely fine and useful to do), it’s important to be consistent and relentlessly clear. Your framing question appears to be: “What do we know about the economic/career value of an arts-related undergraduate major for those with a specific, and perhaps exclusive, goal of becoming a professional artist?”

        And I don’t read the piece as a ‘hit job’ on academia. Nor do I seek to defend academia or undergraduate education. As a faculty member in a professional graduate degree, I am absolutely accountable for the economic/career trajectory of my students, and responsible to share clearly and to prove consistently the value of the time, money, and attention they choose to invest in the degree.

        But even with a narrow framing question, it’s essential to put the exploration in context — with the wider potential value/cost of undergraduate education (regardless of major), the relationship of art-major employment (in the arts and outside) to any and all other undergraduate majors, and the broader measures of success beyond professional employment in your selected major, including health, happiness, civic or social engagement, and even long-term satisfaction with your educational choice.

        I’ll admit that many undergraduate programs in the arts position themselves as professional degrees for a working life in the arts. By that metric, they fail rather dramatically. But it would be a shame if we conflated all arguments into that one.

        • “But even with a narrow framing question, it’s essential to put the
          exploration in context — with the wider potential value/cost of
          undergraduate education (regardless of major), the relationship of
          art-major employment (in the arts and outside) to any and all other
          undergraduate majors, and the broader measures of success beyond
          professional employment in your selected major, including health,
          happiness, civic or social engagement, and even long-term satisfaction
          with your educational choice.”

          The strong implication here is that there are important facts or realities connected to the topics you mentioned that we’ve missed, and that would have affected our conclusions about the narrow frame if we’d taken them into account. Is that right? If so, do you have specific hypotheses in mind?

          • Depends on whether I accurately captured your framing question: “What do we know about the economic/career value of an arts-related
            undergraduate major for those with a specific, and perhaps exclusive,
            goal of becoming a professional artist?”

            Did I?

          • Not quite. A closer match would be “Is the cost of college keeping students who come from poor families and wish to make a living as an artist from being able to achieve that goal?” In order to help answer that question, we consider two related issues: 1) whether one needs a degree in the arts, or a bachelor’s degree at all, in order to make a living as an artist; and 2) what the economic/career value of an arts-related undergraduate degree is for such students, taking risk into account.

          • Please, excuse the interruption. You both have a point. Coming from a low socioeconomic status, and having no formal training as an artist, it’s been a difficult climb. I’ve had galleries, turn me down because I have no formal training, then make me feel like gum on their shoe. I’ve watch people with less talent get into galleries because, they had a formal education. Even though my climb has been difficult, I encourage creative people to go to college, it opens doors, I can only dream of walking through. It opens the gates quicker, than panhandling your art for rent. A double edge sword.

  • I don’t know if writing is considered a fine art or not (as a writer, I consider it so), but within the playwriting community, there is an ongoing discussion/lamenting about how playwrights with MFAs, particularly from schools such as Yale, Brown, Julliard, and New York University receive preferential treatment by and more productions from major theater companies. I’d love to see a study on whether or not this is true and also find out if this type of debate happens in other arts communities.

  • Linda Essig

    I have hesitated to comment but share some of Andrew’s concerns (and have some others). The piece reads as an advocacy or opinion piece rather than a synthesis of research in part because, as Andrew notes, the research question is unclear. Furthering this impression is the uncritical use of (occasionally) cherry-picked data points. For example, the correlation between parents’ income and college major could, perhaps more usefully, be viewed as highlighting the strong correlation between parents income and ALL undergraduate degrees. The BFAMFAPhD report can be argued point by point, but since others have already done so I won’t do so here, except to point out that the fact that 40% of all artists do not have a bachelors degree could be contextualized by the fact that over 60% of ALL Americans do not have bachelors degrees; while being an artist dies not require a credential for employment (like teaching does), artists are well ahead of the US population as a whole, perhaps indicating that there is at least some “value added” by the degree. It all depends on how you look at it. The example of lack of contextualization that jumped out at me most strongly was this statistic, “Across the board, most graduates (73%) work in a field outside their major.” This point could be effectively contextualized in relation to the SNAAP data, which looks at arts graduates specifically and compares them to other majors. This data show that although only 27% of people work in their major field, 74% of arts graduates do at some point in their careers, well ahead of biology, accounting, and mechanical engineering majors. (For an entertaining presentation of this data see: https://youtu.be/XGgCEnsCR_s )

    I agree, socio-economic status is a significant barrier to the pursuit of a degree in the arts. It is also a significant barrier to pursuit of a degree in economics or engineering (the difference between these being well within one standard deviation). We, as a field, need to be careful about how we position data and whether we do so in relation to other relevant data…or not.

    [Please note that I do not represent SNAAP, no do I work for SNAAP]

  • I wanted to take a moment to respond to some of the critiques that have been brought up both here and offline. Several commenters, including Andrew and Linda below, have expressed a desire for more clarity around the research question and conclusions we’re drawing from the data. That’s fair enough, so here’s a shot at a distillation.

    At Createquity, we think opportunities to make a living as an artist should not be limited by how much money your parents did or didn’t have when you were growing up. Paying for college is often one of the two or three biggest financial liabilities that a person takes on in their lifetime, and so we wondered if the cost of a college degree, and specifically a degree in the arts, might pose a barrier to people from poorer backgrounds who dream of a career as an artist.

    If you believe college is generally expensive, even for those who receive financial aid — and we have found little to suggest otherwise — then you have to believe one of two things with respect to the question above. Either A) college degrees in the arts are really important to an arts career, in which case they pose a major barrier to low-SES students; or B), arts degrees are not that important to an arts career, in which case there is not as much of an equity issue to be concerned about.

    We were expecting to see the former in the data, but what we’ve found is more consistent with the latter story. In order to arrive at that conclusion, we rely heavily on the work of BFAMFAPhD. As we point out in the article, the data used by BFAMFAPhD is far from perfect, and the percentages cited, like the crucial stat that 84% of artists don’t have a degree in the arts, should be understood as estimates. Still, even if the data proves to be somewhat of an exaggeration, you would have to believe some pretty implausible things before the fundamental takeaway above changes. For example, because it asks respondents to report only on earnings from the past week, the study leaves out some artists who we would otherwise consider to be part of the population of interest. But are the artists left out so much more likely to have earned an arts degree that it would invalidate the study’s overall conclusion that most full-time professional artists do not have
    degrees in the arts? Even if we posited that the Census methodology failed to capture some 800,000 artists–40% of the total–we would have to believe that every single one of those artists held a BA or BFA in the arts just to get to a place where half of pro artists have a degree in the arts. And even then we would still probably conclude that a degree in the arts is not really necessary for a career in the arts. (This is all with the caveat, of course, that the picture looks different for different disciplines and genres. Our main objective here was to find out if it is a cross-cutting issue affecting artists of all stripes.)

    Is it worth getting an arts degree if you can afford one, or if you have other goals besides making a living as an artist? Some of the comments we’ve received have tried to make that case, and they may well be right. We are happy to leave that particular investigation to others. It’s worth noting, however, that the higher status we afford to the value of arts education at the postsecondary level, the more problematic it becomes from an equity standpoint. Until everyone has equal access to such opportunities regardless of background, that’s just how the math works.

    • Steven Tepper

      These are important conversations. Thank you Ian, Andrew and Linda. There are 2 points that are important to make when thinking about whether students should go to college, whether to study the arts or something else. 1) The returns to college are higher than ever before and the delta in life outcomes for HS graduates verses college graduates is growing. See NYT’s article. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/upshot/is-college-worth-it-clearly-new-data-say.html?_r=0. 2) There are more Americans who have gone to college and not finished a degree than those who have graduated from college. Importantly, one of the greatest predictors of college completion is engagement. Studying something that is of interest to you is important. So, a college degree is more important then ever. Most people work in fields unrelated to their major. But studying something you are interested in is a key to college completion and retention. So, why not study the arts in college? For students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who want to be artists, having a college degree gives them more options. Pursing a single occupational pathway, whether in the arts or accounting, or engineering is not likely to lead to a linear pathway. A college degree will typically give you more options when the road diverges. Even with debt, for most, college is worth it. Still, debt levels for some can be crushing. So every case is different. But, on the whole, it is pretty hard to argue that not going to college will yield better results in the long run.