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Articles / Preparing for College / Fine Arts Degrees Don't Lead to Frustration

Nov. 14, 2013

Fine Arts Degrees Don't Lead to Frustration

There’s a big misconception out there among (especially) parents and others that getting a college degree in the liberal arts area these days, particularly the so-called “fine arts” area is a huge 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, business, accounting, etc.), you’re destined not only to live a life of quiet desperation but also make an extremely low wage the rest of your life. Well, to that, in the words of TV’s M*A*S*H*‘ Col. Potter, I say, “Horse hockey!”

I’ve always believed that passion, motivation, creativity, and a little luck can go a long way toward overcoming the common-wisdom mythology about the worth and potential of fine-arts degrees. I have an arts degree. Mine is in music history and literature and, over the course of my life, I have done fairly well, thank you. The skills I learned in my liberal-arts/ fine-arts curriculum gave me enough skills and focus to survive a number of economic ups and downs across the decades.

The simple fact is that not all of us are cut out for those technical degree programs I mentioned above. Speaking for myself, I started out in a business administration degree program my first semester in college. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life, 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 that first semester when I had to stay up all night several times, working accounting projects. My balance sheets never seemed to balance. It was then that  discovered that I was not (and am not) a “numbers” guy.


Coincidentally, that same first semester, I took a music history survey course, and somewhere in the midst of that, my true passion emerged: classical music history and literature. So, being the impulsive, easily emotionally swayed person that I am, I switched majors from business administration to music history and literature. The rest, as they say, is (music) history. Anyway, enough about me (the crowd roars!). The actual focus of my tome today is an exciting article from the Wall Street JournalA Fine-Arts Degree May Be a Better Choice Than You Think.

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” say. 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.

I particularly love that comment, “And, just as important and maybe more, artists tend to be happy with their choices and lives.” That’s mystory.

… 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.

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 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, in my view, not from the outside in. What good does making a six-figure income do if the work involved is depressing, stressful, or completely unsatisfying? Granted, money can make life a bit easier, but should our goal be to get through life with the least-possible amount of resistance?

In related comments about the WSJ article, Cris 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 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).

That’s terrific advice. Take it from someone who knows that to be true. Plus, even if a music history and literature graduate isn’t currently working as a musicologist, Morran underlines a theme of hope with “4 out of 5 of these artists had found work related to their studies.” I can relate to that!

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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