In defense of the art degree

In 2008, Daniel Pink declared in a New York Times article that “the MFA is the new MBA.”  In the 21st century, said Pink, businesses will favor right brained thinking, and the ability to  innovate, and think critically will be the most valuable skills for long-term success.

Fast forward to December 2014, and this headline from the Atlantic: “MFAs: An Increasingly Popular, Increasingly Bad Financial Decision.”  The article highlights the fact that MFAs in visual and performing arts have increased every year in the past decade, and have more than tripled since the 1970s.  It also shares statistics from a list on which ranks artistic careers among the lowest in early career pay although it doesn’t say how those statistics were obtained.  A reference like that wouldn’t be acceptable in an undergraduate research paper, so I take it with a grain of salt when it comes to proving that artistic degrees are a bad investment.

But the heart of the article relies on comments from Jerry Saltz, an art critic for New York magazine, who has been railing against art degrees for some time and who, coincidentally, does not have an art degree himself (full disclosure: I lost respect for Jerry Saltz when he agreed to be head critic on Bravo’s short lived reality show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist).

The arguments against the MFA, like many criticisms of higher education today, are based on ROI.  Students are leaving school with massive debt, say the critics, and therefore should concentrate on majors that lead immediately to the best-paying jobs.  The inherent flaw in this argument is the assumption that all people who seek degrees are doing so to get a specific job — and, more specifically, that those who obtain MFAs all want to be professional artists.


As a college professor, I do have sympathy for students and their families as they are making the decision to attend college or graduate school.  It’s not the same world I grew up in; when tuition was under $500 per year it was a pretty easy decision to go to school and stay there.  And because teaching assistantships were plentiful in the 70s, I was able to go to graduate school for free, gain teaching experience, and live frugally but comfortably on minimum wage outside jobs.  I’m not saying people should go to college because I did, but I still believe that college, as expensive as it has gotten, is one of the best investments that anyone can make.  As this study from the Brookings Institute points out, college graduates stand to make double what a high school grad will earn over the course of a lifetime.

But I also believe that college is more valuable than just a paycheck.  We make a big mistake when we think of college as a job training program (Scott Walker found this out when he was slammed by the public and press for attempting to change the charter of the University of Wisconsin System away from “the search for human truth” and toward “meeting the state’s workforce needs”).  College – coming as it does at an age when most people are making the crucial transition from childhood to adulthood – doesn’t just create workers, it helps to create adults.  In college you learn:

  1. How to think critically.  In contrast to much of the learning done in elementary and high school, much of college education is about doing research, evaluating sources, putting ideas together and coming to conclusions.  This helps not only in the workplace, but is a valuable skill in evaluating life choices, voting, and raising families.
  2. How to work collaboratively.  Life isn’t a solo performance.  Life involves working with others, in relationships, on committees, in work teams, and in communities.  Group projects and community engaged learning are part of the college experience.
  3. How to evaluate what is put in front of you. As Abraham Lincoln once said, you can’t believe everything you see on the internet.  Yet we are bombarded every day with information, much of which is, frankly, bullshit.  College teaches you how to understand if a source is trustworthy, how to do research to verify information, and how to form opinions without blindly believing everything you’re told.
  4. How to be a good citizen, parent, and responsible adult.  The independence of college is daunting for some, and many can’t handle it.  But in college, students learn to get themselves to class on time (or deal with consequences if they don’t), juggle work, school and sometimes family, make financial decisions, and practice adult relationships.  The aforementioned evaluation skills and critical thinking skills start to come in handy when you are making many of these decisions on your own for the first time.  College provides a relatively safe atmosphere to grow before you need to be on your own, paying taxes, voting, choosing a community, raising a family.
  5. How to develop your own social and political views.  A good college education will allow you to explore many different viewpoints (which is, I guess, the real meaning of “liberal” education) and try out your own.

In addition, an art(s) degree will teach students:

  1. How to take criticism.  In the performing and visual arts, you have critiques of your work, not just by professors, but by other students, other faculty, the public at large, and even professional critics (like Mr. Saltz).  Learning to listen to someone critique something in which you’ve invested not just your knowledge, but your innermost feelings, is a challenge, believe me.
  2. How to defend yourself. Sometimes, critique is useful because it forces you to defend what you believe in.
  3. How to be creative, even within parameters. Creating an art work using a specific prompt, or performing a Shakespeare monologue bringing something different than the thousands of other actors who have performed it, requires a skill far different than memorizing facts.

So perhaps all of those people who are choosing to spend money on an MFA aren’t that stupid after all, Mr. Saltz.  Perhaps they are investing wisely in their futures, and following the advice of Daniel Pink and thinking outside the box when shaping their lives.


About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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