Skip to main content

This is the first installment of a two-part series. Part 2 can be read here.

Recently, BFAMFAPhD, a collective of artists, designers, technologists, organizers, and educators who work in the intersection of art, technology, and political economy, released an interesting set of data.

The contributors and collaborators of BFAMFAPhD have been asking themselves and society in general, “If most students who obtain arts degrees never end up working in their field of study, how can we justify the astronomical cost of art education at the collegiate level?”

Read more of their findings. They’ve discovered a startling 85% of those who obtain an art degree of some sort end up working in unrelated careers. Additionally, the 15% of those who do become professional artists, “have median earnings of $25,000.” This annual income is scarcely enough to even remotely justify the exorbitant cost of a standard art degree.

Serious Questions

The questions surrounding art education and its connection to arts in the real world are extremely important to answer. While enrollment in humanities, business and education bachelor degree programs are down sharply, arts degree enrollment has been steadily climbing over the last decade.

At the same time, a rough estimate of the average cost for a four-year art degree currently sits in the $100,000 -$120,000 range. This is a tough pill to swallow for students who hope to be exposed to the most forward thinking and cutting-edge education with little promise of art-related work once they reach the career phase.

Take a look at this diagram illustrating the actual percentage of art degree holders who end up in art related fields.

Artists and the fields in which they work.

Still, it seems, that even though the price to obtain a degree in art is inconceivably high and job placement prospects after college are extremely poor, students continue to choose the fine art trajectory as their post-high school pursuit.

WHY? What on earth would motivate someone with talent and intelligence to pursue a path with such lackluster odds for success?

In the Words of the Student

We asked one newly minted art student to share her thoughts on her own tenuous foray into the realm of art student-hood. Shannon is 18 years old and is currently gearing up for her freshman year participating in the art program at Moore College of Art and Design.

Obviously, she is excited to start this next chapter in her young life but at the same time she’s grappling with a sense of inner conflict regarding the weight of the financial burden. I’ve finally become a legal adult. I’m not old enough to drink, but apparently I’m old enough to spend unfathomable amounts of money to pursue a career I’m [sometimes] not even sure I want to do.”

It’s not lost on Shannon that she is incredibly fortunate to attend her dream school. She continues, “In the back of my mind, I know there are individuals my age with twice the passion who won’t be as lucky.”

For art students, there seems to be a latent cynicism projected upon them by the art world. She shares, “From day one, I’m told I’ll have to die first to gain any recognition and money to my name. I place so much time, effort, and money into my future, but the gamble of the art community dictates whether I succeed or fail. I have to ask myself, is it worth it?”

This is a burden of a question to be sure. For a young person to weigh all of these variables and unforeseen possibilities can be overwhelming. Faced with rising tuition and waning opportunities for a career in fine arts, it could be enough to cause someone like Shannon to change course altogether.

But still, there is a deeper motivation—one that underpins her chosen pathway. This motivation will be her foothold on the four-year climb when the cliff seems too steep and the mountaintop of graduation seems too high to reach.

What is it? What could that motivation—that secret syrup that mires the feet in a mystical swamp of whimsy about what could and should be possible for one’s future—what could it be?

It’s just art—Shannon’s posture of almost daring the future to keep her from living the present.

In an observation that seems like it would come from someone with much more life experience under their belt, Shannon says, “To live life fearing failure and worrying about money inhibits me from ever reaching my true potential.”

“In the grand scheme of time, my life is only the length of the snap of my fingers. Why waste it playing safe? Art has no proper definition; it’s what you make it. Michelangelo is famous for his large, extravagant scale Sistine Chapel ceiling mural, but so is Marcel Duchamp for flipping a porcelain urinal upside down and signing it. Art is art. Art is what I make it.”

Shannon muses about her loosely defined plans for the future. “I’m pursuing a major in curatorial studies at Moore. I hope to one day work in large-scale art museums like the MET or the MOMA. I want to be able to stare at the works of masters all day for the rest of my life. To see their work exhibited in grand scale for millions to view gives me hope and inspires me to keep working on my art.”

“It’s crazy to think real people made the art we view at museums. Looking at an artist’s work is looking into their world through their eyes. I want that experience every day of my life.”

Anecdotally at least, it seems the reason for pursuing a degree in fine art is not primarily motivated by the guarantee of a spot in the 21st century workforce. No, rather, it seems the motivation to study art is art itself.

As Shannon says—to see the world through the eyes of the artists who have gone before— this is the mindset of a person committed to craft. Art seems to be one of those pursuits that is its own reward. The journey itself is worth the price of admission, regardless of the destination.

Art as an informer and shaper of worldview, art as a herald of hope and procurer of ideas about how the future could be lived—these are reasons for our students of today and tomorrow to brush up against art and engage with the programs that teach and mentor young artists.

Maybe, at the very least, our responsibility as lovers of art looking to pass the torch is to encourage students to pursue art by any means—either by accreditation or curiosity—we can push them towards curating a life intertwined with art.

We’ll return to our talks with art students next month and talk with students who’ve immersed themselves in their pursuit and what they plan on doing post-art school.


  • Beautiful! As an artist most deeply committed to my craft, thank you for the reminder about why I keep making art.

  • Art Academia is often a gateway to grants art scholarships and residencies not open to artists who do not follow the degree system.
    Galleries seem to feed into this merit system by using the school name and grants won by their new artists to instill confidence in their clients purchase. This serves as a confirmation of quality rather than the quality of the work itself. The whole system reinforces conformity of the work which is produced and a lack of individuality among the art if taste and judgement on the part of the investors