Study shows that recent arts alumni are resilient, adaptable and involved

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A study released by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project shows that America’s most recent arts graduates are using skills learned in school combined with internship experiences to find work, forge careers and engage their communities, despite higher student debt levels than older alumni.

The report, “Making It Work: The Education and Employment of Recent Arts Graduates,” analyzes data from more than 88,000 arts alumni of all ages, with a particular focus on the 17,000 recent alumni -- those who finished their undergraduate or graduate level degrees up to five years prior. Arts alumni participating in the study attended 140 degree-granting institutions in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Recent arts alumni differ most from their older cohorts in their frequent use of internships to gain experience and in unprecedented levels of student debt. They also are more likely to have learned transferable skills including persuasive speaking, networking and project management.

A large majority (80 percent) of recent alumni report finding first jobs that are closely or somewhat related to their arts education. Arts alumni generally feel well prepared to pursue further education: 84 percent of recent graduates who pursued further education felt “very well” or “fairly well” prepared. Interestingly, a somewhat higher percentage of alumni of color pursued additional degrees compared to their white counterparts.

Recent arts graduates demonstrate a high level of community engagement, with 90 percent reporting they had supported the arts in the previous 12 months by volunteering, donating money or attending an event.

“These data give us a unique and granular sense of the joys and frustrations of young alumni,” said Jennifer C. Lena of Columbia University Teachers College, the report’s primary author. “In many ways, recent graduates in the arts may be better off than their peers. They have technical and management skills that are applicable to a wide range of work contexts; they’re entrepreneurial and adaptable, and hard-working. These recent grads also give back to their own communities by volunteering for the arts.”

Noteworthy findings include:

  • Thirty-five percent of all recent graduates said student debt had a “major” impact on their educational and career decisions, compared to only 14 percent of non-recent alumni; similarly, 39 percent of recent graduates gave debt as a reason they do not currently work as professional artists, versus 22 percent of less recent graduates.

  • More than half (54 percent) of recent alumni participated in at least one internship during their undergraduate years, as compared to 32 percent of less recent alumni.

  • While many undergraduate arts alumni currently teach in some capacity, only 21 percent said their institution helped them acquire teaching skills “very much.”

  • Overall job satisfaction is high: 75 percent of recent alumni are satisfied with the job in which they spend the majority of their time, versus 82 percent of older alumni.

  • Slightly more recent alumni reported acquiring financial and business management skills (25 percent) and entrepreneurial skills (30 percent) in school than their older cohorts, who reported 21 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

  • Fifty-six percent of recent alumni said they do not work as professional artists because artistic work is not available, versus 36 percent of older alumni.

  • Forty-nine percent of recent alumni said they do not currently work as professional artists because of higher/steadier pay in other fields, whereas 59 percent of older alumni gave that reason.

“These findings affirm that design and arts schools are providing invaluable training and that our graduates are more likely to work in related fields than many other college majors and degrees,” said Steven J. Tepper, SNAAP research director and Dean of the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. “Still, we need to do a better job of training our students not only how to make art, but also how to make it as artists and workers in the world.

"We also know that unpaid internships and mounting debt are not sustainable. This issue is urgent, and faculty and school leaders must consider how to deliver high-quality instruction in a more affordable way.”

SNAAP is based at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, a center of the IU School of Education. Registration for the 2015 survey, open to all degree-granting colleges and universities as well as arts high schools, will begin in spring 2015.