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Story slamming ‘Arts’ majors misses the mark, officials say

March 31, 2014 1:45PM

When she heard that a recent article in a national magazine disparaged art majors, Rhona Shand’s first reaction was to chuckle.

“I’ve heard it all before,” said Shand, who is chair of Pittsburg State University’s Department of Art.

Under the headline, “These U.S. Colleges and Majors Are the Biggest Waste of Money,” the Atlantic published an online story, based on a report from the online service PayScale, that concludes high school graduates would make significantly more money over a lifetime if they chose to go straight to work rather than pursuing certain college majors.

Specifically, the publication listed “Arts” major at Pittsburg State University, along with similar programs at the University of Missouri, the University of Wisconsin, and Ohio State University.

Shand said she and other veteran academic researchers on campus took a closer look at the study and found lots of problems.

“This is so inaccurate in so many ways, it is hard to know where to begin,” Shand said. “It makes a sexy headline and plays into some common misconceptions, but it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the career opportunities available for art majors or graduates of many other programs.”

Deep into the article in the Atlantic, the author does acknowledge a number of “caveats.” Shand said the original PayScale article is clearer about the limitations of the study. Those limitations, she said, make the data pretty useless.

First, Shand noted, the PayScale data lumps together a wide number of programs under the general heading “Arts.”

“These aren’t just art majors they’re talking about,” Shand said. “It’s students in upwards of a dozen programs across campus.”

But that’s just the beginning. The data uses only out-of-state tuition to calculate the cost of the degree. It also excludes anyone who has gone on to earn any degree higher than a BA and includes only graduates working in the U.S. And most importantly, Shand said, it excludes any graduate who is self-employed, project-based or is a contract employee.

“For example, Shand said, “any small-business owner or contract-based graphic designer would be excluded.”

Shand quickly rattled off a list of Art Department alumni who have been highly successful but would not have been included in the PayScale report. They included a graphic designer for the Kansas City Chiefs, a production artist for Hallmark, the owner of an independent illustration company, an editor of a national magazine and a local business owner who was recently named the small-business owner of the year for the State of Kansas.

Shand said she is used to questions about employment opportunities and skepticism about the value of a fine arts degree.

“Parents ask,” Shand said. “My own parents did, and I’m doing pretty well.”

She said questions about the value of the arts in education are not unusual, especially during certain times.

“I’m sure the economy has something to do with it,” Shand said. “As the cost of education has risen and more of the burden is being shifted to students and families, it is a legitimate concern.”

But she also points to lots of data that shows graduates with degrees in art and other arts programs are just the kind of employees a lot of businesses are looking for.

She quoted the Governors’ Commission on the Arts in Education, which concluded, “The Creative Economy... relies upon people who can think creatively, adapt quickly to new situations, and problem-solve. This industry, which is growing at a faster pace than total U.S. business growth, increases the demand for workers with the skills that are gained through the arts in education.”

Shand said the article published in the Atlantic paints a wildly inaccurate picture of art education, but she’s not losing sleep over it.

“I looked at the other schools on the list, and frankly, it’s a pretty good list to be on,” Shand laughed.

She expects to have questions about the value of an art degree, but, Shand said, that’s an ongoing issue.

“I’m more than happy to have that discussion,” Shand said. “When people see the facts, they usually come around.”

©2014 Pittsburg State University

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