Colleges May Be Struggling, But Art Schools? Not So Much

Rhode Island School of Design campus
PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND, UNITED STATES - 2013/09/07: Rhode Island School of Design campus. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
John Greim—LightRocket via Getty Images

Sculptor Eleanor Tomlinson had doubts about art school. The tuition looked costly, there was no guarantee of job and she wondered whether a master’s degree was needed to launch her career.

But she ended up going the Rhode Island School of Design anyway, thanks in part to a scholarship, and is glad that she did. “There were so many disciplines and resources that I had never been exposed to before,” said Tomlinson, 25, who now works as an assistant at the Abington Art Center outside Philadelphia and teaches at the Fleisher Art Memorial.

Art and design schools aren’t coming under pressure as much as other colleges that are being squeezed as some students eschew high price tags and the population of new high-school graduates stagnates. While enrollment in colleges and universities declined 6 percent in the decade through 2016, it fell by only 4 percent at art schools, according to the most recently available information compiled by the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, which collects data on 42 private schools.

None of the eight art schools that Moody’s Investors Service rates are below investment grade or at risk of being downgraded, even though the company has a negative outlook on the higher-education sector as a whole, said Debra Roane, a Moody’s analyst. She said some have been helped by their ability to draw students to niche programs, such as animation or car design, that are feeders into higher-paying careers.

At the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the student population has grown by six percent since 2012, said Melissa Huybrecht, vice president of enrollment management. She said students are coming because they “are seeing the success afterwards,” with about three quarters finding work in their fields after graduating.

“Artists and designers are happier and have more life satisfaction because they are doing something that they are passionate about, that they love, and oh, by the way, they are also making money,” she said.

The median annual salary for arts and design jobs was $45,250 in 2017, compared with $37,690 for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which said there’s growing demand for animation and visual effects jobs in the entertainment industry. Art directors at media companies made a median of $92,500 last year.

The art schools aren’t immune from the pressures that are facing higher-education, and the next time a recession hits they may find students balking at the costs. Some private and public universities have also started expanding their art programs, posing a potential competitive threat.

But at the Rhode Island School of Design, enrollment has held steady at about 2,500 students, said Ed Newhall, associate vice president for enrollment. He said about three-fourths of students do an internship while attending and over half do more than one. “They’re not going to immediately return home and fall into the whole adage of starving artist in the Lower East Side,” he said.

The Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, which has about 600 students, is planning to expand to 1,000 in the next few years, said President Don Tuski. The school, which is preparing to welcome its largest incoming class in history, has ramped up its recruitment, visiting over 600 high schools. It’s also added programming for in-demand fields like coding, he said.

“We paid a lot of attention to how do you take great creativity and apply it to the larger world,” Tuski said in an interview. “Some liberal arts schools didn’t pay attention to that enough.”

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