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Is getting a master’s degree in the arts a terrible idea? Are universities taking advantage of students by offering programs in low-paying fields such as film, journalism and social work?

Federal data now allow us to look at how graduates of individual college and university programs fare economically after they finish. That has opened the door for think-tank analysts and journalists to identify programs whose graduates on average earn more than enough to repay their student debt—or don’t. Many of the programs whose graduates don’t earn enough to repay their debt prepare people for industries that don’t pay very well but that society values, such as teaching or the clergy. Degrees in the arts are a particular target.

A recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, explored this topic. Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy and knowledge management at New America, and Doug Dempster, former dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed Carey’s recent essay called “The Great Master’s Degree Swindle.”

An edited transcript of the podcast follows.

Inside Higher Ed: Kevin, can you briefly lay out the arguments you made in your recent piece?

Carey: The article I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education was reacting to some of the conversation around an investigative piece in The Wall Street Journal that focused on high levels of borrowing among film students in the graduate film program at Columbia University, and showing that a lot of the graduates from that program had both borrowed a lot of money and were not making very much money in their careers, subsequent to finishing the degree. And the article was made possible by some recent big changes in the way the federal government gathers information about individual programs at colleges and universities. It allows us for the first time to look at both how much money students are borrowing if they’re a part of the federal aid program, as most students are, and, crucially, by matching up various federal wage records, what their earnings are.

So the point of the article I wrote—writers don’t write headlines, I just want to make that clear, I don’t think the word “swindle” appears in the text anywhere—butwas? sg very much in the vein of saying that, hey, this is not kind of an isolated thing. There are a lot of graduate programs at American colleges and universities where students are borrowing large amounts of money because there are no hard caps on how much money you can borrow to attend graduate school, whereas there are for undergraduate colleges.

Students are borrowing a lot of money. If you look at the earnings data, the comparison doesn’t look too good. It seems as if a lot of students are borrowing money to start careers that are perhaps not getting them enough money to pay their loans back. And that’s an underrecognized problem.

It’s certainly not a problem that is confined to things like film studies, although I do say that there is a pretty broad pattern where if you look at the programs that seem to have the most alarming numbers in terms of a lot of debt and not a lot of earnings, arts-related programs are disproportionately represented. And that’s true at both the graduate and the undergraduate level, and it’s true at a variety of colleges—for-profit, nonprofit and even public in some cases.

Inside Higher Ed: That was the point that brought Doug into the conversation. I think Doug was particularly interested in and potentially troubled by Kevin’s description in a couple of paragraphs about the overall state of arts education. You wrote a letter in response to Kevin’s piece about what he had to say about arts education. Can you fill us in on what you said there?

Dempster: I’ll begin by saying I agree with everything that Kevin just said, because it was a bit more moderate in its judgment on arts programs. I’ll also say I appreciate the reporting Kevin and other outlets, The Wall Street Journal, have done bringing attention to this student debt crisis, as The Wall Street Journal is now calling it, and how that’s really being exaggerated by borrowing for graduate programs. That’s all well taken, and higher education needs to be paying more attention to that, and solving that from the extent that we can. So we agree on that.

There are two points I wanted to make in my rejoinder to Kevin, and I’ll summarize. One is, there’s a reflex, almost a tendency to identify the high cost of arts education and the poor wage return on investment, and then jump to a condemnation of those careers, those professions and all of arts education as, and it wasn’t Kevin’s term, a swindle. And I took him to task for saying that all funding of arts education and postsecondary education is—I can’t remember your exact term, Kevin, but it was a sweeping condemnation of my sector of the postsecondary education. There’s a reflex in our culture and society to say that artists are not a critical and perhaps even valued sector of our economy and our culture.

The second thing I really want to get us to focus on, and this applies not just to the arts but to many of the professions. There are lots of professions that are low-wage professions, which nonetheless require some high degree of education beyond high school. And the arts are among those in many fields, not all of it. If you want to be a rock drummer, you probably don’t have to go to college. But there are lots of other fields in the arts that require a more advanced level of education. And these are generally low-wage professions. That’s beyond any dispute.

There’s a general issue here, which is how are we as a society going to educate these creatives and other professionals for these fields that are low wage but are essential to our culture and economy. If you shift the focus from the arts to something like nursing or social worker, or childcare, or, to be more pointedly with the two of you, journalism, we need well-educated professionals in all those fields, and we have to figure out how to afford that. And, I would say, we have to figure out how we’re going to make those opportunities accessible to the less affluent students out there. Let’s start talking about how we’re compensating those professionals in the world, because part of the solution to the student debt crisis is to make sure that these professionals are earning enough in their postgraduate years to repay their debts, or to recover the cost of their education.

Inside Higher Ed: Just as a reminder, Kevin called arts education a “financial catastrophe” for students. Let’s put aside for now the question of what people get paid and focus for a minute on the education and training costs or investment that they and society make. Kevin, how do you think about that issue, partly with the arts, but also with other lower-wage professions?

Carey: Actually I want to own up to the whole quote, which is, “the whole apparatus of university-based arts education is a financial catastrophe for students.” Doug’s point is well taken that that is an overly broad characterization. It’s not the case that the whole apparatus, every single part of it, is a catastrophe. I think too many parts of it are disproportionately a catastrophe, but that’s a fair critique of what I wrote.

To the question that you asked, I don’t think universities can charge prices based on the labor market that they wish we had as a society. I think they have to be responsible for the one that we do have, because students have to go into that market and earn money to pay their loans back. And there’s a lot of benefits to higher education that can’t be boiled down to earnings, but you have to pay your loans back with money. So I think a lot of this discussion has been magnified or contextualized by a growth in borrowing.

I also think Doug is exactly right. You bring up journalism as a good example. We rely on our colleges and universities to prepare people for almost every career that exists. There are a lot of careers where you gain a certain kind of skills and credentials, and you plug into a system where as long as your skills and credentials are good enough, you can have a stable career. School teaching is a good example of that. A lot of the health-care profession is a good example of that.

There are other kinds of careers where that’s not the case, and there’s a tournament aspect to it one way or the other, because of something about the range of possible skills that you’re conducting to certain ways of expressing yourself aesthetically and the way that markets respond to that, or people respond to it. I think theater is like that. I’m not an expert, but many parts of arts education are like that.

Certainly journalism is like that. Any good editor will tell you that some people have the goods and some people don’t, and some people rise to the top and some people don’t. You could have frankly written a version of that Wall Street Journal article about the Columbia School of Journalism, which charges people $110,000 for a nine-month program, and it’s a waste of money for a lot of people. Don’t do that, if you’re listening. Don’t go spend $110,000 to get a bachelor’s degree in journalism, go get a job as a journalist and do it, and learn that way.

And that gets to a question I would love to hear Doug’s thoughts on. There are certain kinds of career preparation where really the better thing [would be] more of an apprenticeship model, where you form a relationship, you’re kind of in the business, in the industry. You learn as you work. You don’t borrow an enormous amount of money up front, take all the risk on to yourself for entering that tournament where inevitably some substantial number of people are going to be the losers in it. That would be a better way. We don’t do it that way because you have to go to a college, and colleges just sort of charge everyone the same amount of money to go to grad school.

Inside Higher Ed: Doug, to the point Kevin just made, to what extent is arts education broadly about preparing people for careers in the arts versus other things, and is it the most efficient way, the best way for us to do that?

Dempster: Great questions. Formal education, postsecondary degree–based education, it is now the way we are training artists and creatives in various fields. Not all of them—there are apprentice tracks. A study done by a couple of sociologists and economists at Northeastern [shows that] only 25 percent of the professional artists that the American Community Survey counts in the economy have postsecondary degrees in the arts, visual or performing arts. So that means 75 percent of that labor force, professional labor force, has found a different track into those professions.

It’s telling that so many are finding their way into those professions other than through a fine arts field of study in a college. And by their measure, only something like 25 percent of the graduates with fine arts degrees are working as professional artists.

After now close to 40 years teaching and administering in professional art schools, a pattern I’ve seen over all that period is that the more competitive the market has become for those musicians or dancers or composers or playwrights, the larger the educational burden, the more we try to pack into the curriculum, the more training we try to give them. And that, of course, increased costs. We spend more on more distinguished faculty who have better networking opportunities for their graduates, and the cost of education, and the specialization in the education gets more and more intense every year as we move forward. And with the [greater] extent to which the labor market actually uses higher education and degree programs as a gate, as a sieve, for who gets those entry-level opportunities, we’re sort of stuck with this pattern. I don’t know how to break from that.

I agree with Kevin that we should be looking for alternative routes into these professions, whether it’s journalism or in various arts professions. But that’s pushing back against a long tide. And I’m not exactly sure how to do that. Of course, publishing these data on earnings return on investment is one corrective in this … So there are ways we can constrain formal postsecondary education, forcing students into alternative routes and employers into alternative sources of talent?

Inside Higher Ed: I actually see the tide that Doug describes starting to ever so slightly recede. We’re definitely seeing the emergence of more alternatives to traditional paths to degrees, though it will shock no one that we’re seeing a lot more Silicon Valley start-ups in coding and data analytics than in arts or journalism training, and we are starting to see more employers look for other ways to judge potential employees. Kevin, how do you feel about this?

Carey: I completely believe that it’s got to be more expensive and more labor intensive to do a good job training people in the arts than it is for probably a lot of other things that happen. And you have to have the relationship with people who are both creatively and pedagogically very adept, and you can’t just spin up some sort of system that [trains them]. Whereas coding is probably a good example of this, where you can just get people on the other side for some reasonable amount of money.

But that doesn’t change the numbers. You still have to pay tuition, you still have to pay your loan back, right?

On the subject of exploitation, I think it’s good to segment to some extent. It doesn’t apply to the large majority of institutions or arts programs but does apply to a nontrivial number of them … Exploitation is built on trust. Exploitation requires trust to work. All higher education sits on a really remarkably deep, durable foundation of trust. People make decisions of their own free will to borrow this money and go on these programs because they feel good about the institutions they’re getting into a relationship with. They don’t have that part of your brain that’s like, “am I being ripped off here? Is this a good idea?”

They’ve been taught to turn it off. They’re basically being asked to trust a well-known college or university and the government at the same time. Well, surely the government wouldn’t lend me this money, and surely the institution wouldn’t admit me to this program is this wasn’t on some level a good idea. And that’s just not always true.

I really want to use these numbers to crack down on these [poor-performing] programs and cut them off from federal financial aid. But I do still think that leaves, like, probably most of the corpus of arts education again, which I painted too broad a brush of before, where you have this sort of like larger question of all things that Doug talked about, the nature of the labor market and how much training costs.

Inside Higher Ed: I’m assuming that a lot of the cost to institutions and then the price that’s passed on to students in arts relates to the one-on-one teaching of musicians, and I suspect it’s similar in other arts fields that I’m less familiar with. But could there be a way of bringing down the cost of certain kinds of arts education, or are we sort of stuck with it?

Dempster: There are lots of ways that we could improve the efficiency and the cost of education, even in traditional art forms, never mind more current forms of [what is] called digital arts. I’ve written elsewhere about how wedded we are to what, probably inappropriately now, we used to call the master-apprentice model of instruction, which was one-on-one tutorials. That’s most evident in music instruction. This is true in almost every discipline if you’re doing a Ph.D. in the humanities or in physics, or mathematics, you’re working on a master-apprentice level when you get to a certain level of mastery. But the arts are wedded to that pedagogy almost at every level.

Our disciplines have been very resistant to the ways that technologies might allow us to deliver the education more affordably, more efficiently, which actually improves access. That’s all about opening the door to more students who can’t afford the highest costs of the education. So we need do a lot. Everyone knows that COVID has done more to more arts pedagogy in the direction that we’ve struggling this doesn’t quite to achieve for probably 25 to 30 years than almost anything that any dean has ever said or Kevin Carey has ever written about the need to do this. So that’s a silver lining in that cause.

[In] journalism and the arts, I think we suffer from a not unique but a distinctive problem in the labor market, because these are fields that some labor economists would describe as winner-take-all labor markets, where there are some very small percentage of celebrities within the professional field that tend to reap huge rewards from the labor market. And that’s contingent on them having survived … a tournament in which they rise to the top of that rewards structure. And virtually everyone else within that tournament is left with too little.

When it comes to teacher education, you don’t see the same abuses or gigantic debt-to-earnings problems. That’s because those are professions that aren’t wage tournaments, aren’t winner-take-all labor markets. And what motivates a lot of students into art fields, and I think that’s true in the arts, and maybe journalism as well, is the chance at celebrity or great achievement, winning that tournament. And the educational program tends to play into that what I call a Hoop Dreams syndrome, which is, it’s a farm system for sifting out the winners of the tournament. But we don’t always have good solutions for those who are losers in that tournament. We’re not always preparing them as well as we should.

So we need to be focusing more on students across the spectrum. The tournament’s not going to go away, because the larger economy and culture wants to reward those people. But we have to have career outcomes, and as Kevin says, they have to be able to earn enough in their profession to at least recover the cost of their education, not just their debt, but actually the cost of investing in that education. And that’s an obligation of the schools.

Inside Higher Ed: I’d love to widen the lens a bit for a minute about the appropriateness, the sufficiency of judging the validity of credentials and educations broadly on economic outcomes. Part of the reason we do that is because there are gettable data on that and because we know most students go to college for career advancement. But especially [in] fields that aren’t purely about career preparation, where there aren’t licensure exams to pass as another gateway, how important is it that we now have these data and can use them to judge the programs? And what else should be using to judge the value of any kind of credential or piece of training?

Carey: Can we judge academic programs based on money? Well, of course, not fully, for lots of reasons. But the judgment here is in relation to debt, and debt is only about money. A lot of people are going to say, “I’m going to enter the arts tournament or the writing tournament, understanding that most people don’t win.” That’s fine. That’s the way it’s going to be, and you can make that decision. And if it doesn’t work out for you, maybe you find another place [for] yourself in the industry that isn’t purely predicated on your creative talents. Or maybe you do something else with your life. You know, I don’t think we can or should change that.

The question is, can we reduce the risk of that? Can we reduce the negative outcome of losing? And I think that’s been the change. If the risk was you walk away penniless, that’s one thing. The problem is you walk away penniless and owing someone $100,000. That’s a lot worse of a risk. If we can find a way to follow some of the advice about bringing down the cost, whether it’s through organizational changes or technology or what have you, not only would that be a more fair and humane and better way of organizing things, more people could enter the tournament that way, right?

I do think there will be backlash. To some extent the market starts to assert itself. We’ve seen that in other professions, like law, for example, where at some point, fewer people just said, “I’m not going to borrow $250,000 to go to law school. That’s just a financially crazy decision.”

Dempster: We know that we have an educational finance system which is broken in various aspects, and it needs to be corrected there. And I think there is a lot we can do to fix that, and there are burdens to be spread around. Colleges, universities have to do their part; controlling cost is one of the first priorities.

But we want to avoid creating another problem. The liberal lending programs we have now were designed to create greater access to a greater spectrum of our society, and this is especially evident in the arts. There was a time, and in some ways it’s still true, that the most elite programs are most available to the most affluent, and if you look at the demographics for those schools, it’s clear that there’s not equal access for those who deserve or have the talent.

You talked about how these new data, just by becoming more available, might correct some of these problems. You can see that happening already. Baylor just got called out by The Wall Street Journal in a way that you can bet is going to have a dramatic effect on their practices. And I’ve been saying to my colleagues in the arts around the country, every dean, every president of an arts school had better understand what the ROIs are on their not just school but program by program, because their students and their prospective students are all going to know that if they take the trouble to find out. That’s going to, in and of itself, have a corrective effect.

What I’m also arguing for, and this is the mission of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, which I have been working with for 15 years, is that we’re saying, let’s not reduce that entirety of evaluation these programs or informing a prospective student and current students and graduates simply by those two numbers—cost to earnings ratios. We want a much thicker appreciation of what these programs are or are not delivering to students and graduates. That program, SNAAP, was created … to say we need a much better instrument for evaluating outcomes for our graduates. And it’s a very thick data set, which … balances the picture that’s being produced by some of these very good, very important, but very reductive evaluations of programs that really are just looking at debt-to-earnings or cost-to-earnings ratios.

We don’t want to be so reductive that we’re not looking at graduate satisfaction, professional activity, what percentage of graduates are actually working in their professions and lots of other data points.

Inside Higher Ed: There’s been a major failure on the part of higher education leaders in terms of having not said, “here’s what we strive to produce in and for graduates of our programs. Here are the ways we should be judged, and here’s the data, probably some more quantitative than others, that show how successfully we’re doing that.” That failure has resulted in a vacuum into which we’ve seen some oversimplified, reductionist measures put forward as the way of judging programs. It seems like those economic assessments need to remain central, if not dominant, in how we think about these programs for the reasons Kevin cites.

But having more context and more data could only be better. Kevin, do you think broader ways of judging programs are a distraction from what really matters, or would they be a helpful addition?

Carey: We’ve [seen] the Biden administration’s proposal to make community college free … collapse in Congress. Why is higher education falling short in this terrible contest for vital investments? Because on some level, the pitch is always, “give us more money, but we’re not going to tell you what will happen. You need to kind of trust us.” The kind of push for administrative definitions of quality have had a consumer-protection impetus behind them, but it’s also filling a void where there are no real, reliable, comparable, checkable processes, measures, however you want to define it. And of course, the way you define it would be vastly different for different kinds of education.

My approach is always, whatever you think, like, whatever the field thinks is the right way to look at the quality or value of an arts education, I am very open to considering all those things. You just don’t really see that much if you go and look for it, because for a variety of reasons it just hasn’t been produced, and I think any process with integrity would create information that would make some people uncomfortable and make other people like less so. But absent that, I just think there’s this kind of degrading bargain of, “continue to fund us even though we’re not going to really be very responsive about the results of that.”

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