Are Millennials Killing the Art Degree?

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What do yogurt, starter homes, fabric soap, and Applebee’s have in common? They’re all things Millennials are killing. With preferences and values that differ from previous generations, Millennials are using their buying power to make changes in the marketplace and beyond—including in college education.

Another thing you can add to the Millennial hit list is the liberal arts degree. With a nationwide emphasis on STEM careers over recent years, colleges have seen a significant decrease in the number of students choosing humanities majors. In 2015, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities dropped below 12% for the first time since 1987.

Millennials might be writing off arts and humanities degrees too soon. It’s imperative to look at which types of art degrees are available, why Millennials might be choosing other majors, and how the humanities can still be relevant in today’s economy and job market.

The Different Types of Art Degrees

With a number of majors across the humanities, students have a variety of arts degrees to choose from at colleges, universities, and liberal arts schools.

Bachelor of Arts

The Bachelor of Arts is a four-year, undergraduate degree. This degree is typically awarded in non-scientific fields such as communications, English, history, economics, anthropology, foreign language, and more. A BA degree offers a broad, well-rounded perspective that focuses more on analysis, theory, and culture than on technical, artistic, or direct-application skills.

Bachelor of Fine Arts

The Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (BFA) is an undergraduate degree awarded to students who pursue professional majors in the arts. The fine arts degree focuses on practical, hands-on training in the practice of an art form. For example, a student with a BFA in art would learn how to paint or sculpt, in preparation for a career in art or art education, while a student with a BA art major analyzes art pieces and studies the history of visual art. BFA programs typically have high admissions standards and rigorous coursework and expectations.

Liberal Art Schools

Students who pursue studies in the arts or humanities may choose to attend a liberal arts school. These are undergraduate-focused colleges that offer a broad and well-rounded education in fields, such as literature, history, math, and life sciences. The focus at liberal arts schools tends to be less on direct-to-career degrees and more so on a holistic education and tools of analysis that can lead to any number of opportunities, including graduate study.

Decreased Enrollment in Art Degrees

The number of arts degrees awarded has declined steadily over the past ten years, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Why are fewer of today’s college students enrolling in liberal arts degree programs? The following factors may be at play:

Popularity of STEM Degrees

As fewer Millennials pursue arts degrees, more are drawn to majors in science, technology, engineering, and math. This is due in part to an increased emphasis on educating young students, especially women, on the opportunities and benefits of STEM careers.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reports the most significant declines are in traditional humanities fields such as English and history, while bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering, health, and medical sciences, and the natural sciences increased over the past ten years.

Employment Prospects

The employment opportunities for English majors has been a running joke for years, but now, almost ten years since the Great Recession, the stereotype of a college grad asking “can I take your order?” has become a reality. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, labor market studies suggest that about half of college graduates ages 22 to 27 are underemployed—that is, working in a job that doesn’t require a college education.

While STEM majors typically find work right out of college, liberal arts students tend to struggle with underemployment for a few years at least before landing a job that makes real money. And even when they find employment, arts majors tend to have much lower earning potential than their peers in STEM.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, STEM graduates in their late 20s earn an average of $60,100 per year, while arts degree recipients typically earn less than the average college graduate. For example, history majors make an average $43,430 per year, and fine arts majors earn an average annual salary of $36,270.

Rising Student Debt

Staggering student debt increases every year. As of 2017, more than 44 million Americans owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. Due to this reality, students are more motivated than ever to pick a major that will lead to a high-earning job to pay off their debts quickly. Because of this many students tend to steer clear of humanities degrees and look for majors that lead directly to high paying jobs.

What Is the Future of Art Degrees?

The liberal arts do have a place in the workforce. While it’s true that Millennials won’t typically make their fortunes sculpting, teaching English, or painting, the skills they learn in college are transferable to a number of rewarding careers.

Professional Degrees

Liberal arts majors do make less and have fewer employment opportunities than those earning pre-professional degrees in the short term. But as they gain experience and additional training in graduate programs, liberal arts majors tend to close that gap over time.

According to a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, by the time they hit their 50s, liberal arts majors who earn a graduate degree are making more than those who get career-track pre-professional degrees—though both groups still earn less than math and science grads. After attending graduate school, those with arts degrees may become lawyers, psychologists, university administrators, or business executives.

Technology Careers

Millennials earning arts degrees also have a bright future in the fast-paced world of technology and startups. With their training in analysis, critical thinking, and problem solving, arts majors are well positioned to “effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

Millennial graduates of arts and humanities degrees can also put the problems of today into a human context and inspire creative solutions in a variety of fields. For example, one of today’s fastest growing tech startups, Slack, was founded by a philosophy major—and a popular component of the software was crafted by a theater major.

Ultimately, in today’s world, the degree a student chooses—especially within the humanities—matters less than how they choose to use it and the additional training and experience they pursue. Before killing off the arts degree, Millennials would do well to think twice about the value and opportunity of this field of study.


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