arts-headerNot all post-secondary degrees are created equal — especially when it comes to the ones that are supposed to lead to an arts-based career.

That’s one of the cold, hard facts facing the generation containing people born between 1977 and
 1994. Generation Y has been encouraged to follow
its dreams, yet is constantly reminded that those
dreams are impractical. Educators and corporate employers both trumpet the enduring value of critical thinking. But studies show that arts graduates are under-employed, and earn less money than their science, technology, math and engineering counterparts.

This raises some of the great questions of the millennial era: what is the true value of an arts degree? How do you measure the relative worth of medieval studies versus, say, medicine? Is there anything that outweighs practicality? Does accumulation of knowledge for its own sake really help you in life?
The answer appears to depend on what you want out of life.

arts-infographicNo question, an arts degree is no guarantee of a job. Researchers for the Center on Education and the Workforce at Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University concluded that unemployment rates are significantly higher in non-technical majors. As of 2010, unemployment in the arts stood at 11.1 per cent, humanities and liberal arts at 9.4 per cent, social science at 8.9 per cent and law and public policy at 8.1 per cent. In contrast, the study found that only 7.8 per cent of computer science and 6.0 per cent of math grads were unemployed.

Painters, musicians and writers are commonly paid on a freelance basis. Even people who do find work in these fields end up with a lack of financial stability. Fine and applied arts degrees tend to be the least lucrative, earning an average of $34,653 a year, according to a survey of 2008 university graduates conducted by the Council of Ontario Universities, behind theology at $35,000 and humanities at $38,407.

Yet arts educators and bureaucrats insist that arts programs can ultimately pay off in different ways. Liberal arts degrees don’t necessarily fit into the same categories as more direct-to-workplace educations with clear skill sets that apply to specific tasks. Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College in Vermont, is a firm believer in liberal arts education. In a recent TED Talk, Coleman said that part of the value of liber- al arts is in the ability to think critically and to look at the way the world functions.

Kerry Swanson, an outreach and evaluation officer with the Toronto Arts Council, said the arts ultimately serve a deeper goal, whether or not there is formal training involved. “There is a huge spectrum of artists who pursue their work in different ways, in different disciplines, at different pay scales, with both formal and informal training,” Swanson said. “What we can say is that artists are essential to the vitality of our city, and that the arts provide proven value both to the economy and our daily lives.”

arts-photo 2

Nicole Hillier, a drawing and painting student at OCAD University, says passion is crucial in the arts industry. [Photo credit: Kaity Theriault]

Most people working in these fields agree. Nicole Hillier, a drawing and painting student at OCAD University, said the arts offer rewarding careers for those who are passionate. “If you don’t have the passion for it, it’s almost like ‘Why are you doing it?'” Hillier asked. “If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
That said, Rebecca Schechter, a television screenwriter and professor at York University, said students need to be prepared for what’s ahead of them. Immediate financial success cannot be the draw. Prospective writers “have to want to be in this field very, very badly because they’ll need that powerful desire to keep them steady through the bad times, and there will always be bad times,” said Schechter. This means “they need to be good with money, because the big financial successes aren’t going to be constant, even in the most successful careers.”

It’s worth noting that these days, such provisos do not only apply to arts graduates. In fact, graduates from some of the most practical fields of study are also encountering trouble in the search for employment in their fields. The George- town study, called Hard Times: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal, found that post-graduate employment was higher in degrees aimed at specified or technical occupations, such as healthcare, education, electrical engineering and mathematics. However, the highest rate of recent unemployment was found to be among architecture students, whose job prospects disappeared when the U.S. construction industry collapsed.

The bottom line: every person has to do what gives her or him a sense of accomplishment–even if, in the end, this means not earning a university degree. Magenta MacLeod is the perfect example. After years at the University of Toronto, dabbling in various majors and specializations that ranged from medieval history and archaeology, to film studies, she failed to find anything that felt like the right fit.

She told her brother about her frustration, and he suggested that, since she was tired of theory, she consider something completely different: technical college. MacLeod followed his advice, and switched to video game art & design at RCC Institute of Technology, a post-secondary institution offering hands-on training in technology and design fields. “Writing a long essay didn’t feel like an achievement to me no matter what mark I got on it,” MacLeod said. “Drawing a character, or coding a game, however, felt like an accomplishment I could see and experience, and show off to others with pride–and that’s what made it valuable to me.