March 23, 2011

Your Student Loans Are Totally Killing You, Dude


Go to art shows in San Francisco and you’ll hear people brag drunkenly about how much sex they’re having. You’ll hear all about who’s dating who, who cheated on who and so forth. But what you won’t hear is people bragging about how much money they’re making from their art. The ugly truth is that most artists in San Francisco carry an outrageous amount of student loan debt yet nobody wants to talk about it because, well, it’s unpleasant.

So people talk about other things instead – Sex. Parties. Drugs. Music. Shitty jobs. Survival. Art. Facebook. In fact there’s an endless amount of things to discuss and almost anything is more interesting than debt. Besides, in an environment where everybody is living on borrowed money there is zero incentive to change the system. You can’t do anything about it so what’s the point of worrying?

Banks benefit from being the lenders, the government collects interest, students get to pay their rent and go to school, and so what’s the harm in it all? The harm I’d say is that boy-oh-boy art school is expensive!

Right now one semester at the San Francisco Art Institute will cost you a sobering $16,212. At the California College of Art a semester of tuition is a mind-bending $17,436 and at Mills it will set you back a cool $18,214. That means a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute currently costs $129,696.

You better hold on to your hats because with tuition rising each semester, a BFA will soon cost a whopping $200,000! Try paying that off with a minimum wage job! The simple fact is that student loans follow you and affect your credit and if not managed carefully they can ruin your credit and make it difficult or impossible to find a good apartment, buy a new car or – God forbid – buy a house.

Ironically, many of the companies that own vast student loan portfolios were themselves bailed out by the government. Bailed out to the tune of 800 billion dollars! Despite all the corruption, nepotism, bad business and out right criminal activities, the banks and other financial companies were responsible for was overlooked. They could default on all their loans, be guilty of a plethora of crimes including insider trading and still come out ahead. Remarkable, isn’t it? In fact a number of those companies now are showing some of the biggest profits in their history! Just imagine if in tomorrow’s newspaper we could see the headline ”Congress Passes The Student Loan Bail Out Act of 2011!” That would free millions of people from being indebted to the very financial companies who hold all of our loans and got the bail out in the first place. But don’t hold your breath, it will never happen.

Seriously though – isn’t it reasonable that if you go to school and get a degree that you should be able to make at least a middle class living doing what you were trained to do? After all, other professions have managed to figure it out. But how many artists in the Bay Area even make a middle class income as self-employed artists? Or how many poets, painters, potters, curators, administrators, gallerists, writers, critics, art teachers are being sustained just through their work? Does anyone really know? It’s the elephant in the room and nobody is taking about it.

Strictly speaking, as an artist wanting to be middle class, one would have to make at least $50,000 a year (give or take a few thousand). So if you sell art through a gallery, most galleries will take a 50% commission off the top. Then you still have to pay taxes on your 50%! So to make $50,000 a year selling your art you would really need to sell over  $100,000 a year to get there. Something to consider, to be sure.

Put all these facts together and you get a compelling argument against pursuing an art degree. It is compelling except for one simple and very serious truth: Art isn’t just about money. It never has been. Art is a deeply human activity and is a vital part of how our culture expresses itself. Identity and creativity and innovation are all borne out of art education. Art schools are actually somewhat of a shelter from the consumerist mentality because they teach people to make things and to think critically. The many roles artists play in society are vital and needed. The entire country can’t just be made up of soldiers, cops, farmers, CEOs and bankers, can it? Art is about imagination and possibility and if anything, art schools should be free. I am not trying to bring anyone down but I think there are a lot of ways to be an artist that don’t involve taking on such crushing debt. The first step though, is to talk about it.

There probably are no real solutions but look on the bright side – in another 15 years when a BFA costs $500,000, people will look back at 2011 and say what a bargain $129,696 was!

Comments (16)

  • Chris Cobb says:

    Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article on student loan debt on its front page. The problem is obviously not limited to art students, but it’s actually much worse that what i discussed here.

    “Student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year and is likely to top a trillion dollars this year as more students go to college and a growing share borrow money to do so. ”

  • Matthew, fine arts students get larger scholarships (c. 1990) I went to the SFAI for two years and 3/4 of my tuition was paid with scholarships. However, once I transferred to the Cal Arts and the AAU for grad school, only $5,000 a year was bestowed to me. I appreciate the discipline of Cal Arts, but I wish I had stayed at the SFAI to benefit creatively and financially.

  • It’s absurd that art school should cost so much considering the most popular job prospects for fine artists are through education: K-12 teaching positions are scarce these days, and due to education cuts will continue to be on the decline. If you choose to further your education with an MFA, get ready for MORE debt, and no guarantee that you will find a position in your field of study afterward.

    I’m glad Chris pointed out the fact that practicing art is not about the money, but when an education in the arts costs as much as a medical degree one begins to wonder the sanity of it all. How does an artist decide to make it in our current situation? Countless talented artists graduate every year from these institutions, but are unable to be hired for the very skill they possess. Trust me, they are my friends and colleagues. I attempted to pursue art school, with little financial aid to cover the outrageous expenses, and that INCLUDES living expenses. Most art students I speak with are in tremendous debt to paint 6 hours a day in a crowded studio. Should we pay the price, and how much? Perhaps the hard truth is that the financially unstable should not pursue a degree in fine art? Believing that you will succeed doesn’t take away the pain of working two minimum wage jobs. Don’t expect a middle-class income, that lifestyle is on the decline…

    Fine artists-to-be should consider looking into alternative ways to educate themselves. You do not need to go to a full-time BFA granting art school to gain the expertise you seek. School may buy you time to develop as an artist, but the cost greatly outweighs your survival chances. Seek out artists you admire, learn from them, from books and exhibitions. Be proactive, and don’t give up. Unless you are wealthy, there is nothing easy about the life of an artist.

    Perhaps our society should be more open to hiring fine artists based on their talent and skill, and not so much on a piece of paper that proves they were willing to go into debt? Go to school to earn a practical skill that will help you stay alive and fund your art. Go to the library to learn. Paint and draw on your own, and don’t expect to live a lush lifestyle. Art is a spiritually rewarding process that is not gained through expensive schooling, but personal commitment and total dedication.

  • Adrienne Skye Roberts says:

    Yes! Equal access to education is undoubtedly a social justice issue! I am glad to have more clarification on what exactly you meant and the opportunity to wholeheartedly concur. What I was trying to push back on was the common sentiment of the “poor college student” or the student who is incredibly in debt due to loans taken out to attend private art school. As one of those people, I know how real this situation and what a struggle it is. Yet, I also feel strongly that what should be added to this conversation is that often those who are in a position to decide to take out the loans and attend private art schools are often (and not always) already in a position of economic and often racial privilege and therefore able to access institutions often considered gatekeepers to “the art world.”

    I am glad to hear you talk more about this in your response to my earlier comment and perhaps it was implied in your post and the 16-year-old angry feminist part of me didn’t notice right away! Regardless, I am glad this is all being talked about and strongly believe that it is important to pull the curtains back on these inequalities and disparities within art institutions.

  • Hey all, I think it’s worth pointing out that the student loan problem is pervasive in this country, and Chris’s post is just addressing the question of ART student loan debt, here on Open Space, because as has been pointed out, our readership is largely art-issues-focused. I think the moral outrage is not misplaced if we all consider that this points outward to a much larger, and much graver, set of social issues–closer to what Adrienne touches on when she talks about the anxiety her working class high school students have about making the pay-to-play decision. Student loan debts are crushing young people (and middling-young people) coming out of school with undergraduate and graduate degrees. Jobs are scarce, period! Jobs that pay enough to help young people pay off/get ahead of the debts they’re saddled with are scarcer still. I don’t think this is an inappropriate place to discuss, or bring into view to discuss, a serious problem facing what are likely very many of our Open Space readers: art students paying $$$$$$ for college degrees that can’t fulfill their promise of a securer future. There’s no question that university education gives anyone a ‘leg up’, but at this point, to what?

  • Chris Cobb says:

    Hello Adrienne,
    Thank you for taking the time to consider some of the ideas in my post. Apparently many people don’t view equal access to education as a social justice issue any more. But I do. The sad truth is that as a culture we have a very short collective memory. Historically the best and most expensive schools have been populated by the wealthiest and the most politically connected kids from the “best” families and frankly, they were mostly white. That sort of unacknowledged privilege is what i mean by education being a social justice issue. And also, if crushing debt is not an “appropriate” topic to be outraged by now while our economy is in free fall, and Congress is moving to eliminate funding for NPR, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, Social Security, unemployment benefits, and Medicare, then when will it ever be?

  • Adrienne Skye Roberts says:

    Thank you for this post, Chris. I am glad that there is mention of student loans and the economy on Open Space, and also glad to have the value of BFA’s, MFA’s, and private school education called into question. I am currently teaching undergrads at UCSC and they often ask me whether or not graduate school is necessary. When I teach high schoolers, mostly from working class backgrounds, they have the same questions about college. The anxiety is palpable and affects many students regardless of their privilege, i.e. the access and opportunity to apply to any degree program.

    I agree with Christine Wong Yap that part of me wishes this kind of moral outrage was reserved for “more appropriate forms of injustices in the world” and am wondering if you can explain more what you mean by this being a social justice issue.

    This post, and the following comments, makes me curious to hear more from self-taught artists; about their decision not to go to a degree program and whether it was a decision they were able to make at all.

  • Sam Spiewak says:

    Why speculate? I think you could find out directly from these schools what the average debt burden is for graduates.

    As to the “extras costs” you mention such as housing, food, and transportation – an accurate cost benefit analysis of attending college would exclude those since those costs would exist whether a person were attending college or not.

    Finally, contrary to what you say, some students likely do have access to savings or investment accounts that they use to partially offset loan burdens – either in the form of trust funds, inheritance, earnings saved from previous jobs, 529 accounts or other investment vehicles designed to transfer wealth upon the age of maturity.

    My larger point was that though nobody *likes* debt in the short term, most people who are attending college are taking a rational risk: that over the course of a lifetime their earnings will be higher with a college degree than without one, despite the short-term disadvantages. This has generally been a good bet in the United States, though in the last three years the financial crisis has certainly made many people take a harder look. I think perhaps you are focusing strickly on the fact of debt without considering the economic advantages that a degree confers in the medium to long term.

  • Chris Cobb says:

    Hello Sam,
    Thank you for taking the time to read my post. You are correct in that most art students are not paying full sticker price for tuition. Nonetheless, many students graduate with a BFA heavily in debt because most college students do not graduate from high school with $100,000 in the bank. Also, for the sake of brevity I did not include the extra costs outside of tuition – fees, housing, food, transportation, entertainment, books, etc., which, when added up, are substantial additional costs. Furthermore – most 18 and 19 year-olds don’t have investment money to liquidate to pay for their art school, as you suggest. My broader point though is that plunging our best and brightest into staggering debt is not just about irresponsible kids borrowing too much money, it’s actually a social justice issue.

  • Sam Spiewak says:

    You quote the cost of single year of tuition, but I’m not sure how informative this is as regards to loan debt because most students aren’t paying sticker price thanks to contributions from parents, scholarships and other forms of non-loan financial aid, access to investment and savings accounts, and so on. It’s also not an accurate measure of cost, as you are not considering four to six years of forgone earnings. You could easily contact these school to find out what an average loan burden is vs. starting salary and what default rates are (low to non-existent I would guess; such debt isn’t dischargeable anyway). The fact is that while tuition costs are rising across the board – not just at arts institutions – by roughly the same rate by which the cost of labor increases (this being the major expense category for most college institutions), a higher percentage of the population is still going to college or saying they intend to go to college. Since most people don’t pursue objectives that are against their own interests, I would suggest that it is still a medium to long range economic advantage to have a degree as measured by earnings advantage, as well as less tangible economic benefits that accrue from affiliations, knowledge, work-skills, and so on.

  • I was lucky to graduate at a time when art school was a lot more affordable. With government cutting PE, civics, economics, art and sports from the pubic school curriculum, self education becomes imperative. The better one understands how the system works, the easier it is to make the right decisions when the opportunity arises.

  • Christine Wong Yap says:

    I guess I’d like to reserve this level of outrage to more appropriate forms of injustice in the world.

    After all, private art school is not compulsory. And I’m sure there are graduates of state and community colleges (not to mention self-taught artists) who, while perhaps not entirely free of debt, have managed to navigate these dilemmas before.

  • While a bit of a rant, this piece does draw attention to the burgeoning of costly BFA-granting institutions around the
    Bay Area. Aren’t some of these Art Colleges making implicit promises to students eager to arrive in or remain in the
    middle class? Sad to say, they are complicit in the availability of student loans that are offered to all willing to take them
    out. The promise of the art college to land one in a ‘real job’, while viable to some, seems increasingly less viable; the roles for art-making often necessitate ‘day jobs’ that often cannot keep a family afloat. The role of the art school might
    be rethought to help students confront if not address this quandary, and not to put it off.

  • Certainly the fact that the “little people” like us bear the losses of institutions like banks is outrageous. But college tuition is going way up for all disciplines and many people are doubting whether going to college is worth the money, even in areas where schooling has practical value. It’s not peculiar to art school. And, although I think that spending $100-$200k on any degree is ridiculous, I’d argue that getting an MFA has a social value that may be equal to the practical value of getting en engineering degree, for example: the value comes in being taken seriously by institutions and having opportunities to show, lecture, teach, etc.

    I’d agree with Christine that you’re kind of preaching to the choir here, and your statement that “nobody is talking about it” is a little puzzling.

  • Christine Wong Yap says:

    I’m trying to find a theme in your posts, Chris… The Bourgeois one was a really nice reflection; however, recent posts strike me as rants–long on rhetoric, short on citations. I have written my fair share of rants in zines and occasionally on my personal blog, but I guess I’m wondering what you hope to achieve on the SFMOMA platform in particular? I’m not disagreeing with your general point of view–that artists should have sustainable occupations, and that arts funding is important–but I am skeptical that the tone of moral outrage is productive in this forum, where, presumably, many readers are supporters of the arts and of artists….

  • I wish art academies would less for Fine Art students and charge more from programs are deemed more marketable, such as prep. programs for Pixar or Disney.

    Matthew Felix Sun

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