For art majors, to BA or BFA is the money question

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Tuition Ignition: A week-long series looking at the soaring cost of college at public and private institutions

When Carly Rockwell was deciding where to attend college for her arts education back in 2006, she applied to liberal arts and independent arts schools. She decided to attend Rhode Island School of Design, even though it was the only school that did not offer her any scholarships. Now on the verge of graduating with her BFA in graphic design, Rockwell said she has no doubt that she made the right decision.

"I chose to go to RISD because of its rigorous program, its reputation, and the extensive global alumni network. And even though my parents would prefer to pay less, they too agree it is the best arts education I could receive," said Rockwell. She aims to be a creative director, and hopes that with an internship with Cosmopolitian Magazine already under her belt, she's well on her way.

While Rockwell attended her dream school for an art degree, the cost of education in general is on the rise. From 1999 to 2009, the average cost of attending college rose 29%, yet the median family income remained the same, according to research from the U.S. Census and Common Data Set complied by Bill Barrett.

Though Barrett is not affiliated with any one university, he has a stake in this number. He oversees the 40 independent schools as Executive Director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. Barrett estimates 500,000 students study art and design nationally. Among all students studying art and design in the U.S. 15% of them chose to study at these kinds of institutions -- which amounts to about 45,000 students. The average net cost of these schools is $42,000.

That number sounds daunting when compared to the $13,600 net cost of in-state tuition at a public university which also offer art degrees. But Barrett warns about making assumptions about the sticker price. In 2008, 80% of students attending these independent art schools received financial aid, bringing the average cost paid to what Barrett estimates as between $22,000 -- $24,000.

But if 80% of students cannot afford to pay the full cost of tuition, how did it get to be so high?

According to Barrett, the cost of tuition has been on the rise for decades, but it did not get noticed until the last decade when the costs of school continued to rise and the income of families stayed the same. "Ten years ago, the average cost of four yearcolleges was 45% of the median family income in the United States. Last year, that number was 53%," said Barrett.

While this change has affected students receiving all majors at all institutions, students seeking an art degree have two main options: a professional degree resulting in a Bachelor of Fine Arts or the liberal arts route resulting in a Bachelor of Arts. The difference in these degrees has to do with the amount of studio work and the amount of liberal arts coursework.

Barrett classified the professional degree as orientating students toward their given arts profession with one of third of their classes in liberal arts and two thirds in studio work. BFA degrees can be earned at public state schools such as the University of Michigan or at independent school like the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and the breakdown between studio and liberal arts classes will be the same. For students seeking an art degree at a liberal arts school, those fractions are reversed -- one third studio time and two thirds liberal arts classes.

"Certainly the dominant pathway for those who are really motivated and pretty certain about what they want to do is the BFA," said Barrett. "Liberal arts degrees tends to attract students who have a wider variety of interests, who may not be sure that art and design is what they really want to do, or they may just be just as interested in doing something that's related to art and design."

But for some motivated artists, the liberal arts route simply provides the more cost-effective path. J.R. Campbell is the Director of the Fashion School at Ohio's Kent State University, which offers a Bachelor of Science in fashion merchandising and a Bachelor of Arts in fashion design. "We tend to have high-achieving students and a great placement rate." said Campbell. "Certainly, we're considered to be within the top ten fashion schools in the nation."

And the cost of in-state tuition at KSU ran a meager $8,730 for the 2009-2010 school year. But Kent's fashion students are not limited to their suburban Northeast Ohiohome-base either;The Fashion School offers study away options in New York, Florence, Paris and Hong Kong. Students with high GPAs in their junior year can apply for the MBA program with an emphasis in fashion, and their senior year classes count toward their undergraduate and master degrees.

Lauren Suter started at Kent for graphic design, but switched to photo illustration. Thanks to scholarships and a college fund started by her parents, she earned her B.S. with noloans. Her part-time work covered her personal expenses. Her supplies for classes weren't cheap, either. Suter recalls spending $600 for one graphic design class.

Despite being loan-free after her undergraduate work, Suter continued her education. "I basically didn't feel comfortable only having a degree in the arts with the current state of the economy," she said. "I decided I wanted to purse my Master's sooner rather than later." She added an M.S. in management from Case Western Reserve University. With $1,000 per credit hour for class, Suter was forced to take out loans, but she did offset some of the cost by launching her own freelance design business. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 60% of artists are self-employed.

While fine arts did make our list for the lowest paying college majors, the outlook for students with an arts degree is looking up. The BLS reports that the job outlook for artists is expected to grow about as fast as the average -- 7% to 13%.

However, money may have little to do with why students are pursuing art. Barrett said there's been a shift to a more altruistic approach to education in the past decade. "People are coming to these kinds of schools because it's their passion and they really want to be an artist," he said. " Most of them think that the money part of it isn't the big part of it."

Coming Sunday: Steven Kent wraps up the Tuition Ignition series in his "Dollar Store Dilettante" column by talking about his long road toward finding ajob in his chosen profession after four expensive years of college. Share your stories of tuition adversity and triumph at
MoneyCollege@WalletPop.com.
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