unhappy robots

In Fabio’s November 2011 post about the profit-motivations of college students, he wrote about “why people choose useless majors”:

In 1971, about 50% went to college to make money. In the 1990s, it’s about 70%. Similarly, modern college students are more interested in financial stability, not philosophical issues. I haven’t been able to find more recent data, but I’d be surprised if that trend reversed.

As responsible social scientists, we want to measure the merits of higher education in part on how well it fulfills the expectations of the clientele: students, possibly their parents/guardians, and employers. If students enter college hoping to gain financial stability, and a college degree in some major fails to provide this, we might reasonably decide students need to be warned, and majors need to be redesigned. However, while Fabio cites research indicating students increasingly value financial stability, research on arts majors suggests they may be the exception to the rule.

On-going research on double majors and creativity, done by our colleague Richard Pitt and Steven Tepper, provides an illustrative contrast between art majors and others: while only 35% of art majors describe income as “very important” or “essential” to their careers, a full 64% of engineering majors describe income in this fashion [as I understand it, this data is from their Surdna-funded study (see “Double Majors and Creativity”)].

Respondents don’t complete our SNAAP survey until after they graduate from a participating program, and we don’t ask them to tell us what they thought they wanted (financial stability/high income, or something else) when they entered college. However, we do have some information on how debt impacted the job choices of arts graduates, and how income impacts their level of job and program satisfaction.

Among the 33,801 arts alumni who completed our 2011 survey, 16% said that student loan debt had a major impact on their career and education decisions. The median individual student loan debt was highest for those with MArch and MFA degrees, and lowest for most bachelor’s degrees (B.A., BArch, BM, BS) and the Ph.D. No degree group had a median individual student loan debt above $25,000. (There’s a great infographic of this up on the SNAAPshot under the “debt and earnings” tab.)

We discovered that about a third of former professional artists cited debt, including student loan debt, as the reason they quit and sought other work. Our analysis suggests that debt may not impede individuals from becoming professional artists, but it may prevent them from remaining professional artists. Any amount of debt over $10,000 significantly decreases both the likelihood of getting the type of job one wants after graduating, and the number of years one spends working as a professional artist. But then when we controlled for career intent (looking only at those who *intended* to become professional artists), we did see that high levels of debt (over 60K) were significantly negatively associated with the likelihood of becoming a professional artist.

We then looked at the relationship between income level and job satisfaction. Danielle and Steven cooked up a great table of results. The left column lists current primary jobs of arts graduates, listed from highest to lowest with respect to the percent of alumni that earned more than $50,000 (this is personal income) in 2010. On the right, you’ll see a list, from highest to lowest, of the occupations of arts graduates, based on the percent that indicated they were satisfied with their current primary job.

Percentage of Arts Alumni Earning More Than $50,000 in 2010[1] and Percent Satisfied[2] with Selected Current Primary Jobs

Percent Earning More Than $50,000 in 2010 Percent Indicating Satisfaction with Primary Job
(By Current Primary Job, Highest to Lowest) (By Current Primary Job, Highest to Lowest)
Architect (64%) Dancer or Choreographer (97%)
Multimedia Artist[3] (53%) Fine Artist (94%)
Arts Educator[4] (50%) Musician (93%)
Film/TV/Video Artist (50%) Arts Educator (92%)
Designer/Illustrator/Art Director[5] (49%) Museum or Gallery Worker (91%)
Theater and Stage Director or Producer (39%) Theater and Stage Director or Producer (90%)
Arts Administrator or Manager[6] (36%) Writer, Author, or Editor (90%)
Musician[7] (33%) Arts Administrator or Manager (89%)
Writer, Author, or Editor (31%) Designer/Illustrator/Art Director (89%)
Museum or Gallery Worker[8] (28%) Architect (88%)
Actor (26%) Film/TV/Video Artist (88%)
Fine Artist (22%) Multimedia Artist (88%)
Dancer or Choreographer (9%) Actor (87%)

[1]Income is self-reported individual annual income in 2010, excluding spousal income or interest on jointly-owned assets.  Income was collected as a categorical variable in $10,000 increments.  Table includes only those respondents who reported their 2010 incomes.

[2]“Somewhat” or “very” satisfied (versus “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied”).

[3]Includes animators.

[4]Includes K-12 arts educators, higher education arts educators, private teachers of the arts, and other arts educators.

[5]Includes graphic designers, illustrators, art directors, interior designers, web designers, and other designers.

[6]Includes those who work in development, marketing, and box office sales.

[7]Includes instrumental and vocal musicians, conductors, composers, and arrangers.

[8]Includes curators.


One of the things worth noticing in this table is that dancers and choreographers have the lowest percentage of arts graduates earning over $50,000 per year, but have the highest percentage of members who are satisfied with their occupation. It’s possible this happens because dancers tend to have the lowest economic expectations, so these graduates are less fazed by lower levels of income.

It’s also possible that this is further evidence that arts graduates are less likely use financial benchmarks to evaluate their career, and there is ample research on which to build this claim. Danielle thought you might be especially interested in Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi (1968, 522), who, drawing on Allport, Vernon, and Linzey (1960, 12), find that arts students as a group hold values and norms—such as a commitment to aesthetic value more so than economic value—which distinguish them from other students of the same age, sex, and level of education.

As you see, we’ve found something similar, e.g., that those who work primarily as dancers earn comparatively little money but are overall the most satisfied with their jobs.

If arts majors and artists do not place great value on their salary, but end up satisfied in their careers, I think that’s a good reason for us to stop exclusively using salary when evaluating these majors/jobs. If only a small percentage of arts majors are steered away from work in the arts by debt and expected income, we probably shouldn’t treat financial success is a major driver of the choice of major or occupation, at least for arts majors.

In short, with respect to arts graduates, we should stop obsessing over which college majors make us rich, and start caring about which majors provide people with the jobs and lives they desire.


Allport, G.W., Vernon, P.E., & Lindzey, G. (1960). Manual: Study of values. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Getzels, J.W. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1968). On the roles, values and performance of future artists: A conceptual and empirical exploration. Sociological Quarterly. 9, 516-30.

Written by Jenn Lena

July 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm

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  1. […] unhappy robots « orgtheory.netJul 18, 2012 … In Fabio’s November 2011 post about the profit-motivations of college students, he wrote about “why people choose useless majors”: In 1971 … […]


    Disgruntled majors | Innovbois

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  2. […] working outside their major in order to make ends meet. In doing research for this article, I found another interesting study that seems to fly in the face of the surface-level theory presented above. This study indicates […]


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