Arts Graduates Earn Least of Any Major, New Data Shows

  • Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka, via Flickr.

No one studies fine arts expecting to become a billionaire. But new data released by the U.K. Department of Education suggests that young people with creative arts and design majors face the lowest median earnings across all disciplines. The data resurfaces questions about who can afford to study these subjects and what, if any, social mobility is provided by a creative arts education in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Using tax data, the report looks at the median earnings of alumni from the country’s universities, organized by major. Five years post-graduation, that figure for those who studied creative arts (which includes design, fine arts, drama, creative writing, and similar subjects) was roughly £20,000—dead last among the measured 23 subject areas. Creative arts came in just below agriculture, with medicine and dentistry graduates up top (with a median income of just over £45,000). Education majors, earning a median of just under £25,000, fell in the middle of the pack.

So is this overall picture going to surprise observers? “No, is the short answer,” said Dr. Dave O’Brien, chancellor’s fellow in cultural and creative industries at the University of Edinburgh. But that doesn’t make the earnings numbers heartening. “Given the kind of rhetoric around the creative economy, and the things arts grads are meant to add to the economy and society, it is disappointing news,” O’Brien added.

While broadly in line with other findings about the earning power of creative arts and design degrees, the newly released data has several meaningful limitations. For one, it doesn’t provide a full picture of the economics of the creative sector, which employs those who didn’t major in creative arts. “We know from other work that the relationship between studying a creative subject and having a creative job is actually quite weak,” said O’Brien.

  • Graphs of median earnings for graduates in various subject areas grouped by "prior attainment band," a metric for university quality. Courtesy of Mark Taylor.

The median earning figures, drawn from tax data, also don’t include self-employed workers or those being paid under the table (though O’Brien suspects this absence is not significant enough to throw off the overall findings).

Additionally, art history graduates are not included among those who studied “creative arts and design”; they’re filed within the larger category of historical and philosophical studies, which were fifth to last in terms of earnings.

The data reveals a stark and serious gender pay gap across almost all sectors, for creative arts and design graduates, women’s median earnings were greater than men’s at 47% of the universities. But O’Brien is cautious to read too much into the results. “I’m wary of these good-news stories about gender pay when the actual story is that it isn’t as bad as we thought,” he said.

The data also suggests that many creative arts graduates five years out of school are still not paid enough money to meet the annual earnings threshold (£17,775) required to begin paying back student loans. But of course, the temporary respite from having to make such payments doesn’t erase the debt itself, which can linger for decades, with all the attendant psychological stress and anxiety of that burden.

Can Only Rich Kids Afford to Work in the Art World?

The data also shows that attending better schools results in higher pay. The median earnings by institution for those who studied the creative arts varied depending on the “prior attainment band”—a metric for school quality—of the university attended. But while graduates of those more elite universities saw slightly higher median incomes five years out, University of Sheffield researcher Mark Taylor noted that the benefit of elite schooling for creative graduates was markedly smaller than in other subject areas, such as economics or law.

“It seems as if the higher earners are going to elite universities which tend to be recruiting from people who are affluent, privileged, or already elite,” said O’Brien. The data is yet more evidence that prestigious institutions should be redoubling efforts to draw in less affluent students across all subjects, the creative sector included.

Overall, the data revives the debate as to whether a creative arts or design education only makes sense for those relatively financially secure even before setting off to university. This data suggests that most creative arts graduates are not earning even a decent wage. O’Brien agrees there needs to be more frank discussion about the fiscal value of such degrees, especially for those worse off. But, he cautioned, “the function and purpose of education should not be measured just in wages.”


—Isaac Kaplan

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