Should you be worried if your kid wants to go to art school?

Your kid wants to apply to art school? Time to toss the stereotypes

The situation

My daughter is graduating from high school this year and will be going to a top art school next year. My husband and I are trying to be supportive of her following her passions, but it’s hard for us to hide our apprehension about her future job prospects. (I’m a lawyer and he is a math teacher.) She landed a partial scholarship, but we are also worried she will struggle to pay off her student loans. We don’t want her to become a starving artist, but we don’t plan on financially supporting her into adulthood either. What’s a parent to do?

—Elizabeth S., Los Angeles

The solution

Since your husband is a math teacher, let’s start off with some numbers that just might surprise you.

It turns out, your art student might out-earn her peers who studied a hard science. In 2016, visual and performing arts students had a mean starting salary of $38,176, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That’s actually higher than students who majored in biology or psychology. And students who studied design and applied arts had an even higher starting salary of $44,115—comparable to that of students who studied chemistry.

You mentioned your daughter is going to a “top” art school. Institutions like Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Pratt Institute boast job-placement rates of at least 95% for new graduates (including those who go on to graduate school). For comparison, Cornell—an Ivy League school—claims 87% of new graduates land a job.

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Forget the old stereotypes of starving artists living in their painting studios, struggling to make ends meet. Art schools today do a much better job of preparing their students for the job market than many of us anxious parents tend to believe. The curriculum can be challenging and creatively demanding. It will require your daughter to develop skills, hit deadlines, and produce quality work, all while learning the latest technology. She’ll need a strong work ethic and excellent time-management skills meet the demands of her teachers. As my friend Michael Spalter—who is Chairman of the Board at RISD—told graduates at last year’s commencement, “This community of artists, designers, and teachers not only teach technical skills, but they also model empathy, respect, ethics, and more.” Sure, art institutions teach marketable skills like Photoshop editing, Maya 3D animation, or CAD design. But they also ensure that their students are honing their soft skills as well—quite a departure from the bad rep art schools sometimes get. The lessons your daughter will learn in art school will serve her well throughout her entire career—no matter where she ends up.

But let’s not get carried away wringing your hands over her job search before she even starts school. Right now, you, your husband, and your daughter need to sit together and figure out a plan that will set her up for financial success. Here are a few topics your family should talk about before she leaves the nest this fall.

  • Her student loans. Your daughter is getting a partial scholarship, but you still need to have a conversation about how to tackle the rest of her expenses—after all, it will be that much harder to kick-start her creative career if she is saddled with student debt. If you haven’t already finalized her financial aid package, make sure to fill out the FAFSA and remember to maximize federal loans before even considering private ones. (Private loans come with high interest rates and pretty inflexible payment plans, compared to federal loans.) Once at school, she may want to work part-time on campus to save money (which can have the added benefit of boosting her GPA as long as she keeps it under 20 hours a week). Other cost-cutting moves to consider: living off campus or buying discounted or second-hand art supplies.
  • Her track. It’s important to talk about what path your daughter plans on taking once in school. Will it be fine art? Fashion design? If you’re worried about her job prospects out of school, you could urge her to look into applied fields like visual effects animation and industrial design, which tend to command higher salaries or be in greater demand. If she’s tech-savvy, note that web designers and user experience designers are often paid nearly as well as software engineers.
  • Your limits. This may sound obvious, but you and your partner need to make your financial limitations clear to your daughter. You say you don’t plan to bankroll her as an adult. Make sure to communicate this to her as well. I’ve talked with too many parents who have put off this conversation with their kids until it was too late. Be empathetic but firm. You want to manage her expectations for financial support now, not later.

Once you’ve had these talks and figured out a plan for the next four years (and beyond), hopefully you can rest a little easier about your daughter’s future. Financial concerns aside, as a parent it always feels good to know that your child is doing something they are passionate about. And that counts: Research has shown that artists are considerably more satisfied with their work than their non-artist peers.

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