How rising tuition disciplines students and why artists are organizing artists to demand policy reform

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In October of 2014, BFAMFAPhD issued Artists Report Back, a self-published report which used data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) to examine the economic conditions of working artists and arts graduates in the United States. The report circulated widely, instigating debates about the fact that only 10 percent of arts graduates in the United States make their primary earnings working as artists.1 We also identified the sectors in which arts graduates work: 23 percent of arts graduates work in professional and managerial occupations, 17 percent are employed as sales and office workers, 17 percent work as educators, and 14 percent are not in the labor force at all. Revealing the jobs that arts graduates are most likely to work, we hoped to discredit the art school fantasy that future earnings in the arts might justify the high cost of arts degrees.

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While our occupational findings circulated widely, our critique of rising tuition and its negative impacts on culture did not appear in headlines. In this article, we will explain ourselves again. It is our aim to show that debt is a disciplinary technique and to organize artists so that we might demand policy reform in the arts and in higher education. Artists Report Back is often dismissed by deans, faculty members, and artists alike as a “vocational” argument. They say that by comparing rising tuition with future work, we reproduce the familiar rhetoric of economic justification in our contemporary cultural value debate, what Elenora Belfiore has articulated as value arising from measurable economic impact rather than from the value of art as a public good.2 We at BFAMFAPhD agree that economic justification is not the best way to determine the value of the arts in society, nor of an arts education. For us, the value of the arts, and of an arts education, is both civic and social. We seek to understand and raise awareness about the political economies of the arts to understand how artists might organize together to work with policymakers and administrators to intelligently reform the sector that we value so much.

Valuing Art Education

“Impact on beauty in the world, on aesthetic innovation, on civility, on empathy, on culture, and on social and personal well being are not on the cards so far as ‘impact’ is concerned. Nor even is a potential transformation in the internal minds of students embraced as part of the meaning of impact…The university is coming to be constituted by the principle of [economic] impact and this idea of [economic] impact is narrowly drawn.”3 – Ronald Barnett

As stated in Artists Report Back, art schools regularly dominate the Department of Education’s rankings of schools with the highest average net cost4. As we all know, our nation is in a student debt crisis. Student debt is over 1.3 trillion dollars5 with average debt at graduation reaching $33,000 for the class of 20146. With increased student borrowing and decreased federal support per student, many policymakers, administrators, parents, and students have begun to look at higher education as an investment that requires a financial return.

The growing cost of higher education occurs within the entrepreneurial university, a term used by Ronald Barnett to describe the increased focus on economic value as the primary metric for judging success in higher education. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, debt is a disciplinary technique. Those students who may seek non-monetary forms of value from their educational experience, but are required to take on debt to afford their education, are caught in the economic logic of the entrepreneurial university, with long-ranging impact. As Chomsky explains: “Once you have a big debt, you can’t do things you might have wanted to do. You might have wanted to graduate from law school and do public interest law, but if you have a $100,000 debt to pay off, you’re going to have to go into a corporate law firm.”7 For students whose ultimate goal is to make a living as artists, the disciplinary force of student debt makes it difficult to pursue the path that their education was, ostensibly, training them for.

At BFAMFAPhD, we are interested in “impact” that is not easily measured. Audre Lorde writes about art as a “revelatory distillations of experience,” and we at BFAMFAPhD believe that art has the power to foster understanding and empathy.8 Art is supposed to be a place where difference is accepted and even embraced. We believe that art is a way to make meaning of the labor that we claim for ourselves. We can say that every arts graduate we know, regardless of their debt burden, tells us that they couldn’t imagine going to school for anything else. We should recognize and honor the deep commitment to the arts and the desire to make art that arts students carry, often propelling them as young people to an arts degree despite an awareness of crippling debt. We should note that most 18-year-olds also have no way to comprehend the impact of indebtedness on their future. We should remember that many young people in low income families never get the opportunity to receive a loan or to attend an art class, for that matter. If art is to be understood and appreciated as a public good, it must be produced by people of every class, race, sexuality, age, ability, and gender expression.

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Artists Organizing for Debt-Free and Low-Cost Art Education

We call ourselves BFAMFAPhD and continue to ask “what is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?” because our educational system is being systematically defunded, dismantled and corporatized as we speak. We focus on arts education because we are artists. We believe that artists, arts graduates, arts administrators, and arts faculty must organize because we are most impacted by the rising costs of arts education. We believe that educating our population is the least expensive way to create a democratic society, and that an arts education is essential to this project. We believe that education is a human right. When the 1.3 trillion dollar student debt bubble bursts, will the government bail out indebted students, as they previously bailed out banks? We fear that they won’t. What will we do in this next crisis?

At BFAMFAPhD, we see the project of affordable access to higher education, particularly in the arts, as under threat. Entire fine arts and liberal arts programs are being cut from higher education, and tenured faculty are finding themselves without jobs.9 At the same time, the growing cost of higher education and the widespread reliance on loans decreases access to higher education as a whole. As artists, arts graduates, and teachers in arts programs, BFAMFAPhD focuses on the conditions of the arts and artists within higher education, while acknowledging that the systemic transformation of higher education constitutes a broader crisis.

While we work to resist rising tuition costs for arts graduates, we also find spaces of hope and transformation in our classrooms that support critical thinking and collaborative practices. Importantly, we also challenge arts pedagogy that is hampered by competition and restricted by its focus on individual achievement. Questioning the role of socially engaged pedagogy within the entrepreneurial university, we consider what models, subjectivities, and values are being produced by this work. Rather than focusing on singular authors creating short term projects with small grants for engagements in low income neighborhoods, we emphasize collective authorship, long term organizing, and the equitable distribution of resources by and for the people most impacted as integral social practices to reproduce within classrooms and art institutions. We share models from solidarity art economies of producer cooperatives, of collectives spaces, and of sweat equity agreements. Not disavowing the impact of debt on the future work prospects of our students, we talk through the skills that will make ethical and deserved future earnings possible.

We are heartened by students and faculty at Cooper Union who have won a settlement to make it tuition-free again10 and by students at Corinthian who have won debt forgiveness based on the fraudulent claims of that institution.11 Pressure is mounting to make debt-free public higher education an issue in the upcoming election.12 At BFAMFAPhD, our next projects will be focused on spaces of hope that we find in existing solidarity art economies. It is here that we can bridge populations of artists with training in accredited and non-accredited institutions, as well as work towards initiating policies that will reform our failing system of higher education.