Education Debt, Accountability and Big Data: Measuring the Success of Arts Entrepreneurship Programs

November 5, 2023

A generation ago, the National Education Association (NEA) was under attack, American orchestras were out on strike, and Tipper Gore and Focus on the Family lobbied to have mandatory “warning labels” placed on records. As a newly-tenured associate professor at the Eastman School of Music, I was convinced that music students needed to be better prepared for the professionally perilous and politically contentious world they aspired to enter. I formed the Arts Leadership Program (ALP), a program emphasizing greater student autonomy and initiative over curricular as well as career choices. Entrepreneurial studies were one component of that curriculum.

Since then, entrepreneurship courses and programs have proliferated across music and arts colleges, a laudable effort to prepare artists, writers and performers to be more adaptable, innovative and successful in their careers. The College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, as one example, established both a Center for Creative Entrepreneurship as well as the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute. Arts colleges were following a well-established trend in business and engineering schools. Believing that “freelance” artists and performers have always been at least self-employing entrepreneurs, we wanted to claim our fair share of the culture and commerce-disrupting cachet enjoyed by the burgeoning tech industries.

At the same time, creativity—the métier of fine and performing arts disciplines—was moving into the center of the economy and industry. In the early years of the new millennium, General Motors was designing cars “on the right side of the brain,” Daniel Pink declared “the MFA is the new MBA,” and Richard Florida anointed the “creative class” as the engine of innovation, commerce and a new urban elan (“Breakthrough Ideas,” 2004). So, how has our curricular venture panned out a couple of decades on? Well, the MFA is not the new MBA and never was. And creative disciplines—or better, disciplines that put a high value on creative expression, like the arts—still have a small place in our educational system at every level just because those skills are so little sought after in the labor market.

In 2010, I was asked to make keynote remarks at the College Music Society’s Summit on Music Entrepreneurship Education (Dempster, 2010). Looking back, some of my observations seem right and relevant, even today. Others, in hindsight, seem way off the mark. My caution against letting entrepreneurship programs be absorbed into the regimentation of music school curricula seems as sensible today as it was then. Arts curricula, for good reason, emphasize foundational skills, artistic literacy and expert standards requiring “10,000 hours” of practice. But it is not clear that an apprenticeship pedagogy of this kind creates entrepreneurs, and one might even say, probably not artists either. Entrepreneurship education that is regimented to the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) pedagogical culture is likely to be self-defeating. Entrepreneurship curricula in music and arts schools should be evaluated by tracking and measuring their influence on the lives and careers of graduates. We should be encouraging diversity and not conformity among these heterogeneous curricular initiatives.

Thirteen years ago, I also warned against music and arts schools degenerating—despite our best educational intentions—into winner-take-all talent sieves similar to professional sports farm systems. Educational intentions and rigorous accreditation standards are beside the point if few graduates of our programs succeed in the professions for which we prepare them, whether basketball or music performance. The only way to know if we are successful is to track and measure the career outcomes of our graduates, something the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) has been doing on behalf of individual programs and postsecondary arts education as a whole since 2005.

My caution then has become more nearly an omen today.

The indiscriminate assumption that a college education always repays in enhanced career earnings has been exploded through the big data coordination of education and labor statistics. If you make your living in postsecondary arts education and have not already, you should study consumer information dashboards such as the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard or the U.S. Census Bureau’s Post-Secondary Employment Outcomes (PSEO) Explorer.1Postsecondary employment outcomes (PSEO) are experimental tabulations developed by researchers at the U.S. Census Bureau through data sharing partnerships. PSEO data provide earnings and employment outcomes for college and university graduates by degree level, degree major and postsecondary institution. Music and arts schools are among the costliest undergraduate programs in higher education. Average student debt among graduates of these programs is high and average career earnings among graduates is modest. By some measures, a fine or performing arts undergraduate degree will often have no financial return on investment (ROI), meaning graduates with these degrees often earn too small a premium in their careers to recoup the cost of that education. The ROI of graduate degrees in the arts is even worse. The PSEO Explorer informs prospective students about earnings prospects but also what percentage are likely to “flow” from a degree in “Visual and Performing Arts” at a public university into “Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation” industries. By their measures—which I question—rarely more than 5% of graduates from these programs find their way into arts and entertainment industries.2So far, this dashboard only includes data on public colleges and universities in states collaborating with the U.S. Census Bureau. Private nonprofit colleges or commercial colleges are not included in these data sets.

So, what does this have to do with music entrepreneurship education? Resolution of the educational debt crisis—a growing consumer debt of approximately $1.7 trillion, much of which can never be repaid—will require a major restructuring of postsecondary education. Policy remedies are bound to involve some mix of income-driven repayment plans, loan forgiveness programs, expansion of education grant programs and, increasingly, free public colleges, something we are already seeing. These all represent a trusting pass-through public subsidy to higher education. But solutions are also bound to hold colleges and universities more accountable for controlling costs relative to student debt and future graduate earnings. The Department of Education is proposing to revive the Gainful Employment Rule, a rule that conditions eligibility for federally-insured education loans on a college maintaining a minimal debt-to-earnings ratio among graduates. Senate Republicans have recently introduced a collection of bills called the Lowering Educational Costs and Debt Act which would, among other provisions, disqualify for federal financial aid any program that does not produce earnings better than the median earnings of high school graduates.

Yet, more conservative solutions to educational debt would require colleges to share in the cost of defaulted loans or index the amount that can be borrowed to expected earnings of graduates from particular programs, or even more radical, provide no public subsidy to college programs with weak ROI while eliminating federal student loans altogether. The political process is likely to dilute the most generous and stingiest proposals on the left and right, but we are bound to see new limits on federal loans to graduate students and Parent Plus loans, which have contributed greatly to the growth in educational debt with often weak debt-to-earnings ratios. Music and arts programs will feel these reforms more than most. They will be under increasing regulatory pressure to control costs, improve graduation rates, be publicly transparent about costs, debt and earnings and, most of all, deliver greater financial ROI to their graduates through program innovation.

Entrepreneurship programs in music and arts schools are themselves entrepreneurial ventures within tradition-bound institutions locked into anachronistic accreditation standards that have too long better served the interests of faculty and schools than the students they train. They are encouraging attempts to modernize traditional curricula in response to the marketplace and will, I wager, become a model for future, urgently-needed reforms in postsecondary music and art education.

[1] Postsecondary employment outcomes (PSEO) are experimental tabulations developed by researchers at the U.S. Census Bureau through data sharing partnerships. PSEO data provide earnings and employment outcomes for college and university graduates by degree level, degree major and postsecondary institution.

[2] So far, this dashboard only includes data on public colleges and universities in states collaborating with the U.S. Census Bureau. Private nonprofit colleges or commercial colleges are not included in these data sets.

 

References

Breakthrough ideas for 2004. (2004, February). Harvard Business Review, 82(2), 13. https://hbr.org/2004/02/breakthrough-ideas-for-2004

Dempster, D. (2010, January 16). Some immodest proposals (and hunches) for conservatory education [Keynote address]. College Music Society Summit on Music Entrepreneurship Education: Catching the Second Wave, Nashville, TN.

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