The ‘Wild West’ of Art and Design Education: Courting the Corporate World

The EvoLLLution | The ‘Wild West’ of Art and Design Education: Courting the Corporate World
As the demand for more creative employees grows in the corporate world, art and design colleges can evolve to meet the changing expectations of the workforce.

With the growing demand for creative talent to drive innovation, art and design institutions should be on the leading edge of the higher education shift. But taking advantage of this shift also requires colleges in this space to innovate and evolve. In this interview, Deborah Obalil reflects on some of the market challenges impacting art and design institutions and shares her thoughts on how they can continue to grow and meet the evolving needs of the workforce. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the trends impacting the broader higher education environment?

Deborah Obalil (DO): There are a few key trends impacting all of higher education, which I’m sure will be familiar to EvoLLLution readers:

1. Demographic Shifts

The traditional college-aged population is shrinking overall, and that decline is especially rapid in the Northeast and Midwest as population in general in the U.S. shifts to the south and west parts of the country. The socio-economic composition of these students is also shifting as we see greater income disparity in general in the U.S., creating a larger pool of lower middle and low-income students, as well as a greater number of first-generation college students.

This is an excellent opportunity for higher education to live its mission of creating a better-informed citizenry as well as to fulfill the promise that education can deliver social mobility. That said, with the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities relying mostly or entirely on tuition dollars to support their operating expenses, this shift is putting great financial pressure on institutions.

2. Increasing Stratification Among Institutions

Similar to the increased stratification we see regarding wealth in individuals, the same thing is happening for institutions of higher education. Those with large endowments see their endowments growing, both through investment strategy and new gifts, while those with small or no endowments face an ever-more difficult path to financial sustainability. Enrollment growth patterns also appear to favor those already succeeding, making it even more challenging for the smallest schools to sustain a healthy enrollment.

2. Tuition-Driven Business Model Is Failing

As the trends cited above continue, this causes a failure in the business model of most higher education institutions. When you add to that the fact that philanthropy alone is not and will not be sufficient to fill the gap for most institutions, the need for new approaches to the financing of higher educational institutions becomes critical.

Evo: Why are postsecondary institutions focused on art and design particularly susceptible to the impact of these shifts?

DO: I don’t believe that institutions focused on art and design are particularly susceptible to the impacts of these shifts, but they are not immune from that impact either.

Specialization alone is not enough to ensure sustainability in the current higher education context. The reality is that all independent colleges of art and design are small, with full-time equivalent enrollments (FTE) of 5,000 or below, and many of those are very small, with FTE under 500. Very few have sizable endowments, meaning nearly all of them rely on the mix of tuition and annual fundraising to meet their financial needs.

Art and design schools do have higher operating costs that stem from the studio-based pedagogy of hands-on learning employed at art and design colleges. There are no large lecture classes, graduate student teaching assistants are rare, and technology costs for instruction in many fields are extremely high.

The very things that make a studio-based art and design education so powerful for students—small classes, hands-on learning, connection to industry and community—drive up its costs to deliver.

Evo: What other market challenges are uniquely impacting art and design education?

DO: The shifts in student interest are certainly impacting arts and design education, but not necessarily in the ways you might think. Our membership of schools has actually seen a 4% increase in overall enrollment over the past two years. This runs counter to the continual decline of higher education enrollment overall. Many of our schools continue to update and upgrade their curriculum, offering majors in new and growing fields such as fashion accessory design, game design, and AR/VR design to name a few. The growth is certainly weighted toward the design fields, as opposed to the fine arts disciplines.

It is a constant challenge for those teaching art and design to determine how to incorporate the new without giving up too much of the old in curriculum. Balancing the dual roles of the academic institution—knowledge creation and knowledge protection—can be particularly challenging in art and design fields.

The interest of business and industry in hiring a more creative workforce also works in our favor. That said, many of the automated hiring processes used by large corporations are biased against arts and design degrees. So, while corporate leadership may talk a good game of desiring creativity, their hiring processes have not caught up yet in recognizing the impact employees trained in art and design can have beyond the most narrowly defined roles.

Evo: How important are continuing, professional and non-credit education divisions to helping arts schools buck these trends and continue on a growth trajectory?

DO: Continuing, professional and non-credit education is in many ways the wild west of art and design education. Each institution approaches it in often drastically different ways, and unless they’ve developed a significant portfolio of online offerings, the market remains heavily dependent on their local and regional community.

That said, these programs are often where art and design institutions can prove to be most innovative and demonstrate the impact of their approach to teaching and learning to a much wider field of industries and individuals.

A number of our member schools develop professional graduate degree programs out of their continuing or professional studies departments, often showcasing the connection of art and design to business and science disciplines. Others have focused on executive education, showcasing the power of creativity and design methodology as applied to advanced manufacturing, policymaking and other seemingly distant fields.

Evo: What are a few other approaches you’re seeing art and design institutions putting into place to support their growth and success?

DO: Art and design colleges have a long history of deep partnerships with industry. Whether through sponsored studios, where students work on real problems for specific companies and serve as an external research and development department for those companies, or internship and fellowship opportunities that give students direct experience in applying their skills and talents in a work environment, students at art and design colleges are directly engaged in applying what they are learning in a variety of contexts. This matches the desire of students today to have a clear path to employment post-college. It also ensures that art and design colleges are tied into the needs of local and regional employers as partners.

Similarly, as the desire from students to work cross-disciplinarily has grown, art and design institutions have been partnering with other higher education institutions to provide unique learning experiences and draw on the assets of both institutions. Whether it’s a joint class in data visualization for artists/designers and engineers, or a full program that joins an art and design graduate degree with an MBA, many higher education institutions are finding that working together benefits all.

Lastly, I’ve been struck by the significant way many of our member institutions have recommitted to their local communities. They have come to the conclusion that while they may be educating students for a global society, being rooted in the local community is paramount to their success and the success of their local communities. This commitment takes many forms, from dedicated scholarships for local public school graduates to deep engagements with community organizations. If you look to an art and design college, I guarantee you’ll find an institution working alongside community leaders to make their collective place better. This strengthens both the community and the institution.

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Key Takeaways

  • Despite the overall decline of higher education enrollment, art and design schools have been experiencing an increase in student numbers.
  • Developing professional graduate degree programs helps art and design schools forge ties between arts education and other disciplines, like business, manufacturing and even policymaking.
  • By maintaining close partnerships with industry and other postsecondary institutions, art and design colleges have been able to serve the needs of their students and the community