Art Institutes, Debt & Education

The Art Institutes, the largest collegiate system for design education in the world, began in 1921. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh was the flagship school, a model for the complex which has grown to some 45 schools in North America. It specializes in design: graphic, industrial, game, and related applied art fields that have a chance of leading to—wait for it!—employment.

That seems to stick in the craw of some readers. There are dark hints that something unsavory is afoot if [1] it is a for-profit system and [2] Goldman Sachs owns a controlling share in it. Neither of those, in themselves, is problematic. The knots are elsewhere. Stay with me a bit.

Graduates in applied design have a better shot at making an honest buck than fine arts majors.  Fine arts grads spend years making catch-as-catch-can arrangements as adjuncts here, there and wherever. Tenure track positions for MFA students are a fraction of the number of qualified applicants. Painters get weary of throwing themselves on the mercy of the grant system, a graceful kind of welfare for surplus suppliers of a superfluent product. The 22-year-old expert in computer games, on the other hand, has a skill set with wide application. He or she has programming expertise that is far more usable, vital, across a spectrum of fields—from medicine and finance to intelligence work—than the credentialed indigents.

And why the sour shots at advertising in the comment section of the previous post? Marshall McLuhan’s (“Ads are the cave art of the 20th century.) comment is clever but also baseless. Because a statement is clever does not make it true. And the truth is rarely clever. It does not need to be. Besides, nothing stops applied arts grads from doing the expressive, I-am-an-artist dance in their own studios. Being able to pay the rent is wonderfully liberating. And if fewer artists were compelled to make a career out of whatever degree of talent they have, the fine arts might be in better shape. Moreover, more people’s sensibilities are affected by advertising than by gallery art. If we had to choose—thankfully, we do not—between fine art and fine advertising, I would take beautiful bus, train, and print ads over the entire gallery scene.


J. Howard Miller, graduate, Art Institute of Pittsburgh


A student can actually fail programming. Nobody fails fine arts. Any graceless bumbler can stand for a degree in painting, for instance. Who can say what art is? Who is to say that the young dauber might not, somehow, someday, be tomorrow’s Van Gogh? We can’t have egg on our faces then, can we? So, all comers are welcome. Anyone at all can go into debt to get a degree in self-expression. The fine arts are an equal opportunity route to indigency. And it is facilitated by government.

The Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) operates on principles similar to the Art Institutes. So far, it has been highly successful and has made good on its promise to turn out employable graduates. In design fields, that it. (It rescinds all similar promises to fine arts students.) Whether it can continue to guarantee employment in this economy remains to be seen. But simply on the face of it, a school that supplies students with a means of self-support is a doing a mitzvah.

What is problematic is the amount of salary earned by the CEOs of the Educational Management Corp, of which the Institutes are a subsidiary, and the honchos at SCAD. For example, Todd Nelson, on the board of the EMC, was listed by Forbes as one of the 25 top earners in the country a few years back. His income in 2006 was $41.3 million. That is nearly $1 million per school in the system.  In light of that kind of pay scale, two things occur to me: [1] What is the average salary of students who graduate from the Institutes in theoretically employable fields? [2] If Nelson—and other lavishly paid execs in the system—took an annual salary of, say, a mere $10 or $20 million, by how much could tuition costs be reduced for students?

Education has become an industry, thanks in large part to government loans (as distinct from traditional loans that could be denied on the basis of risk). There is no brake on the number of young people encouraged to go into debt for their education, including art education. The prime enabler is the government loan; the art schools are only secondary vehicles.

Before railing against businesses that find ways to profit from the phenomenon, let’s look a bit more carefully at the complexities involved. As to Goldman Sachs’ ownership stake in the Art Institutes, GS can legitimately claim that it has a fiduciary responsibility to its own shareholders (you, perhaps, with your 401K or your grandmother with hers) to make as much profit as possible.

Degas’ injunction, “Discourage the arts,” comes closer to the mark than McLuhan’s swipe at advertising.

Note: The Art Institute of Chicago is a free-standing institution; it is not part of the Art Institute system. And, while we’re on the topic, Frank Kelly Freas, the Mad Magazine illustrator, graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. The map is not the territory, Maureen. You misinterpret and misrepresent some salient points.

    “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”

    – Confucius

  2. Oh, dear! What to say here? We can all cherry-pick quotes from Bartleby or elsewhere. The pick-your-quote-and-prove-your-point holds no water in argument. And I am sorry that there is argument here. Particularly since I feel great affection for Mr. Eyeballs. But also because the statement is not valid simply because Confucius said it. He said a lot of things, all more meaningful within the culture and pre-modern economy of his time. In his time, to have wealth was to have taken it from someone else. What modernity– and certainly 16th century Venice– has taught us is that wealth can be created. Confucius did not know that.

    Sometimes it helps to keep in mind the gospel story of the Good Samaritan. We all know the story. What we forget is that what enabled the Samaritan to tend the needy stranger is that he had money in his pocket.

  3. Sam, much of this comes under the heading of student evaluation of teachers. Studio Matters is hardly an advocate of the Art Institute system. Nevertheless, anecdotal comments by disgruntled students—who are everywhere—is not a useful gauge of effectiveness. There are good students and poor ones. What would be helpful is an objective study of employed vs. unemployed students over several years (high-employment years vs. ones of low employment like this one), salary range, areas of study, etc.

    To put perspective on this, you can get a damned good haircut from a salon with bad reviews. Online reviews provide a way of settling scores. They are as useful to cranks as to serious commentators. Please let’s not use Yelp as a scorekeeper.

  4. Many of the comments on Yelp are student evaluations of teachers; those are the ones to ignore. The ones to pay attention to narrate, as first-person accounts, the tactics and practices EDMC is now being prosecuted for. “OMG, I’m $100K in debt and my credits won’t transfer anywhere!” or “the recruiters called me several times a day for seven months” offer concrete examples. Regard them as informal verification that some claims against EDMC might actually be true. (Better comments, written by faculty, are found after articles on EDMC-Ai at The Chronicle of Higher Education, but there is no way to link to them directly.)

    Comparing SAIC with Ai was an aside, because you mentioned it (and I went there). The objective study you are looking for is already in the works and it is part of the legal case against EDMC-Ai.

    To your point in the newest post:

    My interest in Ai isn’t jealousy of wealth or self-righteousness. If I have a beef with advertising, it would echo Banksy.

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