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  1. Opinion

Column: The art college payoff

Published Sep. 8, 2014

With tuition costs rising, are private art colleges a good investment?

I'm asked this question all the time. And I'm delighted to answer it.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal published an article decrying art and design schools for racking up high student debt, calling diplomas earned at such institutions "degrees drawn in red ink." They cited the average debt load of graduates of our institution, Ringling College of Art and Design, at $37,500.

If you're a parent reading this and your child is contemplating an art and design career, you're probably choking on your coffee. Many people subscribe to the myth that a degree in the arts will lead to a life of poverty.

They couldn't be more wrong.

Let me give you a sense of how little articles like the Wall Street Journal's do to tell the whole story about the employment prospects, earnings potential and lifetime career flexibility in art and design professions, especially for graduates of nonprofit art colleges accredited by NASAD, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

Compare the average return on investment for Ringling College graduates entering high-tech, high-growth creative industries such as video game design, motion design, computer animation and user experience design with those pursuing what many might regard as a more secure path: law (my profession, incidentally).

CNNMoney/PayScale.com ranked user experience design and video game design among the top 20 careers for 2013, with median salaries of $92,000 and $72,000 respectively and a 10-year projected growth rate of nearly 28 percent. Conversely, Florida law school graduates spend an additional three years in school and, as the Tampa Bay Times reported in July, face declining employment prospects, six-figure debt loads and median starting salaries of about $45,000.

The irony?

Many young people pursuing "safer" degrees such as JDs or MBAs still believe that their six-figure debt loads will be offset by secure corporate jobs and greater earning prospects. But in today's fast-changing, global economy that puts a premium on creativity and innovation, these degrees can be far riskier investments than those in art and design.

Without question, the 21st century art, design and creativity/business education Ringling College provides is expensive. It's also high tech and intense. But for our students — who are heavily recruited by the likes of Electronic Arts, DreamWorks Animation, Pixar, Hallmark, Walt Disney Animation Studios, CNN, LinkedIn, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Target, GM, ESPN and even the CIA — the return on their investment pays off.

Obtaining their undergraduate degree from Ringling is as intense as most graduate schools. The highly specialized, in-demand skills our students acquire help them land prestigious jobs and enable them to be productive on the job from day one.

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Ringling College's intense focus on career preparation and high-quality conceptual thinking skills developed through classic liberal arts education are key reasons why so many of our newly minted BFAs find jobs within six months of graduation. In majors such as our internationally top-ranked computer animation department, many students have jobs before they graduate.

Within a few weeks of receiving their acceptance letters, our center for career services sends all incoming freshmen a packet to get them started on their career plans before they arrive on campus. Students get a four-year planning calendar to map out their entire Ringling experience, semester by semester.

To enhance our students' preparedness for successful careers over the next 40-plus years, Ringling College partnered with the Patterson Foundation to establish the Collaboratory, a program that offers experiential learning opportunities for our students and customer-focused, creative solutions for clients. Working in real-world, real-time settings, the Collaboratory's student teams — with faculty assistance — solve branding, positioning, user experience, service innovation and other challenges that can greatly affect an organization's future success.

A top complaint from many employers is that college grads lack the soft skills and professionalism they require. Ringling College students master the latest skills in their field plus soft skills like creative problem-solving and communications to help them thrive over their career lifetime. So, are private, nonprofit, NASAD-accredited arts colleges like Ringling worth the investment?

Absolutely.

Larry R. Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.