College Art in Crisis

But this upbeat rhetoric is not reflected in enrollment statistics or the attitudes of college and university administrators. “Art schools now face a growing challenge,” according to a recent report in Artnetnews, “as application numbers and enrollment figures are falling.” The situation is especially dire for programs offering MFAs –– the art degree equivalent to a Ph.D. “This year is the worst in memory, perhaps in this millennium,” commented one program head, who said that applications recently had fallen by 50 percent.[vii] Things are even worse in the humanities, where the number of B.A. degrees has fallen to its lowest point in 70 years. To put this in perspective, Inside Higher Ed recently reported an 8.7 percent decline in humanities enrollments in the last two years alone. U.S. and world history declined by 12 percent, with more rarefied areas like archeology and classical studies dropping by 19 percent.[viii]

A critical point in the arts and humanities “crisis” talk came when President Obama joked about the foolishness of an art history credential. Channeling the sentiments of republican leaders, Obama observed that “young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”[ix] Naturally, Obama’s remarks brought heated responses from academic leaders. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, weighed in that, “In recent years, we’ve sunk into a ‘what’s in it for me’ approach to learning, making career earnings the litmus test both for college and for different majors,” later adding, “The president speaks well in principle about our responsibilities to one another in a democratic society. But he seems to have forgotten that college can build our desire and capacity to make a better world, not just better technologies.”[x]

Needless to say, things got a lot worse with the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House. Budget-cutting aside, Trump’s assaults on the Department of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities indicate more than the casual biases of his predecessor. In the name of purported populism, the Trump agenda came straight from the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which furnished the White House a report stating that “actors, artists, and academics are no more deserving of subsidies than their counterparts in other fields,” adding that “taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants and scholarly journals.”[xi]  

The Biden administration has been more generous to the arts and more supportive of education in general. Funding to the National Endowment for the Arts jumped to over $200-million but still remains a microscopic portion of the federal budget. A former educator herself, Jill Biden has been a stalwart supporter of school funding and increased equity efforts.

Political pushback against arts funding continues to argues that cultural agencies and programs agencies only provide welfare of creative types.  Why then has the U.S. Congress supported for them for six decades? The reasoning has been the same as in nearly every society in the world concerned with the preservation and enhancement of its “national” culture.” Other countries spend lavishly in advancing art and literature as essential expressions their heritage and values, whether this entails the preservation of antiquities or the funding of contemporary artists. The U.S. devotes but .01 percent for federal money to the arts –– in comparison to Finland (.47%), Germany (.36%), France (.26%), Sweden (.29%), Canada (.21%), United Kingdom (.14%), Australia (.14%), and Ireland (.07%).[xii]

Historic preservation should be reason enough to sustain arts and humanities funding. According to the venerable American Academy of Arts and Scientists, the arts and humanities are a key force in “achieving long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being.”[xiii] The group argued that such learning is essential in cultivating future generations who are knowledgeable, analytical, and tolerant. The American Academy said that “the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and differences, knowledge is they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.”

PEN America president Suzanne Nossel saw even more serious consequences in cuts to federal cultural support. “Trump’s declaration of war on the arts and humanities must be seen in the context of his repudiation of the American ideals –– grounded in the Enlightenment –– of self-expression, knowledge, dissent, criticism, and truth,” Nossel recently wrote.[xiv] “Concepts like the search for truth, the open exchange of ideas, and the esteem for culture may read like empty platitudes etched in the walls of ivy-covered universities. But they are principles that undergird not just a liberal arts education but also the Common Core curriculum taught in the hundreds of thousands of U.S. public schools.”[xv] Along with numerous other critics, Nossel sees the President’s repudiation of “culture” as a rejection of the very foundations of inquiry and free thinking that underlie American democracy itself.

Most families love the idea of art in schools and usually see youngsters as naturally imaginative. But these days, children are finding less and less creativity in the classroom. Schools pressured by tight budgets and the metrics of standardized testing think they need to prioritize basic skills. Meanwhile, students worried about college or a job after high school often get the message that music or art study won’t help their chances. Competition only worsens student anxieties in universities, where arts and humanities options stand at their lowest in decades. Meanwhile, public support for art enrichment programs outside schools continues to dwindle in an era of government austerity.

[i] Digest of Educational Statistics, National Center for Educational Statistics (2015) (accessed Sep. 5, 2017).

[ii] Richard Florida, “Cities and the Creative Class,” (2003) (accessed Sep. 13, 2017).

[iii] The Arts and Economic Growth, National Endowment for the Arts (2016) (accessed Sep. 13, 2017).

[iv] “Creativity and Innovation,” Partnership for 21st Century Learning (n.d.) (accessed Apr. 23, 2018).

[v] Sunil Iyengar and Ayanna Hudson, “Who Knew? Arts Education Fuels the Economy,” Chronicle of Higher Education(Mar. 10, 2014) (accessed Sep. 13, 2017).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Brian Boucher, “After a Decade of Growth, MFA Enrollment is Dropping,” (Oct. 18, 2016) (accessed Apr. 16, 2018).

[viii] Scott Jaschik, “The Shrinking Humanities Major,” Inside Higher Ed (Mar. 4, 2016) (accessed Apr. 16, 2018).

[ix] Scott Jaschik, “Obama vs. Art History,” Inside Higher Ed (Jan. 31, 2014) (accessed Sep. 5, 2017).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Susan Nossel, “Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to the arts and humanities is an attack on reason,” Business Insider(Jan. 29, 2017) (accessed Apr. 16, 2018).

[xii] Comparisons of Arts Funding in Selected Countries,” Canada Council for the Arts (2005) (accessed Apr. 8, 2018).

[xiii] Susan Nossel, “Donald Trump’s Assault on the Enlightenment,” Foreign Policy (Jan. 26, 2018) (accessed Apr. 8, 2018).

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

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