The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

April 6, 2014

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: PSU grads, department chair say Atlantic article paints wrong picture of arts degree

PITTSBURG, Kan. — An article last week in The Atlantic magazine amused the chairwoman of the art department at Pittsburg State University, had alumni coming out of the woodwork and got at least one graduate a little hot under the collar.

I was tipped off to the article by a friend, Ted Watts, of Oswego, who has become nationally known in the sports and art world for his realistic illustrations of athletes.

The article was written by Derek Thompson, a 2008 alumnus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and titled “These U.S. Colleges and Majors Are the Biggest Waste of Money.”

The tagline: “You can major in art at a lower-tier public university if you want to. Just don’t expect it to make you rich.”

The author based his opinion on a report from the online service PayScale, which concludes that high school graduates would make significantly more money over a lifetime if they chose to go straight to work rather than pursuing certain college majors.

Specifically, the publication listed the “Arts” major at PSU, along with similar programs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the University of Wisconsin and Murray State University, among others.

Said Watts in response: “In Thompson’s case, his Northwestern journalism degree was a waste of money, his time or both. You’d think (he) would know better than to hit send on his bylined work before checking the facts like good journalists do.”

Watts majored in art at PSU, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1966.

“I opened my own art studio, expected it to make me rich, and it did,” he said.

Rhona Shand, chairwoman of the art department, reacted by chuckling.

“This is so inaccurate in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to begin,” she said. “It makes a sexy headline and plays into some common misconceptions, but it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the career opportunities available for art majors or graduates of many other programs.”

First, Shand noted, the PayScale data lumped together numerous programs under the general heading “Arts” and used only out-of-state tuition to calculate the cost of the degree.

It excluded anyone who has gone on to earn any degree higher than a bachelor of arts and included only graduates working in the United States. Most importantly, Shand said, it excluded any graduate who is self-employed, project-based or is a contract employee.

Evidently, Thompson wasn’t aware of PSU graduate Corey Hine, an artist at Hallmark Cards.

Or Jordan Giesler, a designer for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Or Andrew Super, who went on to earn a master’s in art and found success in the academic world abroad.

Nor does he know Heather Horton, who opened Sweet Designs Cakery in Pittsburg, which last year won the Kansas Small Business Development Center’s Emerging Business of the Year Award. She has played an instrumental role in developing the Pittsburg ArtWalk, the SEK ArtFest and the downtown mural project.

“We have rock star alumni,” Shand said. “The mission of our department is to get them into an MFA or an MA program or to open their own small business. We did our job, and because of that we’re on this hit list. I’m not too worried about it because I know where my alumni are. And they’re doing great.”

FOLLOW ANDRA BRYAN STEFANONI on Facebook at facebook.com/andrajournalist and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.

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