What Is the Value of a College Degree?

This is certainly an interesting time -- and, in many respects, a challenging time -- to be a college president.

On the one hand, this country's model of higher education -- with its flexibility, broad range of opportunities, and accessibility for people of all ages and economic backgrounds -- is much envied and emulated around the world.

On the other hand, each day seems to bring a new government report or news piece questioning the effectiveness of higher education in the United States.

Escalating costs, pressure to tie curriculum and programs directly to "gainful employment," growing concerns about low graduation rates, high levels of student debt, and the proliferation of online and for-profit schools: These issues have all fueled questions about the purpose and value of a college degree. Throw in a slowly recovering economy and election-year grandstanding, and it starts to feel like a full-scale attack.

I could launch a broad defense of higher education in this country, citing statistics about the need for an educated workforce and the prospects for those who don't have college degrees. But I don't want to lose sight of the central question for the college students I encounter every day as president of California College of the Arts (CCA): What is the value of an arts education?

Independent art schools such as ours offer a particular kind of education that is focused both inward and outward. We enable the development of specific skill sets and bodies of knowledge, but we also strongly encourage personal growth and creative exploration.

Recently I read a report on the state of undergraduate education at Stanford University and, while our two institutions obviously have different educational models, the observations ring true:

The long-term value of an education is to be found not merely in the accumulation of knowledge or skills, but in the capacity to forge fresh connections between them, to integrate different elements from one's education and experience and bring them to bear on new challenges and problems.

In an art and design school setting, we constantly see the proof of our students' newly acquired skills and knowledge, in a very public way, through exhibitions and critiques. But I'm just as interested in the second part -- the part about bringing knowledge and experience together to find innovative solutions to new challenges and problems.

I want our students to create work that is meaningful and has a positive impact on the community and the world.

Interdisciplinary, collaborative, diverse, project-based, and inclusive -- these terms describe the learning environment we strive to create. It also describes the evolving and expanding workplace our new graduates will enter. Despite gloomy news stories about the scarcity of jobs, creative people are in demand, and will continue to be. According to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, jobs in the creative sector will increase overall by 11 percent in the next six years, with some careers projected to grow at a much higher rate, especially curators, interior designers, animators, illustrators, architects, and writers.

Beyond these specialized fields, there is a growing demand for creative people across a broad range of industries. In the past, innovation seemed like the exclusive domain of scientists, programmers, and engineers. That has changed. Silicon Valley firms that traditionally recruited mostly from the large research universities are now casting a wider net and actively seeking artists and designers who bring to the table an entrepreneurial spirit, distinct problem-solving skills, and a hacker/DIY mentality. A recent article about CCA in The Atlantic Cities noted the important role artists play in addressing societal challenges and the noticeable shift toward work that is collaborative and community-based. Recently the Reuters called designers the new rock stars of Silicon Valley.

I mention Silicon Valley because I believe that where you received your education is also an important factor in assessing its value. The San Francisco Bay Area is a globally respected center of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Recently I met San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, the first mayor in the United States ever to create an Office of Innovation specifically to work with the community on reinventing government in the digital age. He sees innovation not only as a way to solve some of the thorniest urban problems today, but also as a way to kick-start a sluggish economy.

Despite the recent attacks on higher education, I remain a passionate advocate for the comprehensive, innovative educational model that our college espouses. In fact, I believe that this is the perfect time for creative, committed students to attend art and design school. There have never been more career opportunities for creative people, and the value of a college degree has never been greater.