Business Smarts: Ivory Tower or Job Center?

By Colleen Mullins

An image from Jason Francisco’s book After the American Century, which assesses the American landscape post-September 11th, “exploring the fragile prosperity and worn innocence” through photographs made across the country. See more of Francisco's work at www.jasonfrancisco.com.

There’s a clear message coming out of the nation’s capital on the issue of higher education these days: It’s all about skills and jobs. In a highly reported sound bite from President Obama’s recent speech before a group of manufacturing industry workers, he commented, “Folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”  Obama continued with the suggestion that a four-year college education is less significant than “[getting] the skills and the training that you need.”

The hackles of many a humanities-based professor and related professional organizations were raised high by this remark, perhaps with good reason. In upstate New York, the State University of New York at Geneseo is currently in the final semester of a three-year teach-out of Studio Art, and last year Atlanta’s Emory College announced plans to eliminate its Department of Visual Arts and Program of Journalism.

While the reasons for these closures differ—according to administration, SUNY Geneseo’s program is succumbing to “harsh budget realities in the wake of diminishing state funding,” while Emory administrators talk about the size and scope of the school’s overall mission to ensure that department resources will not be overextended—this could represent the start of a coming attack on a liberal arts education as a whole.

Emory photography professor Jason Francisco states, “There was little to no academic judgment involved and little heed paid to the desires of students, whose enrollments have continuously been strong, particularly in photography.”

What is the future of arts education for the next generation of budding creative talent in this crumbling ivory tower?


In August 2013, the Obama Administration released a plan for the increased affordability of college education for the middle class. Nicknamed the College Affordability Plan (CAP), this ambitious program includes sweeping notions about paying colleges and students for performance, promoting innovation and competition and ensuring student debt loads remain affordable. Such talk of change has left many schools and faculty with concerns about how these future standards will affect them.

The CAP is scheduled to roll out changes over four years, beginning in 2015. To test the waters and solicit reactions from campuses, faculty, students and the community, in fall 2013 the administration held town hall meetings in California, Iowa, Louisiana and Virginia (at California State University-Dominguez Hills, the University of Northern Iowa, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and George Mason University, respectively).

While it’s too early to tell exactly how this will affect photography programs at the community college, state college and university levels, there are currently enough broad strokes in the proposed changes to do a little planning of your own, whether you’re a student who will be graduating from college or a faculty member fearing the once great academy will fall to rising pressures of accountability and job placement.


The president’s plan calls for a tie between financial aid and college value. By the 2015 college year, the Department of Education has been directed to develop and publish a college ratings system, which will link aid to value. The system will compare colleges of similar missions based on how much aid each school awards to financially struggling students and how they rate on performance over time. Chief among the factors rated are: schools’ access to Pell grants (a Federal program providing needs-based grants to low-income students), the school’s affordability based on tuition, scholarships and loan debt, and student outcomes based on graduation rates and subsequent earnings.

These measures are meant to help students be successful and avoid being trailed by a lifetime of debt collection notices while pursuing postgraduate dreams of a successful career.

The CAP encourages Pell grant availability based on graduation rates rather than enrollment, as is currently the case. It also will seek to prevent the waste of financial aid dollars by spreading student disbursements over the entire semester instead of allocating funds in a lump sum. Hence schools with high dropout rates would not have already delivered the entirety of a student’s aid for the semester if a student drops out in the third week.


This change in distribution of funding could greatly affect the photography classroom by making it impossible for students on aid to make large cash outlays at the beginning of the semester. A valuable adjustment that photo programs should prepare for today is to boost equipment budgets over the next four years to increase availability of important tools to students who need them. Rather than seeing these changes as a burden, faculty should consider this an opportunity to enhance student access to gear and to be a forward-thinking advocates with an eagle eye on program enrollment. Alternatively, the drop rates from courses could damage the department’s ability to appear viable in the eyes of administration.

By the year 2018, after a four-year period in which colleges can make moves to improve their ratings, those with the best ratings will have more access to larger Pell grants and more advantageously priced loans. Parents and prospective students will be able to go to the federal College Scoreboard and see how their college picks measure up. It also likely won’t take long for college administrations to lean on departments about enhancing a student’s ability to get a job upon graduation, as well as to earn enough money to pay back their loans.

Curricular changes made now to support education in the business of photography, soft skills of communication and self-promotion, and brass tacks instruction in practical skills such as applying for small business loans, filing for a state tax ID number, mastering client management software and so on, will be key in demonstrating a proactive stance to school administrators in preparation for the coming federal scrutiny, while also reminding them of the vital role that photography, media and visual communications programs play in the institution’s overall cultural fabric. The net benefit is that students will be better prepared to support their art careers, be they fine art or commercially inclined.


But the responsibility is not just in educators’ hands—students will face increasing scrutiny as well. Proposed legislation will hold financial aid recipients responsible for academic progress at a far greater rate than it does now. This will include requiring students to have completed a certain percentage of their classes toward graduation prior to receiving more funds. Educators will need to increase their awareness of course scheduling and student advisement, so that both the advisor and his or her students know exactly where they stand in the progression toward graduation.

Other actions that can help photography students maintain their loans are to embrace online and hybrid classrooms and three-year accelerated degrees. The CAP makes several references to working adults and veterans in addition to traditional students, which suggests that the flexibility created through online opportunities for students to learn on an individualized schedule is paramount.

Another aspect of the CAP is $260 million in proposed funds to support innovation in improving student outcomes and to help colleges develop methods to demonstrate student learning, with an additional $500 million already committed by the Department of Labor for 2015, to breed business and industry partnerships with community colleges and qualifying four-year universities. Luckily, most educators within the photo industry already maintain ongoing industry and business relationships. Now is the time to harness those relationships and apply for funding from the Department of Labor to help cultivate networks that serve to enhance the classroom.

But on a more universal level, students and educators need to be armed with the ability to articulate the value of one’s art to the economy and not just to the cultural fabric. In 2011, the contribution of arts and cultural production to the gross domestic product—the value of all goods and services produced in the United States—was estimated at $504 billion. Students and educators who learn to analyze and explain the value of their work in these terms will be better prepared to explain the full value and significance of an arts education in the terms that are becoming increasingly important to stakeholders.

Now is the time for photography faculty and students to get out ahead of the College Affordability Plan and think about low-cost ways to increase graduate placement, ensuring meaningful and measurable outcomes that reflect both the valuable teaching currently being offered as well as new initiatives.

No matter how this ends up legislatively, the most important take-away from these upcoming changes is the net effect of enhancing a student’s education, with a goal to benefit his or her life and career after leaving the classroom behind.

What Does The College Affordability Plan Mean for Me

If you are a student …                               
Funding may no longer come as a lump sum.
Increased pressure to pass courses and advance in your program.
Greater access to varied learning methods, such as online or year round options.
Greater efforts in job placement made by schools.

If you are an instructor or school administrator …
Opportunities to expand what you teach.
Expectations to think about job placement.
Increasing vigilance in tracking student progress toward graduation.
Understanding the larger costs of college and the mechanisms by which students afford it.



© Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
Obituary: Photojournalist Marc Riboud, 93


PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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