Too Many Grads or Too Few Competencies? The Design School Dilemma
By Steven Heller September 8, 2005
Too Many Grads or Too Few Competencies? The Design School Dilemma
By Steven Heller September 8, 2005
Too Many Grads or Too Few Competencies? The Design School Dilemma
By Steven Heller September 8, 2005

Too Many Grads or Too Few Competencies? The Design School Dilemma

Is there a glut of students graduating from graphic design programs in the United States today? A 2004 National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) survey indicates that out of 18,000 graphic design majors in 152 four-year programs conferring B.A. and B.F.A. degrees 3,500 are graduated annually. This figure is strongly disputed, however, by North Carolina State’s Meredith Davis, who claims the comparatively low number does not account for approximately 1,300 two-year associate degree programs (according to the GDEA), other schools that confer fine art degrees with limited design study, and schools that are not NASAD accredited. If there are overall 450 four-year programs, 1,300 two-year programs, and each graduates, on average, 25 students a year, then Davis estimates these schools could be releasing as many as 40,000 students (with and without degrees) into a field supporting around 200,000 (1) practitioners (not including interactive designers). While David Rhodes, President of the School of Visual Arts, supports the NASAD findings, he agrees they do not represent all four-year schools and ignores “Art Institutes” and certificate-granting programs like Gibbs College (formerly Katherine Gibbs, a secretarial program) that “have communication or graphic design programs of two year's duration which are larger than SVA's four-year design program.” Although he takes issue with the estimated 40,000, he concedes, “There seem to be more graduates than entry-level positions.”

Davis’s alarming numbers are partly based on the fact that not all NASAD-accredited schools have official graphic design majors, but rather offer concentrations where students are not statistically tracked. Some of the graphic design data is lost by NASAD and in the B.A. programs of other non-NASAD schools (which usually do not have discipline-specific majors because they offer liberal arts degrees) and B.F.A. in art programs where they don't track students in concentrations. As a consequence, not only are there discrepancies in the estimates, but Davis cautions many students falsely believe they have the qualifications to practice graphic design. "More often than not, the implied contract with students who enroll in graphic design courses or non-professional design programs is that they will be qualified to offer professional design services to clients,” she says.

This belief raises important questions: Should students merely “studying graphic design” even if they are not “full-blown majors” be counted? Students in B.A. and B.F.A. art programs may not even take graphic design classes until their junior year, and of these no one is certain how many are qualified (have a viable portfolio) or actually pursue graphic design after they graduate. Nonetheless, degree or not, many enter the field for some period of time.

AIGA director Richard Grefé warns these speculative figures contribute to a data dilemma. “I don’t think we should be talking about a number that includes students who conclude for themselves that they are qualified and properly trained. That’s like saying 250 million Americans are qualified to be president because they learn in elementary school that anyone can be president. I think we should focus on the number who come from programs that are clearly committed to standards in preparing students for the profession.” Still, Davis argues those who take a few design classes (i.e., “designing annual reports, logos and websites”) believe they have been properly educated: “No one studies how to design an annual report just for fun, to contribute to their development as a fine artist, or because designing an annual report is just one of those life skills everyone is better off knowing,” she insists. “The implied contract is that by taking this course, you're professionally qualified to design annual reports. Some may think, erroneously, that their degree is in graphic design, but more importantly, the course of study has led them to believe they can practice.”

These are not bedrock statistics, yet strong anecdotal evidence has caused anxiety among educators over indiscriminant acceptance policies, which when wed to faulty educational standards, is a recipe for gluttony. “Where are all these graduates getting work?” is a common refrain uttered by educators and practitioners who concede that the surfeit may not be as huge as Davis proposes. Nonetheless, there are many poorly trained designers being pumped into the system by schools that in some cases have inconsistent standards for qualifying them as designers and differentiating “creative” from “production.”

Grefé feels there are a number of issues at stake, none of which is necessarily about how many students are in the pipeline. “The truly relevant issue in education should be: Are students being prepared to create value for clients in the marketplace, or are they being misled into thinking they will be prepared and have a career ahead of them; and, how do designers and corporations determine which graduates are indeed qualified? From the point of view of educators, the challenge may be in finding the most appropriate candidates and differentiating the quality of the program from other schools’ at the risk of making similar, possibly false, claims about what their students are trained to accomplish.”

Anyone who judges annual portfolio-day reviews at schools, art director clubs and design conferences has experienced the large queues of anxious grads nervously hawking their wares. In a relatively healthy economy, a fair number of the top and mid-level grads will find work given a respectable need for capable entry-level talent. What’s more, freelancers are in greater demand than ever (although this has dubious implications) because of budget curbing sub-contracting. Conversely those grads with sub-par portfolios do not stand a chance to get creative design jobs, and some settle for (and are glad to get) production positions in allied fields.

A few educators interviewed for this article further estimate that as many as 50 percent of their own B.A. and B.F.A. graduates or certificate holders actually quit design within a year after graduation. The reasons for this vary: Certain programs provide inadequate tutelage and job counseling; or just as critical, many students are simply ill-suited to be graphic designers. Yet once accepted into a school or program, administrators are reluctant to “thin the herd.” Instead they allow natural selection to take its course, and while survival of the fittest is widely accepted in the professional jungle, for an educational institution to release unprepared grads is irresponsible to the student and the profession.

A more optimistic view among educators nonetheless holds that “There are many benefits to a university education beside landing a good job,” says educator and contributor to the AIGA Education Forum Hyla Willis, referring to the “platform for lifelong learning” inherent in a good design education. In fact, not every art and design program funnels students directly into the job market but rather like traditional liberal arts programs (like English B.A. programs) offer them experience and skills and promote abilities that may be useful in related or unrelated fields further down the line. Arguably graphic design provides valuable lessons in critical thinking, problem solving, as well as communications and research. On the other side, many two-year programs are less interested in teaching design “culture” than technology support for broader design practices.

Of course, even educational institutions with aggressive placement staff, cannot accurately predict how many jobs will be available for their graduates. Therefore, Davis is not alone in objecting to the implicit promise of employment in much recruiting literature. “This is an issue of standards and truth in advertising, not one of who does and does not get to study or teach design,” she says. Many course catalogs implicitly promise to prepare students for the job market. Indeed students and their parents believe that after two or four years of study a relatively rosy future awaits them and therefore pay off those hovering loans. Yet given routine shifts in the economy, the fortunes of one graduating class can be markedly different from the next–the class of 2005 may on the whole do very well, while the class of 2006 might face a profound slump. What’s more the studios, firms, and companies to which grads are targeted cannot guarantee how many, if any, annual job openings they might have. What they can do is set a standard they want to meet, and if students’ portfolios do not rise to that level then that’s a problem.

The vicissitudes of the market rarely dictate how many students will enroll in any given year because students’ rationale for choosing a design major is not entirely pragmatic. They go to art and design schools to follow a “creative” path, even though it may be a vague one. They could be “natural-born artists” encouraged by family and friends to follow their muse, or they might be academically poor “underachievers” for whom liberal arts holds little promise. Those enrolled in state or private universities or colleges majoring in graphic design may do so by default. Some enroll in fine arts programs because they love to paint, but they compromise (sometimes at the insistence of their parents) by entering communication arts programs. They may even concentrate on painting or printmaking as a minor, but graphic design is their degree goal because employment is necessary.

Despite increased visibility and recognition in the press, however, most students actually know very little about graphic design other than it pays better than fine art. A New York City high school guidance counselor consulted for this article admitted that she routinely sends her art students to art schools for “general art” rather than focused design because she does not understand the distinction. “I believe the student will figure out their major once in a program,” she says. But inconsistent design curricula adds to confusion, and when counselors and students are not familiar with the field itself, they cannot make informed decisions about which schools to attend, some of which are much more professionally oriented than others. Some entry requirements will only favor students who exhibit quantifiable potential, though considerably more have rather lenient enrollment policies, presuming that if a student can make a competent photograph or an imaginative collage, they can also be a graphic designer.

While some design majors may stumble into the perfect métier, on average, more will not and should spend their (expensive) college years pursuing other courses of study. So should administrators acknowledge this early on? And should students with insufficient ability (or motivation) be weeded out at an early stage for their own sake and that of the program? Or should they be allowed to matriculate in the hope they will become more skilled, even more talented? Or what about this: Shouldn’t colleges and universities be ethically responsible for making difficult choices to remove students–some of whom are heartbreakingly earnest–before they pass the point of no return? There will always be a top and bottom of any class no matter how much filtering takes place, but shouldn’t the bottom level off at a higher standard?

But, Grefé rightly questions whether a chairperson or faculty member should be deciding who, at age 18 or 19 years old, is entitled to be a designer, especially since all the answers would be different and “none would necessarily be a good harbinger of success.” Making selections with little data seems uncomfortably arbitrary and mechanical. Moreover, he adds, “Why shouldn’t the marketplace decide who to hire and have the others seek other jobs, just like in journalism, or marketing, or theater or studio art?”

Arguably, removing a problem student at an early stage is not cold-hearted, but a reasonable attempt to insure students have a chance to succeed.“Just because somebody wants to be a designer,” says Julie Mader Meersman, assistant professor and graphic design program coordinator at Northern Kentucky University, “doesn’t mean they’re cut out for it.” In fact, students who struggle (or don’t do the work) expend faculty’s time and energy that might be better spent on others with greater potential. “It is essential for every graphic design program to build the very best student group as possible,” asserts veteran educator Kathy McCoy. “Less motivated and/or less capable students dilute the discourse. Good students achieve more when they are in the company of other excellent students. Healthy competition and synergy are the result.” While these words may sound a tad elitist, there is nothing wrong with setting high standards that both reduces the glut and increases the quality. McCoy continues: “It's sad but true that we educators must spend more time on floundering students than on the ones we really love to work with–the students that flower in front of our eyes and make the very most out of our coaching.”

Ohio State’s Paul Nini says his program accepts no more than 20 students annually, after a very competitive entrance examination where typically over 100 students apply. “We find that situation works out about right,” he says. “We end up with very good, motivated students who perform well—and who end up staying in the profession long term after graduation.” But what safeguards are available for programs with open admissions? Can there be a process where students take regular qualifying exams before reaching the fail-safe line? If grading were tougher, presumably the floundering ones would be weeded out, but David Rhodes adds currently there is a viable winnowing process that is often overlooked: “Students drop out. Nationwide, at the baccalaureate level, 50 percent drop out before completing the degree program, and this number has been almost constant for as long as people have been keeping statistics on graduation rates. Because these people are absent and often forgotten, the process often seems less rigorous than it really is.”

So is there really a glut? Davis says the issue is more systemic than mere overcrowding. “I'd really not focus on the issue of 'overcrowding' from the standpoint of ‘are we letting too many people into the field?’ I just don't think you can control that. What NASAD must often address in the accreditation process is a mismatch between the number of students studying graphic design and the distribution of faculty and resources within the school. In other cases, there may be insufficient study in graphic design to achieve essential competencies; these schools should not promise professional outcomes in their promotional literature or advising practices." And this underscores the truth in advertising issue raised above, which may, in fact, contribute to the perception of a glut.

If schools are unwilling to cut enrollments, then they must at least be circumspect about what their programs can legitimately promise. “Schools should not be complicit in mortgaging a student’s life,” says Richard Wilde, chairperson of graphic design and advertising at the School of Visual Arts. “If they cannot provide them needed competencies, they are doing a disservice.” In fact, a good program must “train for leadership,” he says, “and help them work up the ladder. It’s not about that first job; it’s where they go from there. The first job dictates the path you’re going take.”

While there are no firm statistics, some educators surmise that once students reach their final year, quantity not quality is often a yardstick. “Regardless of GPA, if mediocre students have accumulated the requisite credits they get their diploma,” admits one faculty member of a major college who asked to be anonymous. “Of course, their competency, or lack of it, will be represented in their portfolio, but their GPA and teachers’ comments are only relevant if they choose to apply for grad school. I believe allowing them to graduate in this case–and there are many–is like ‘social promotion’ in elementary school.”

Although there is fear that an imbalance between the number of students graduating and positions in the profession exists, it doesn't negate the need for truly qualified recent graduates. Nor does it argue against graphic design study as a useful liberal education in how to think and communicate, or even as technical support for design practice. “But it does raise questions about what happens to students,” opines Meredith Davis, “expecting to become employed as designers, who enter programs that are not prepared to deliver the full range of essential competencies for professional practice.”

Even though marketplace is the great leveler, aesthetic and professional standards must be passed on at the college or university level. And the highest standards must be guaranteed since insufficient undergraduate preparation is, in part, attributing to the current graduate school boom. Some of these post-grad programs groom their students to teach while others provide skills that enable them to compete with the best undergrads. Overall numbers may not be the issue. Perhaps more students than entry jobs is one way to ensure productive competition. Yet schools that fail to make these marketplace realities clear or ineffectively prepare students to work well with clients clear are not doing any favors to students, parents or the profession.

(1) Estimate based on an average of Department of Commerce and Department of Labor data.

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