The Future’s So Bright? Talking Debt with CalArts Design Grads

Written by

Ah, graduation season. The sense of accomplishment. The thrill of independence. The pomp. The circumstance. And the sobering fact that American college students are leaving school this year with, on average, $35,200 in…

The Amaze show at CalArts, featuring work by the school’s graphic design grads

Ah, graduation season. The sense of accomplishment. The thrill of independence. The pomp. The circumstance. And the sobering fact that American college students are leaving school this year with, on average, $35,200 in student loans to repay.

That kind of debt can dim the optimism of any bright-eyed graduate. But what about when you’re expected to be creative for a living? A few weeks ago I headed up to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia for their graphic design school’s graduation shows—Amaze, featuring graduating BFAs and Inbox, featuring graduating MFAs—to talk to the former students about this new reality and how it will impact their careers.

Amanda Gartman’s thesis project on Cleveland, Ohio

CalArts charges an annual tuition of almost $40,000, a figure that is in-line with many other top-tier schools. It’s also a figure that the CalArts website says is likely to increase this year. It is seemingly unavoidable that design students will continue to experience a skyrocketing cost of education. Even schools which have traditionally been able to provide scholarships are hurting: On the other side of the country, The Cooper Union, which has offered free tuition to all of its students for over 100 years, announced that it will begin charging students next year due to financial shortfalls.

The six former students that I spoke with all said even though they knew some other schools were more affordable, they had selected CalArts’ graphic design school because of its culture. As part of a larger school with students studying things like dance, animation, and writing, CalArts offers a more fine arts-focused approach. In other design school grad shows, for example, you’ll see projects for major brands and corporations; At CalArts you’re more likely to see highly expressive, non-commercial work like posters for experimental bands and publications for cultural institutions.

A digital collage from Sarah Faith Gottesdiener’s thesis project

But this culture also fosters a strong individualistic and entrepreneurial spirit, with many of the students working on self-initiated projects and collaborations. And that may be why, even with such a bleak financial outlook, the CalArts graduates I spoke with were incredibly upbeat. Only one of the six graduates interviewed had already secured a job (albeit one that’s in Japan), but overall, this group seemed confident that they would be working soon. One graduate was moving home to live with her parents, at least temporarily, but the rest planned to continue to live independently and immediately look for work in Los Angeles or New York—cities where the cost of living could be significantly hampered by a monthly student loan payment. But again, this didn’t seem to be a particular concern, although they all mentioned that they were thankful for the grace period which, depending on the loan, can be as long as 12 months before payments start. As they each reported owing amounts that they admitted didn’t feel real to them—graduates had loans from $30,000 to over $100,000—it seems that debt is simply a fact of life for design students. You can listen to this week’s show here.

Tom Kracauer’s thesis project, about 1960s-era muralists the L.A. Fine Arts Squad

Adding to this year’s debt crisis is the fact that the interest rate for subsidized, or Stafford, loans is scheduled to go up on July 1. President Obama has proposed a plan that will cut interest rates and help students access affordable repayment solutions, but there actually is another Obama administration initiative which offers additional relief. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, parents can keep their kids on their healthcare plans until they turn 26, which does relieve some of the stress around finding a full-time job (provided, of course, the parents have health insurance and the graduate in question is under 26). Without having to worry about taking a job just for the benefits, designers can work freelance or set up their own studios right out of school, things that are easier than ever now thanks to technology tools like cloud computing and social media.

Locals Only poster by Armando Martinez-Celis; Hive Mind poster by David Davis

Thanks to Armando Martinez-Celis (BFA), Sarah Faith Gottesdiener (MFA), Bijan Berahimi (BFA), Tom Kracauer (MFA), Amanda Gartman (MFA) and David Davis (BFA) for being so honest and open about their financial situations and their careers. I’m planning to check back in with all these graduates in a few months to see where they’ve landed, and if their outlook has changed.

A project by Bijan Berahimi on the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Listen to this week’s show and let us know what you think. Are you still repaying your student loans? Did you have to make sacrifices in your creative career path due to financial responsibilities? We want to know more about the challenges and benefits of starting your own design business in LA. Write us at or leave a comment here.