The Value of a Creative Career: SCAD Tuition and the Art School Question

Governments, individuals, and families in the U.S. spend more on university than most other nations, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Many critics of the U.S. higher ed system claim that the “arms race” for students, which have led to skyrocketing athletics budgets and student amenities (e.g., rock walls, luxury pools), is to blame. Yet not all universities are alike, and it does families and students a disservice to lump all institutions into a single category. For example, what of specialized art schools, like SCAD? What do they offer students in exchange for tuition? Where does the money go?

For one, readers would do well to remember that institutions like SCAD are not public and thus not funded by taxpayers. “The U.S. higher ed system is not one but three systems,” said Raphael Charno, higher ed policy researcher for the Bartlow Group. “There’s public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit. A place like SCAD falls within the private nonprofit category.” Most tuition spending goes toward conventional expenses—e.g., paying faculty—and not to rock walls and lazy rivers, according to Charno.

For example, SCAD provides fairly comprehensive mental health services to students through its “Bee Well” office—a total of 15 professional staff, according to our reporting, including licensed counselors and a triage counselor, as well as 24/7 crisis services across all locations. Students receive an average of three in-person appointments per school year.

These and other costs described here contribute to the utilization of SCAD tuition funds. In the last decade, tuition among private, nonprofit universities has increased an average of 58 percent. In that same time, SCAD tuition appears to have risen by about 35 percent, to $37,575. Compared to other prominent Georgia-based institutions, SCAD tuition remains relatively low. For example, Emory University’s base tuition is $53,070, more than 41 percent higher than SCAD’s.

SCAD also offsets tuition costs with institutional scholarships. In 2018-19, for example, SCAD invested $104 million in overall student aid and awarded more than $1.14 million in SCAD donor-created scholarships. SCAD reports that these scholarship awards have increased by 22 percent and 7 percent, respectively, during the past five years, while SCAD has simultaneously reduced its discount rate. In the last five years, in an environment where university discounting is in excess of 50 percent and even higher, SCAD has reduced its discount rate from 25.9 percent to 23.3 percent. As at other private universities, SCAD scholarships are funded largely through the university endowment, which was created in 2000. The endowment increased to $190 million by 2019.

The growth of SCAD enrollment—more than tripling in the last two decades—has resulted in increased investment in academic quality during that same period, SCAD reports. In the last five years, SCAD has increased academic services spending from $76 million to $91 million, an increase of 20 percent. These increased expenditures include the development of the SCAD Language Studio and the creation of SCADpro, the university’s in-house design studio that partners SCAD students with companies like Uber and Google on research projects. Additionally, in the last five years, SCAD has invested approximately $50 million in student technology hardware.

These investments in academic quality appear to have generated quantitative success, as SCAD currently bests national averages for retention rates, graduation rates, and loan default rates. In Fall 2018, the SCAD retention rate was 85 percent, five points above the national average. Student loan default rates, published by the U.S. Department of Education every year, are the nation’s official statistics for federal student repayment. For the most recent cohort of student loan borrowers (2015), the national cohort default rate is 10.8 percent, and the rate for Georgia is 9.1 percent. For this same period, the SCAD cohort default rate is only 5.4 percent.

Most impressively, a recent study of the SCAD Class of 2019 graduates found that 99 percent of alumni were employed, pursuing further education, or both within ten months of graduation, with 92 percent of alumni employed in a creative discipline. The national average for this statistic is around 50 percent, depending on the year and economy.

Other investment of tuition dollars at SCAD concerns physical learning environments. Last fiscal year, SCAD reported investing more than $65 million in academic space and infrastructure expansion. In contrast, universities and art schools across the United States continue to provide substandard workspaces to students, as demonstrated by recent protests at LSU, Columbia University, and UNC-Chapel Hill.

SCAD appears to be investing significantly in faculty. In the five years, SCAD increased its total number of faculty from 490 to 608, an increase of 24 percent, and for the past five years, SCAD’s faculty retention rate has remained above 90 percent and the average time teaching at SCAD is ten years. For 2017-18, SCAD had a one-year faculty retention rate of 97 percent and a three-year faculty retention rate of 96 percent. In comparison, the University of Wisconsin has a 77 percent faculty retention rate over all, slightly higher than the university’s five-year average of 74 percent. In 2019-20, SCAD professors taught an average of 15 students per class and 157 students per academic year.

Americans with college degrees earn 75 percent more than those who only completed high school, and this holds for SCAD graduates. Over a lifetime, according to a recent economic impact study, people with bachelor’s degrees earn more than half a million dollars more than people with no college degree in the U.S. In fact, no other country rewards a college degree as richly as the United States. “The value proposition of a SCAD degree, when considering tuition costs and data in comparison to other universities, appears to hold up,” said Charno.