More than Money - Expanding Definitions of Success for Arts Alumni

By Dr Angie Miller

In higher education, we like to throw around the term “successful” when referring to our alumni, but what do we really mean by that?  Employed, certainly (if that is their goal).  Financially stable, making enough money to have a decent quality of life.  But beyond that, is more money really the best way to measure more success?  What else should we consider in this assessment?

. . .we found that selected SNAAP items are able to measure two distinct types of job satisfaction: Intrinsic Satisfaction Aspects and Extrinsic Satisfaction Aspects. ., the magnitude of the relationship for overall job satisfaction was higher for intrinsic . . . suggesting that intrinsic satisfaction may play a larger role in how arts alumni think about their occupational success

It is not surprising, given the rising costs of college and burgeoning student debt, that there is an increased emphasis on the money that students earn post-graduation. Arts majors in particular have been under fire for low income levels, especially among recent college graduates. But this focus on income might not really capture the whole picture when it comes to “success” among arts graduates. Do we not want graduates to find meaning and fulfillment in their work as well?

The findings from my recent study, co-authored with Amber D. Dumford, “Assessing Alumni Success: Income is NOT the Only Outcome,” indicate that institutions need to assess other aspects of occupational experiences, reimagining our understanding of student preparedness and alumni success.  This was a quantitative study that utilized data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), a multi-institution online alumni survey designed to obtain knowledge of arts education in the United States.  Combining data from the 2011, 2012, and 2013 administrations, which includes 92,113 alumni from 155 institutions, we found several points of interest concerning alumni perspectives on career paths and success.

Using exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis, we found that selected SNAAP items are able to measure two distinct types of job satisfaction:  Intrinsic Satisfaction Aspects and Extrinsic Satisfaction Aspects

Intrinsic Satisfaction Aspects

Extrinsic Satisfaction Aspects

Work that reflects my personality, interests, and values

Income

Opportunity to be creative

Job security

Opportunity to contribute to the greater good

Opportunity for career advancement

While both of these types of satisfaction were significantly related to OVERALL job satisfaction, the magnitude of the relationship for overall job satisfaction was higher for intrinsic than for extrinsic, suggesting that intrinsic satisfaction may play a larger role in how arts alumni think about their occupational success. 

Regression analyses revealed many strong relationships between alumni characteristics and alumni job satisfaction, both intrinsic and extrinsic. Not surprisingly, the strongest predictor of extrinsic job satisfaction was income. In contrast, the strongest predictor of intrinsic job satisfaction was how related their arts training was to the occupation in which they spend the majority of their time. Furthermore, those spending the majority of their work time in arts-related professions reported slightly more intrinsic and somewhat less extrinsic job satisfaction, suggesting that having a job in one’s desired field is an important component of satisfaction. While to a small degree, those outside the arts are more extrinsically satisfied, to a much larger degree those in arts-related occupations are more intrinsically satisfied. 

If we consider “success” to encompass support and involvement in community organizations, and engaging in meaningful individual interests and activities as a well-rounded human being, then we have plenty of evidence that arts alumni enjoy success in these areas.

Beyond this study, there are also other items on SNAAP that can provide alternate measures of success outside of income.  Looking at whether or not alumni went on to further education, whether or not they completed the additional degree(s), at which institutions, and how well prepared they were, can offer evidence for success in guiding alumni for their future educational pursuits.  SNAAP also asks respondents to report on the relevance of their educational training to their first job after graduation, as well as their current job where they spend a majority of their work time.  Furthermore, open-ended questions can provide valuable information, and SNAAP incorporates several throughout the questionnaire, including one prompting alumni to “describe how your arts training is or is not relevant to your current work.”

We might even want to consider components of success outside of one’s career.  SNAAP asks about different types of involvement in the arts community, such as volunteering at or serving on the board of arts organizations, volunteering to teach the arts, donating money to organizations or artists, and attending arts events.  Do alumni continue their arts practice in their own personal time?  (Spoiler alert: the vast majority - 77% - do so.)  If we consider “success” to encompass support and involvement in community organizations, and engaging in meaningful individual interests and activities as a well-rounded human being, then we have plenty of evidence that arts alumni enjoy success in these areas.

Although SNAAP focuses on graduates of arts programs, this could extend to other fields such as social services, education, and humanities.  Students do not expect to make as much money upon graduation, but may be pursuing a career in the field because they enjoy the work or the good that they can do with their degree. Their education may be developing skills and values that allow them to make social contributions in a variety of ways.  Attention to income as a the sole measure of educational quality could have a negative impact on disciplines that are not traditionally associated with financial rewards, despite serving great purpose to society and providing workers with a sense of personal value and fulfillment. Therefore, institutions should consider expanding their definition of “success” when attempting to demonstrate evidence of a “return on investment” for education.   


Full article citation:

Dumford, A.D., & Miller, A.L. (2017).  Assessing alumni success: Income is NOT the only outcome!  Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(2), 195-207. doi: 10.1080/02602938.2015.1098587. 


Angie L. Miller is an Associate Research Scientist at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Ball State University. Currently, she does research and data analytic support for the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). Her research interests include creativity assessment, the utilization of creativity in educational settings, factors impacting gifted student engagement, arts education, and survey methodology.