The American Art Therapy Association recently sent out a survey designed to measure the interest in art therapy Ph.D. level education. At a time when the amount that Americans owe on student loans exceeds credit card debt, this gives me pause. I wonder about the intersection of debt payment and the job market.Will art therapists be able to work in the public sector and make a living wage? Will they have time and energy to advocate for clients, make art, foster relationships and families or will they have to hold multiple jobs to pay back their debt? Are graduates of art therapy programs saddled with debt less likely to question their employers about programs and services? How does economic pressure affect an art therapist's creativity?
It is well known that adding another degree often feels preferable to facing a difficult economy. Often re-enrolling in school stops the payment clock. How do we ethically offer additional training to students who may be already carrying significant debt from a Master's program or even undergraduate loans? Student financial aid expert, Mark Kantrowitz offers a metric for students considering taking on education debt: the total figure of what you borrow should equal your expected entry level salary. So, if your cost for a M.A. in art therapy cost you $60,000, common at a private college or university, and you borrowed half of that, you should be seeking a job that pays you at least $30,000 to start. According to a website for health careers, art therapists can expect to earn between $35,000-40,000. If you've borrowed more, can't find a job and add on debt for a Ph.D. program, is it likely that you will make a greater salary once you are done? I hope art therapy educators make discussion of the impact of debt part of the interview process. From a privacy point of view, you might say its none of their business. A social justice lens provides a different view.
An article last year in the New York Times described a young couple contemplating marriage. The prospective groom broke off the relationship once he learned that the bride would be carrying more than $100,000 in education debt into the marriage, for which they would be jointly responsible. He might have felt differently had the bride attended medical school (where the more usual debt figure is more like $250,000). The young woman had earned an art degree and was working part time as a photographer. He felt betrayed that she had never disclosed her indebtedness to him.
I am all for pushing the boundaries of and expanding the depth of art therapy. I earned a Ph.D. in 1986 through Union University, a program that many art therapists attended between the 1970's and 1990's. For a variety of reasons, Union no longer supports expressive arts candidates and it is a loss to our profession. Important books in art therapy by authors such as Shaun McNiff, Harriet Wadeson, Bruce Moon and many others began as Ph.D. dissertations in that experimental and learner-centered program.
More art therapy educators will no doubt follow the lead of Mount Mary College and Lesley University and begin to offer art therapy Ph.D. programs. I hope when designing such programs and calculating cost, benefit, and unintended consequences, educators and prospective students apply a social justice lens to decision making that accounts for how to best foster the art therapist as a whole person living in a complex world. I hope schools will embrace online and self-directed learning, seek ways to make education affordable to a wide range of students and resist institutional efforts to focus only on the bottom line. I also hope that art therapists will consider other options besides more degrees when they imagine career development. We are in a time that begs for new models, reviving apprenticeships, or self study models that lead to the self-granted title of independent scholar. Our creativity must be applied in how we shape the world; the ultimate social sculpture. For those who seek conventional degree status, we should be seeking to create government supported post graduate service opportunities for art therapists willing to work in under served communities or in the increasing sectors where natural devastation wreaks havoc. Loans could be written off in exchange for providing service. What we expect, dream and vision can come into being. How we resist, how we engage and how we seek justice are key components of what we call success.