What’s in a Letter? Why the B.F.A. Ought To Be The Degree of Choice

For Undergraduates Aspiring to the Creative Professions, Why the B.F.A. Ought to be the Degree of Choice


SUE-VESSELLA-150By Sue Vessella, M.F.A., Dean of the School of Media, Culture & Design at Woodbury University in Burbank CA

What makes a creative professional? Traits like aptitude, motivation, and commitment, leavened with some bedrock right-brain attributes.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the preferred path that students aspiring to work professionally in the creative arts, whether in design, animation, fashion, filmmaking or various related disciplines, should take. I’m referring to the path of earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degree.

Understand that for students who have yet to decide on a major course of study or a career path, the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree is ideal. It’s broad-based and flexible, where the B.F.A. is clearly pre-professional. Generally speaking, all undergraduates complete between 30 and 40 courses, regardless of major or degree. The B.A. and the B.F.A differ in how those classes are divided between courses in the chosen arts major and those in other disciplines.

The B.F.A. is aimed at students who want to devote most of their time as undergraduates to developing their creative talents and preparing for their chosen profession. Training inside and outside the classroom tends to be deeper and more intensive, and requires more coursework in the field than that of the B.A. These courses are typically sequenced allowing for skills and competencies to be developed through a scaffolded approach that builds on previous learning. Classes are more applied than general, requiring greater participation in hands-on studio experiences that often mirror professional practice.

Comparatively, students working towards a B.A. will generally complete fewer courses in their major (i.e., studio art, music, dance, theater, etc.), and the remaining courses in a broad range of other subjects. For students studying for a B.F.A. degree, that schedule is reversed. Depending on the school, BFA students take significantly more courses in their creative area, filling out the rest of their schedule with courses in general education. As a part of their accreditation requirements for professional degrees, the National Association of Schools of Art & Design, establishes guidelines for curricula as 65-85% of courses in the creative disciplines and support studies, and 25-35% of courses in general education.

One other difference between B.A. and B.F.A. programs? Getting in. The latter tends to have more stringent admissions requirements, often involving a portfolio submission or audition.

In comparing the two degree types, I particularly like this summation from the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh: “There is a basic assumption that [upon graduation] B.F.A. graduates will have developed technical competence, aesthetic judgment, and a strong commitment to artistic quality, although not at the expense of sound instruction in certain fundamental academic disciplines.”

While not a terminal degree, the B.F.A is increasingly viewed as a gateway degree. According to Krystle Dodge in DegreeQuery, “You may think that you have to make a choice between following your artistic dreams and actually earning a living. However, there are many creative careers that won’t require you to be a starving artist. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported that students who earn a B.F.A. degree have ‘surprisingly high’ income levels, job prospects and levels of job satisfaction.” That aligns with my experience as an educator and professional in the creative arts. California in particular generated 1.6 million jobs in the creative professions resulting in earnings of $136 billion in total labor income in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For undergraduates aspiring to a career in the creative industries, the B.F.A. degree offers a comprehensive education through strong professional preparation, which ultimately translates to a competitive edge in landing their dream job.