Richard Paulsen


In late June of 2023 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness plan. This decision has potential negative implications for arts graduates. A recent study looked to understand how student loan debt impacts the career choices of college graduates with degrees. The study found that arts graduates with outstanding student loan debt were significant less likely to be working in the arts compared to similar graduates without debt.

As of early July 2023, 43 million Americans had outstanding student loan balances totalling over $1.7 trillion. Student loan debt is the second largest consumer debt category in the U.S. behind only home mortgages (Hansen 2023). In August 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden announced a debt relief plan to forgive either $10,000 or $20,000 in student loan debt per borrower. This plan was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 30th, 2023.

In a recent study (Paulsen 2023), I test for the impacts of student loan debt on the career choices of college graduates with major fields in the arts. Models of artist labor market decisions assume that artists are intrinsically motivated to create art and pursue work outside the arts to the extent that it financially supports their ability to pursue artistic work (Throsby 1994). Empirical studies of the arts confirm these predictions. Studies have found that multiple job holding is far more common in the arts (Alper and Wassall 2000) and that artists’ motivations for self-employment differ from those of other workers (Feder and Woronkowicz 2022). Student loan debt has the potential to push arts graduates out of artistic work as debt repayment increases the amount of earned income needed to survive. For graduates of other fields, this is less likely to be the case as work in other fields is often more consistent and higher paying.

To test for impacts of student loan debt on the career choices of arts graduates, the study uses data from the National Survey of College Graduates. The survey is conducted biennially and collects data related to education and work for a random sample of about 150,000 college graduates. Major field of study is reported for each college graduate, so I can identify graduates in arts fields, which in this study includes dramatic arts, fine arts, music, and other arts majors. For debt, the survey gives information on both debt borrowed, and debt still owed. Regarding work characteristics, survey respondents report an occupation and self-report on how closely they feel their work is to their major field of study.

While over half of all college graduates report working in jobs closely related to their major fields of study, that number is under 40 percent for arts graduates. For non-arts graduates, student loan debt has little impact on whether they are working in jobs closely related to their major fields of study. For arts graduates, having outstanding student loan balances significantly decreases the likelihood of working in jobs closely related to their major fields of study, with larger impacts for those with greater levels of debt. Arts graduates with no loans owed were found to be over 25 percent more likely to report working in jobs closely related to their major fields of study and about 30 percent more likely to be working in arts occupations.

The study’s findings have implications for the composition of the arts workforce. Black college graduates are more likely to borrow to pay for college than white graduates and borrow more money to do so on average (Hansen 2023). This pattern is observed for graduates with majors in the arts also. I observe that among arts graduates, 3.6 percent of those working in closely related occupations identify as Black, while 6.3 percent working in unrelated occupations identify as Black. As having an outstanding student loan balance decreases the likelihood arts graduates are working in the arts, and Black graduates are more likely to have debt, this observation is not surprising.

Given this study’s finds that student loan debt is a barrier to arts graduates pursuing work in the arts, the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling is disheartening. President Biden’s debt forgiveness plan had the potential to make it financially easier for arts graduates to work in the arts. Further, debt forgiveness could’ve led to a more diverse arts workforce as Black graduates are more likely to be burdened by student debt. While the Biden administration is currently working on other debt relief plans following the Supreme Court’s ruling, these plans are unlikely to be at the scale comparable to that of the original plan.


About the article

Paulsen, R.J. (2023). Student loan debt and the career choices of college graduates with majors in the arts. Journal of Cultural Economics.

About the author

Richard J. Paulsen is Assistant Professor of Economics at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

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