By The Columbia Chronicle

by Heather Schroering, Editor-In-Chief and Ivana Hester, Assistant Campus Editor

The median annual income of recent Columbia graduates lags far behind that of other colleges’ alumni, nearly $7,000 below the national median for those in the arts and media fields and $5,000 below the median for all recent U.S. college graduates, a Columbia survey shows.

In fall 2011, the college surveyed 2,500 Columbia alumni who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in 2003, 2007 and 2009 and received 516 responses. The recently released study showed that the median income of respondents was $31,383. The 2011 national median of all recent baccalaureate graduates was estimated at $36,000, according to the report, and $38,000 for recent graduates who work in arts and media fields.

While Columbia graduates are making less than their counterparts at other schools, they are also defaulting on their student loans at a higher rate than students at most other private colleges in the city.

Meanwhile, a similar study done by the college in 2007 showed that Columbia alumni had a financially brighter future at that time. The college surveyed 2,103 alumni from the classes of 1996 and 2001 and received 450 responses.

The 2007 study found that median income for 2001 graduates was $41,167, and for 1996 graduates it was $44,054. While the median income for the class of 2001 was slightly below the 2007 national salary median of $42,197 in arts and media fields, the report showed it was above the national median of $40,084 for all occupations, unlike the 2011 study.

“Since the last iteration of the survey, alumni who are five years out from graduation are earning, on average, nearly $7,000 less [per year] than alumni at the same point in their careers five years ago,” the 2011 report says.

The class of 1996’s median salary of $44,054 was far behind the national income of graduates from the same year, which was $50,205, according to the 2007 study.

But annual median income for college graduates isn’t the only measure by which Columbia alumni are falling short. They are also lagging in starting salaries. According to PayScale.com, a salary and compensation research website, Columbia graduates’ starting pay for 2012 – 2013 is well behind that of graduates from colleges that compete with Columbia locally and nationally.

PayScale.com lists the current median starting salary of Columbia graduates at $35,900. According to the site, the median starting salary for a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is slightly higher at $36,700.

The median starting salary of a Rhode Island School of Design graduate is $39,900, and a Savannah College of Art and Design graduate’s is $36,200, according to PayScale.com.

The site reports that DePaul University alumni with bachelor’s degrees are earning a median starting salary of $43,300 per year and $39,400 for Roosevelt graduates. It should be noted that these figures include non-arts majors.

PayScale.com does not factor in self-employed, project-based or contract employees, which may affect a college’s salary figure. According to the 2011 alumni report, 39 percent of recent Columbia graduates were self-employed or did freelance work.

James Pedderson, director of public relations at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an outplacing consulting firm, said starting salary rates are pertinent to both current and prospective students.

“People applying to college want all the information they can get, and one of the factors they are looking at are how successful the graduates are in finding jobs,” he said.

According to Warren Chapman, Columbia’s senior vice president, starting salary differences can be attributed to specific regions and majors offered by other colleges.

“There are regional differences,” he said. “The East and West coasts, depending on where you are, will have a starting rate higher in a certain field, and also understand that the degrees offered by those institutions in the arts may be different than ours.”

Pedderson also noted that arts colleges target individuals who have different goals. They often aren’t as motivated by money because most don’t go into the field for that reason, he said.

“I think [art schools] are going after a different set of people that might not be as salary-driven,” he said. “It is more about the skills that they are going to get and the experiences they are going to get, and how that applies to what they want to do … I think they are going in with the idea that the art is more important than the money.”

The 2011 Columbia survey also showed that while 87 percent of respondents were employed, 24 percent of them were only working in part-time jobs.

Moreover, the alumni underemployment rate more than doubled between 2007 and 2009, rising from 11 percent to 24 percent, according to the most recent study. The unemployment rate itself went from 3 to 10 percent, the report showed.

Though the alumni unemployment rate roughly paralleled the national unemployment average at the time, the study said the figure for 2009 was far higher than the 5.4 percent national unemployment rate for workers with bachelor’s degrees and the 7.2 percent rate for arts and media workers.

Just under 40 percent of respondents to the 2011 study said they were self-employed or were freelancing. Tim Long, director of the Portfolio Center, said freelance workers increase during recessions.

“That is a trend that goes on any time the economy tightens up,” Long said. “Companies, ad agencies [and] design companies will start hiring people as freelancers at a much lower rate. They start trimming back their staff and hire freelancers instead.”

However, 49 percent of Columbia graduates said they were working in their field of study, which the report said is slightly higher than the national average. The occupational category with the highest percentage of alumni employees was retail and administration, with approximately 16 percent, which is not a major the college offers. Education was second with 12.5 percent, according to the 2011 report.

Columbia markets itself as a “pioneer in arts and media education,” according to its website. But the projected growth rate of the arts and media field over the next 10 years is only 12.6 percent, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report cited in the recent alumni study. In the Midwest region, the growth rate for arts occupations is even more stagnant at 9 percent, and both rates fall below the bureau’s projected national growth rate of all occupations at 14.3 percent, as shown by the study.

Disproportionate ratios of graduates to available jobs in the field are a factor in the falling median income rates, according to the study. It stated that California has 1.89 graduates for each arts and media job compared to Illinois’ 3.51 graduates per job.

According to Chapman, the college is using the data from the alumni report to plan for the future.

“We’re trying to figure out what we can do to help students who are here, who are planning to come here and what they’ll face when they graduate four to six years from now,” he said. “But we just got the data, and at the same time, we’re watching an economy shift.”

While the career struggles reflected in the alumni data may be news to the college, some graduates affected by the recession have been receiving reminders since graduation in the form of student loan bills.

Summer Violett, a 2009 art & design alumna, and her husband, Ben Zurawski, a 2010 art & design alumnus, each have $100,000 in loan debt, she said. She said although her husband is doing freelance work, he has yet to begin paying off his loans.

“It scares me because I’m in advertising, and the salary is much more than [most people] my age are making, and I’m just getting by,” Violett said. “We are putting off a family and buying a house. We can’t do any of these things normal people used to do, and we are almost 30 now.”

On Sept. 28, the U.S. Department of Education released the two-year cohort student loan default rates for the 2010 fiscal year. Columbia’s default rate increased to 8 percent, which is lower than the national two-year default rate of 9.1 percent but higher than the 5.2 percent rate for private, nonprofit colleges.

A student loan is in default if the borrower neglects to make a payment on a monthly installment for more than 270 days, according to the Department of Education.

Columbia’s default rate has jumped from 7.4 percent in the 2009 fiscal year, which, according to earlier Department of Education data, was the highest default rate of any major private, nonprofit four-year college in Chicago, as reported by The Chronicle Oct. 31, 2011.

Johann Flores, a 2009 art & design alumnus, said he has defaulted on his loans at least twice since graduating because he was not making enough money to start

repaying them.

“I have about $45,000 in loan debt,” he said. “I got grants and scholarships while in attendance, so I do not have as much debt as some people.”

Long said that in this economy, he doubts students will get jobs that will generate enough money to pay off their student loans right after graduating, adding that it is rare for a student to have immediate success in the creative industry.

“Many of our students are leaving the college with a lot of debt,” Long said. “It [leaves] a very small window of opportunity to get established and start generating money. When that window closes and the loans kick in [six months after graduation], they’ve got to leave [their career] track just when they were getting a foothold.”

The 2011 alumni study also reflected the respondents’ overall satisfaction with the college. The satisfaction rate was high, according to the report, but it has dropped in recent years. Whereas 80 percent in the 2011 study said they would “probably or definitely” attend Columbia again, 89 percent said they would in the 2007 study.

Also, a healthy 71 percent, down 3 percent from the 2007 survey, said they would “probably or definitely” select Columbia again if they were to restart their education.

Respondents were also asked to rate their satisfaction with individual services and programs. Overall quality of education in their major field of study received an 82 percent satisfaction rate.

But Flores said he feels he was not fully prepared for his career after Columbia. While he said he benefited from being able to collaborate and express himself creatively, he said he wished he had been taught to be more open to other concentrations in his field.

“When it comes to being prepared [after] Columbia, there wasn’t much [to show] other than having some contacts with professors who might give me a reference,” he said. “One of the things I feel wasn’t stressed enough for me was being diverse in my field.”

Flores worked full time in the service industry while at Columbia and after graduation continued the job for financial reasons. In 2011, when he finally began searching for work in his creative career field, Flores said he had trouble finding anything.

He said he went to a few interviews and had no luck because the employers were looking for candidates with more work experience. They were also looking for skills he had not yet learned, Flores added.

While Flores said he feels the college did not prepare him for other possible career paths, Pedderson thinks that responsibility should be left to the student. He said students should always consider other ways to use their talents.

“People should definitely cast the widest net possible when they are looking for employment and think outside of the box,” he said. “Looking at where some other alumni have ended up is a good clue as to where you might go. But think of other ways you can use your skills, whether it is the fundamental or the very specific skills you learned in your degree path and where those might be applied elsewhere in the economy.”

After recently finishing a graphic design internship in New York, Flores said he is looking forward to a positive shift in his search and has become more optimistic about finding jobs outside of Chicago.

When asked if he considered turning to Columbia for help with his search, Flores said he hadn’t.

“I never really took the steps back to the college to try and get any resources from them because I didn’t find anything while I was there that pushed [my career] ahead,”

Flores said.

According to the 2011 survey, only 35 percent of respondents were satisfied with the quality of the college’s career placement services. However, the Portfolio Center had a higher satisfaction rate with 56 percent. Violett was one student who took advantage of this, and she attributes much of her success to the center.

She said she recognized early on that the things she was learning in the classroom were not enough to get her a job. To compensate, she devoted her free time to enhancing her body of work to meet industry standards and turned to the Portfolio Center for help, she said.

“I knew it was going to take a lot to get my portfolio up to speed to actually get a job,” Violett said. “I started going [to the Portfolio Center] early [in my school career].”

Long said the creative-field job market has always been competitive, and he encourages students to do extra work to get a foot in the door before graduation.

“Students who are not doing all they can do outside of class to prepare themselves to get good work in their field of study may not be able to live what they love,” Long said.

Violett got hired at Digitas, a prominent international advertising agency, shortly after graduating. She said she landed the job because of her relationship with those at the Portfolio Center who recommended her to Digitas during Industry Night, an event that gives graduating seniors the opportunity to meet professionals working in the field.

Graduating class surveys for 2009—Violett’s graduating class—also indicated higher satisfaction with career and job placement services, according to the alumni study. It should be noted that the Portfolio Center was created in 2005, so the portion of respondents from the class of 2003 would not have an applicable response.

The Portfolio Center grew out of a more traditional career center and has had a significant impact on students, Long said. Approximately 180 classes visit the center every year, he added, noting that it also offers career-related workshops for networking and training opportunities. According to him, 20 to 50 students usually attend workshops.

Long stressed the importance of bridging the gap between education and careers while students are still at Columbia and maintaining a passion for their creative fields before they leave the college.

“People come here because they are very excited and passionate about working in a media that they’ve been entranced with and are fascinated by,” Long said. “The dreams are large coming in here, and we have to take those large dreams and rebuild them from the ground up because without that, the big dream is nothing without all that hard work behind it.”