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Going All the Way: The Fashion MFA

Written by FS StaffOctober 28, 2015

When it comes to obtaining an advanced degree in fashion, there are those that feel it is ‘totally’ unnecessary, while others argue that you simply cannot get ahead quickly these days without one. The latter may be true if you consider a recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor. Modified in April of this year, the Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment report shows that the unemployment rate for people age 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree is 3.5 percent. The rate begins to decrease as the education level increases from here. For people holding a master’s degree, the unemployment rate is 2.8 percent. The rate for those with a doctoral degree is 2.1 percent, and for those with a professional degree the unemployment rate is just 1.9 percent.

Of course, people with a bachelor’s degree fare better than those without. At 4.5 percent, the unemployment rate is much higher for those holding an associate’s degree, and it jumps to six percent for people with some college, but no degree and those with a high school diploma. The unemployment rate for people with less than a high school diploma is nine percent.

Earnings follow the trend. The median weekly pay for persons holding a professional degree is $1,639, a doctoral degree is $1,591, a master’s degree is $1,326, and a bachelor’s degree is $1,101. Earnings drop to $792 a week for those holding an associate’s degree, $741 for individual’s with some college, but no degree, $688 for people with a high school diploma, and $488 for people with less than a high school diploma.

Did You Know.... Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion offers BFA's in Fashion, Fashion Merchandising, Textile Design, Fashion Marketing, Fashion Styling, Costume Design, and Fashion Product Development. Learn more.

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That said, there are several other factors that can affect whether employment and earnings rise or fall. Age appears to be one. The unemployment rate for people ages 20 to 24 holding a bachelor’s degree is 6.7 percent, while the rate for those ages 25 to 64 is just 3.4 percent. The unemployment rate for people in the 20 to 24 age group is double that of those in the 25 to 64 age group as the education level decreases to ‘some college, no bachelor’s degree’, ‘high school completion’, and ‘less than high school completion’. Rates for the 20 to 24 age group are 12.2 percent for some college, no bachelor’s degree, 18.9 percent for high school completion, and 25.3 for less than high school completion. For the 25 to 64 age group, rates are 6.1 percent, 7.4 percent, and 10.6 percent, respectively.

The Department or Labor also mentions that the education categories used reflect only the highest level of education attained. They do not take into account completion of training programs in the form of apprenticeships and other on-the-job training, which may also influence earnings and unemployment rates.

Good examples: designers such as Thomas Burberry and Giorgio Armani never earned a degree in fashion, but they learned about fashion and sewing either on the job, or in Thomas Burberry’s case, as an apprentice at a local draper's shop. And still, there are others who earned a BFA and went on to become famous designers. Anna Sui, Mark Badgley and James Mischka, and Donna Karan are just a few. These are exceptional cases, however, and most employers today require at least a bachelor’s degree for most entry-level positions and a master’s degree plus experience for higher-level positions. Many of the world’s top fashion houses also look favorably upon designers with an advanced degree. Further, if you are interested in educating the next generation of fashion designers, “most commonly, postsecondary teachers must have a Ph.D. However, a master's degree may be enough for some postsecondary teachers at community colleges,” according the Department.

Another indication that earning an advanced degree is becoming more common in the fashion industry is the number of top fashion schools and major universities that now offer master of art (MA), master of fine art (MFA) and master of design (MDes) degrees in fashion. Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Parsons The New School, University of California-Davis Arts, and California State University-Los Angeles are just a few. And these schools offer much more than a degree.

While curriculums may vary based on the title of the program—Parsons The New School offers an MFA in Fashion Design and Society, while SAIC offers a Master of Design in Fashion, Body and Garment—most top programs offer the opportunity to work and network with major players in the fashion industry and to have their work critiqued by respected professionals in the field. Students also have the opportunity to present a collection or multiple collections at the graduate fashion show and other major events, and they often work and study abroad in major fashion capitals such as Paris, London, Rome, and New York.

Many MFA graduates mention that the time commitment for the program is minimal when you consider the long-term benefits such as higher earnings, advancement opportunities, and better employment options. MFA programs take around two years to complete and costs vary greatly by the type of school, reputation, resident status, and other factors. For example, graduate tuition for the private Parsons The New School is $44,680 for the 2015-2016 school year, while residents at California State University-Los Angeles (a public school) will pay $7,608 for the 2015-2016 school year. The cost for nonresidents is $15,272.

To review other fashion schools and their program offerings, take a look at the Top 50 Fashion Design Schools and Colleges in the U.S. for 2015.

California State University-Los Angeles. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
"Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
"Employment Rates and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment." National Center for Education Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences, May 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
"Fashion Designers." Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
Parsons The New School for Design. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
"Top 50 Fashion Design Schools and Colleges in the US – 2015." Top 50 Fashion Design Schools and Colleges in the US – 2015. FashionSchools.Org, 2 June 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
University of California-Davis Arts. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.