In a time of economic challenges and rising inflation, it might seem unlikely that more university students than ever are enrolling in arts courses. Some might say it would make more sense for campus coeds to opt for courses of study that could promise a more secure and stable financial future, or at least a greater number of job opportunities. But many Idaho students are throwing caution to the wind and are choosing their majors with the reckless abandon befitting an artist.
"It's really intriguing to speculate on why so many students are interested in pursuing art at a university," says Richard Young, chair of the Boise State art department. "It could speak to a couple different things, maybe the quality of high-school education that students are receiving in the arts. It could be an interesting reaction, sort of a pro-alternative line along with the new digital age that people are wanting to create things with their hands, which is something that a lot of our students are interested in."
At Boise State, overall enrollment trends have shown significant increases over the past several years. Since 1996, the university has grown 29 percent. Last fall's enrollment of 19,540 students set an all-time record for Idaho colleges and universities.
Boise State's art departments are seeing a significant increase in enrollment numbers as well. The College of Arts and Sciences leads student enrollment at Boise State, garnering 20 percent of the university's students. The school's art department has 700 students in its programs, and Young says the department is struggling to keep up with growth.
While its student numbers are increasing, the department still remains under the same budget restraints as before.
"Obviously, if you have more students, oftentimes it translates to more resources although we haven't been able to add additional faculty yet to handle that many students," says Young.
"On a larger level, it's highly gratifying to see that many students pursuing arts. Boise State is not the traditional 18-to-22 demographic. We see a lot of nontraditional students coming into our program and they contribute a lot of interesting experience to their classes and to the department," he says.
Young says that having a higher number of students in the department can affect the quality of instruction. But he says that Boise State caps class size to prevent any lapses in quality.
"We keep our class size numbers low so we can keep one-on-one contact with our students," Young says. "Our faculty does an amazing job at trying to maintain a quality of instruction and contact with the individual students."
To help balance growing enrollment numbers and stagnant budgets, many universities use enrollment management mechanisms such as portfolio reviews. In the past, Boise State has not used such methods, but they may be in the university's future.
"A lot of schools have an entrance requirement for certain programs," says Young. "It's something we're researching. We don't want to sacrifice our openness, but we have finite resources and we're investigating the options."
Boise State isn't the only institution of higher learning in Idaho that is now experiencing growing pains in its art department.
"Our enrollments increased somewhere over around 18 percent in just one year," says Bill Woolston, University of Idaho's department of art and design chair. Woolston says the Moscow university is handling its increase by opening new sections.
But the increase in applicants has inspired some new methods of student review. At the University of Idaho, the art and design department also uses portfolio review methods in its program.
"It's a wonderful position to be in, but it is extremely challenging trying to cover our classes. We have large waiting lists."
With regard to the recent surge of growth in his department, Woolston believes that the reinstatement of the college of art and architecture after its dissolution in 2003 is a contributing factor.
"Through long battles, alumni and certain faculty got the state Board of Education to reactivate the college," Woolston says. "The energy and enthusiasm by that reactivation is a contributing factor. I would only assume that the quality of our courses is widely known and a factor as well."
Whatever the reasons for the increase of student enrollment in arts fields, statistics show that more artists are flocking to study at a higher level. Despite whatever challenges might face them in the job market, degree-seeking artists are making their marks on their communities through outlets ranging from city public art to Web-postings. In the media- and Internet-driven world we live in, job prospects for artists have increased dramatically in the past decade as they move into graphic and Web design careers.
But what motivations are there for artists of the more traditional fine-art vein? For a city of its size, Boise does emphasize the importance of public art, and every year, Mayor Dave Bieter has increased his and the city's commitment to the arts in his budget proposals.
But even if career aspects aren't greatly changed for fine artists painting, printing, sculpting or photographing their way towards their futures, isn't there a rather deserved philosophy that artists are at their peak when they're pushing forward through adversity?
If nothing else, the increase of art students certainly gives the art world a boost while anticipating what exciting things these upcoming artists will create.