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Fashion Designer - Is a Fashion Degree Worth It? (2019 Cost Analysis)

by Boris Hodakel  • March 21, 2019 • 7 min read

Since a fashion degree is a substantial investment, we decided to do an in-depth look at the potential ROI of a fashion degree.

When doing our calculations, we aimed to make extremely conservative assumptions. If we can show that a fashion degree has a positive ROI in an extreme case, then you can be more confident that your degree will be worth it.

To that end, we are going to assume that you receive no help from your family and don’t receive any scholarships. We assume that you’re not working while at school. In our calculations, we will use out-of-state tuition, since it’s higher than in-state tuition.

When looking at your earnings after college, we will assume that you make an average salary for your career and that you never change jobs into something more lucrative. We’ll also assume that you can’t deduct any part of your student loans.

Finally, we’ll assume you never get the chance to refinance your student loans and don’t pay your loan back early. That way, you’ll have to pay the maximum amount of interest.

Costs of Different Schools

The first thing we looked at is how much different fashion schools cost. Note that the following chart lists the total cost of attendance and includes tuition, housing, books, and other costs:

costs of fashion degree by school

On average, attending a fashion school for four years will cost you over $180,000 in total. While that seems like a lot, keep a few things in mind:

  • The average cost of attending college for a public, out-of-state school is $21,629.
  • Even though that adds up to over $80,000 over 4 years, the average graduate with debt only has $28,650 in loans. That means most students find a way to pay for a significant part of the fees.
  • Most schools have some type of scholarship or need-based aid.
  • The most expensive schools can cost well above $60,000 a year. The extra $15,000 a year can cost you an extra $100,000 over the long term or more depending on the interest rates on the loans you pay and how quickly you pay off your loans.
  • There are some good deals here. The fashion program at the Fashion Institute of Technology is cheaper than the average and isn’t hard to get into as it has an acceptance rate of 47%. Kent State University is also in the top ten and has an annual cost of $30,660.

Costs and Potential ROI of a Fashion Degree

Now that we have an idea of how much a fashion degree can cost, let’s consider the economics of a fashion degree when compared to someone who enters the workforce directly after high school.

We’ll go over all of these numbers in detail:

costs of a fashion degree

  • If you have to pay off $181,576 in student loans over 25 years at a 5.05% interest rate, then you’ll have to pay $320,031 over the course of the loan.
  • It’s likely that you will work at least 40 years in your lifetime, but we want to be aggressive and see if we can get a substantial ROI after 30 years.
  • If you were to join the workforce without a college degree, the median salary you would earn is $37.336. Multiply that by 30 to get total earnings of $1,120,080.
  • In order for your fashion degree to break even with a high school graduate over 30 years, you’ll need to earn the total loan payment added to a highschooler’s total earnings: $320,031 + $1,120,080 = $1,440,111.
  • For your fashion degree to earn you $250,000 over 30 years, you’ll have to earn a total of $1,440,11 + $250,000 = $1,690,111.
  • You’ll have 26 years of earning (you’re in school for four years), to earn that total. That means that in order to get a $250,000 ROI you’ll have to earn an average salary of $1,690,111 / 26 = $65,004.

What this means is that if your fashion degree gives you a career where the average salary you earn is at least $65,004, then it’s worth it.

Let’s take a look at some common fashion graduate careers to see if they offer a salary that makes a fashion degree worth it.

Expected Salary of a Fashion Designer

average salary for a fashion designer

One of the most common jobs for a fashion graduate is a fashion designer. That is, someone who designs original clothing.

We can see that the average salary for a fashion designer is almost as high as our target salary of $65,004.

This means that if you work as a fashion designer for 26 years, your fashion degree will net you a substantial ROI as you will almost certainly have a higher than average salary as you gain experience.

How hard is it to get a fashion designer job? The total amount of fashion designer jobs is only expected to rise by 3% from 2016-2026, less than the overall rate of 7% for that time period.

The low growth rate suggests a somewhat competitive industry. Breaking into the industry will be hard but not extremely so.

The key is to get your first fashion designer job and continue building experience. If you do that, your salary will rise and you’ll almost certainly make way more than you spent on your fashion degree.

Expected Salary of a Technical Fashion Designer

average salary for a technical fashion designer

Another common job for fashion graduates is a technical fashion designer. Technical fashion designers work with manufacturing and design to make sure a garment is created correctly.

The overall average salary is close to our desired average of $65,004. This means that you’ll almost certainly make your money’s worth if you work as a technical fashion designer for 30 years.

The number of technical fashion designer jobs, like fashion design jobs, should similarly grow by about 3% from 2016-2026. Getting a technical design job will similarly be somewhat of a challenge.

It seems that the key to a successful career in technical design is to break into the industry and get your first technical design job.

Expected Salary of a Textile Designer

avrage salary for a textile designer

Another common job for fashion graduates is a textile designer. Textile designers create patterns for clothing, towels, carpets, and other fabric products.

Few textile designers make our target salary of $65,004. The average textile designer with over 10 years of experience makes $64,816 a year, just short of our goal.

This means that it’s possible that it won’t be worth it to get a fashion degree to become a textile designer. Remember that our calculation for our target salary was based on the average cost of a fashion degree.

Many fashion students spend even more than $45,000 a year to get their fashion degree. As a result, the economics are shaky for textile design, a profession that tops out around $65,000.

This doesn’t mean that becoming a textile designer is always a poor choice financially for fashion graduates. Your total cost of getting a fashion degree can be substantially lower than the average.

Receiving scholarships, graduating a year early, working while in school, living with your parents, and paying back your loan early are some of the ways you can lower the cost of a fashion degree.

Also, keep in mind that job growth for textile designer jobs should be around 3%. Not only do these jobs not pay that well, but they are also somewhat competitive.

If you’re going into a career with lower earning potential (such as textile designer), you need to be aware of the costs, earnings, and tradeoffs. As this New York Times article explains, for a lot of students a college degree is not worth it.

Expected Salary of a Fashion Buyer

avrage salary for a fashion buyer

A different but common career for fashion graduates is becoming a fashion buyer. Fashion buyers work for retailers to buy in fashion clothes that consumers will want to buy.

An average fashion buyer’s salary is $5,000 below the target of $65,004. Still, over a 30-year career, the average salary of a fashion buyer would be above our target.

Fashion buyer is not necessarily as lucrative as some of the other jobs we’ve seen, but it pays enough to justify a fashion degree.

The number of fashion buyer jobs is supposed to grow by 6% over the next decade. While that is slightly less than the overall job growth of 7%, it’s still more than any of the other jobs we’ve analyzed.

This means that it might be slightly easier to break into a fashion buyer career. That may come at the expense of some earning potential.

Something we should highlight is that averages like these, even from reputable sources like the BLS or Glassdoor can be a bit misleading. Take a look at these three adjacent job listings on Glassdoor when looking for fashion buyer jobs:

three adjacent job listings on glassdoor

All of these are substantially higher than the averages we saw earlier. It’s not that the averages we saw earlier are inaccurate, it’s just that average and median salaries don’t tell the whole picture.

There are a good number of jobs that pay well above the averages, even though this is not reflected. While these positions are certainly competitive, it’s reasonable to assume that you can eventually get one of these jobs if you live in the right cities and have enough experience.

Expected Salary of a Retail Manager

average salary for a retail manager

The final career we will look at that fashion graduates might enter is a retail manager. Retail is a competitive industry, especially when it comes to fashion. To maximize sales, retail stores hire managers to optimize their operations.

The average salary for a retail manager $50,648 is far below our target salary of $65,004. Even retail managers with over ten years of experience only make an average of $55,403.

We tried looking at Glassdoor listings to see if we could see some jobs with higher salaries, but we couldn’t find anything with a salary higher than $70,000.

Furthermore, retail management jobs are predicted to only increase by 4% over the next decade. Considering that the eCommerce’s share of retail is set to grow from 13.7% in 2019 to 17.5% in 2021, it’s easy to see why there isn’t much job growth.

For all of these reasons, it’s questionable whether getting a fashion degree to be a retail manager is worth it. We’re sure that it’s worth it for some people, but we urge you to take a hard look at the numbers before committing to this career.

In Concluding…

Our analysis has shown that a fashion degree can lead to a lucrative career and can absolutely be worth the price, even when it’s quite expensive.

Even if you have to take out loans of $100,000 or more, it can still be worth it in the long run. The key is to make sure you choose the right fashion career.

Be sure to do some more of your own research. We’ve shown that there are some careers in the fashion industry that might not be worth it. However, the right career can turn your degree into hundreds of thousands of dollars over your entire working career.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.