In an age where having a degree has become commonplace and the price hikes are causing numerous teens to reconsider whether they should really go to university, this question is often made even harder for potential 'creative' students when the value of a creative degree is constantly being called into question by the media or even just by their parents. I don't believe that there is a single straight-forward yes or no answer to this question which can apply to everyone, but I do think there a few particular issues to be considered:
1. What do you want to get out of it?
This is the key question. Wether a creative degree is right for you depends entirely on what you want to achieve at the end of it.
If you're looking to enter a stable, annual-salary career in design, then courses such as Graphic Design can help you get there (though competition in the industry is stiff). However most creative courses, such as Illustration, Fashion Design, Photography and Fine Art, do not have many direct links to salaried jobs. Rather, they focus on developing artistic and creative-thinking skills which you can apply to a freelance career or to work in a non-related industry. These courses offer the perfect opportunity to explore and develop your working methods and build the foundations for your on-going creative practice, but may not provide a clear path for your life after university.
With the fairly recent hike in university fees, more and more people are concerned about the value of creative degrees in the long-term. However I believe it makes more sense to invest in a course that you are truly passionate about than in one that may provide you with a stable career but that you find difficult to engage with. The skills you can gain from a creative degree do in fact have value beyond the art world if you know how to apply them (see articles such as this one).
2. You get out what you put in.
This is true of any university degree really but especially applies to the creative subjects. Arts degrees usually feature a series of fairly open-ended briefs for independent study and lots of studio time, rather than the regular lectures and essays of a non-creative course. How much work you put into the creative briefs is your choice and it can be easy to become complacent and lazy when how much you do is completely down to your own self-motivation. However, in the end it is not the honours on your certificate that are important with a creative degree; it is the quality of your portfolio and the experience and creative skills you have developed during your course which will dictate your success after university, either as a freelancer or a salaried designer.
Therefore it is vitally important not to become complacent during your time as a student. If you want to succeed in the competitive creative industries, now is the time to invest in as much experience and personal development as possible. Make sure you engage with every opportunity presented to you, including; competitions, small commissions, internships, local art fairs and exhibition opportunities, optional additional study classes such as life drawing or printmaking and any networking events that come along. Any extra experiences you can gain while studying could make all the difference when it comes to applying for that first design job or looking for your first freelance commission.
Take advantage of the availability of your tutors (who will all be industry professionals) and ask as many questions as you can about how to succeed in your chosen creative career path. You won't always have this kind of help readily available.
3. Business vs Creative.
This brings me to 'the business talk'. Success in the creative industries (particularly as a freelancer) will depend not just on your creative skills, but on your ability to function as an independent business. In order to sell your work you need to know the average pricing for particular types of job, how to price your own work, how to talk to clients, how to write up contracts and invoices, where to look for work, how to promote your services professionally and effectively...etcetera, etcetera.
Unfortunately this is one area in which most creative degrees seem to fall short. Both my experiences on my own degree course and the accounts of friends and acquaintances who graduated from different universities and subjects, indicate that a lack of business training is one of the most common complaints from creative graduates. Therefore, in order to make the most of your degree and give yourself the highest chances of success on graduating, it is essential to be pro-active in searching out this information and experience for yourself.
There are a few ways you can do this. The most basic is to do as I suggested above and ask your tutors as many questions as possible. Consult with your classmates and request as a group that your tutors provide talks on the business knowledge necessary for freelance success. You can also try looking up one of the few online courses in creative business advice, run by people such as Alex Mathers of Red Lemon Club (who also writes useful articles with tips for aspiring creatives).
4. What do you need?
This isn't quite the same as 'what do you want'. Particularly in relation to the afore-mentioned lack of business training in creative degrees, it is important to assess your own position according to the skills you need to develop in order to get to where you want to be.
If you want to work as a freelancer but need to develop your conceptual and practical creative skills in order to compete, then a degree such as Illustration will be perfect for exploring your creative practice and developing the strong portfolio you need.
If you are a mature student who already has a fairly strong portfolio and established creative method, but needs to learn how to manage your work as a freelancer, then a creative degree may not offer you the training that you're after. In this case maybe you could consider more business orientated degrees which will teach you how to build your own freelance career.
If you want to work on both aspects then it might be worth considering combining your degree with a short course elsewhere which will help you to develop entrepreneurial business skills. Or you can follow up a creative 3 year BA with a 1 year MA in creative business, such as Goldsmiths' MA in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship or Kingston's MA; Managing in the Creative Economy (I'm not particularly endorsing either of these courses as I've attended neither, but they are a couple of examples I've come up with while researching options).
I would also recommend considering the value of a degree as the potential benefits to your own creative development and personal well-being, rather than from a purely monetary or career-based stand-point. The university experience in itself can be greatly valuable for developing life skills and confidence in your own personal abilities.
You get out of the university experience as much as you are willing to put into it, and so whether a creative degree is 'worth it' or not depends very much on your individual expectations and plans, and on the amount of effort you put into your studying. Rather than judging creative degrees as a whole in a sweeping statement, it is important to remember that the value of a degree is a very personal thing and will vary depending on the needs and actions of each individual. All life experience has value; it is up to you what you take away from that experience.