Are Art Schools Really Worth The Money?

Are Art Schools Worth The Money?

I LOVED my art school! I would not be where I am without it. I still keep in touch with my teachers… well, the ones who are still alive.

When I applied to go there, I had to present a portfolio, have an interview, have a second interview and generally, for many of the classes I enrolled for, had to meet with the teacher and present my portfolio in yet another interview. Although I had transferred in from another school, in an unrelated field, many of my credits were not accepted and I had to take a foundation year of a well-rounded assortment of those little things creatives need; painting, life drawing, color theory, design 101, sculpture and print production. It seemed silly at the time but I now realize the foundation is what made me a better creative.

Are Art Schools Worth The Money?

There are Art schools throughout the world that still boast such stringent standards and it is usually so they can boast a 90% or better employment rate among alumni. A strong, working and happy alumni means more support for the school and scholarship donations from that alumnus.

Worth the money? If you learn from working professionals and those who nurture students and elevate them into the field, then the answer has to be yes! Although I left school to start working, I did go back to get my degree a decade later. Between that time, I took classes in computers and software. The learning process should always continue, even after graduation.

Why Bother With Art School?

If you have to ask, you have an eye for design that is truly a gift. If you ask, you might also be so full of yourself that you can’t see the kudos from friends and family means nothing outside hanging your work on grandma’s refrigerator.

Why Bother With Art School?

When we complain about “hacks” ruining the business, it is those who use the label “designer” as others use the expression, “clean undergarments.” The people who do $10 logos and still have the guts to show up at design events to converse with working designers. I won’t yell at them to go away, but have told many of them to shut up and stop ruining the industry. I guess it has the same effect.

Art school trains you in things that just don’t come naturally to all but a few. It’s like a child’s crayon drawing that you gaze upon in awe. You marvel at the balance and color…and freedom. It’s life that beats it out of us as we grow. Art school teaches you to let go and experience the wonder of the world through fresh eyes and a willing mind.

When I finally let go of my preconceived notions in art school, I was amazed at what I could create. I was ashamed at the portfolio I had presented a short time before to get into the very same school. There are those who won’t let go. It shows in their work… when they are able to produce any.

Which Schools Are The Best?

In America, there were two schools that always topped the list of where a student should attend; RISD (pronounced Riz-dee – Rhode Island School of Design) And SVA (pronounced S-V-A – School of Visual Arts). There were certainly other strong schools, but those two were first choice schools for most east coast art students. Every country has the same hard decisions for art students.

Which Schools Are The Best?

RISD is a wonderful school and offers some great teachers and curriculum. The location offers a campus with less stress than a school such as SVA, smack in the middle of New York City. SVA, at the time, had no dormitories and billed its campus as “the city.” That, I feel was one of its strengths. The teachers were sometimes late because they were working professionals, held up by their work commitments. Internships were for companies headquartered in the city, which is one of the reasons I left school for a job and didn’t return for over ten years…and kept quiet when I did so I wouldn’t be hounded for work by other students.

Many of us were jealous of RISD students for their green campus and quieter life. RISD students were jealous of SVA students for living in New York and the chance muggings and berating from prostitutes around the corner from the school. These are important factors an art student must examine. Location is as important as the teachers and the two usually feed each other.

Fast And Easy Diploma School

I laugh when I see ads for online art schools on my Facebook sidebar. Any online school may seem attractive to people now, but in ten years the pieces of paper will be as useless as those battery operated belts that are suppose to give you six-pack abs in two weeks. They will all end up in the same garbage dump.

Fast And Easy Diploma School

While living in Phoenix, I was asked to speak to senior art students at a two-year diploma factory/”art institute”, as well as be a juror on the senior projects. While I met one or two students who will do well, because they are the gifted people I mentioned before, most of the students had handed over $40,000 for a degree they will never be able to pay back. In fact, the government was shutting down student loans for these “shoot-them-through” colleges and “art institutes.” It seems too many students aren’t able to pay back their loans. How would you feel starting your working career with a $40,000 debt you couldn’t repay?

There are many of these “diploma factories” out there. Fancy brochures and clean campuses, housed in buildings with chef schools, film schools and paralegal schools look like Harvard…which is another so-so art school, truth be told, not to mention a higher debt for your student loan. Most students pick these schools for the presumed savings, being able to live at home and still attend art school. That is a mistake and one that will define your career.

How Do You Choose?

The best recommendation for a school comes from those who attended the school. The internet and a single question on Facebook, LinkedIn or Google will bring many answers. Listen to them and ask more questions. While I’m not happy with how I was treated as an alumnus of my school, I have to give it top marks for what I learned and where it put me. I was also able to pay off my student loans rather quickly.

How Do You Choose?

Always look at the teachers of the school. Dig on the internet to find their web sites or the companies where they work. My teachers gave me work after I left their classes. Will your teachers be able to hire you? Will they keep mentoring you as your career progresses? Will they be coming to you for work as your career progresses?

What are the intern programs or possibilities at these schools? The difference between RISD and SVA was the amount of internship possibilities in New York City vs. the outskirts of Rhode Island. An internship usually assures you of a job once you graduate.

What kind of network will you form with other students? Does the school encourage working closely with other students so you form bonds or does it create a competitive atmosphere that will drive a wedge between students?

Never pick a school based on the brochure. As with the film, “Art School Confidential,” the plucky young talent moons over the brochure and when the scene of his first day starts with the brochure cover shot, pulling back to reveal the burned out cars and rundown neighborhood. You MUST go there, take the tour with the staff and then find a student who will take you on the tour of the REAL school.

Ask to sit in on some classes. If the school doesn’t allow it, they have something to hide. Talk to the teachers and ask about their careers and what they think is the most important thing you will get from their class.

Conclusion

Chances are, by the time you start thinking of art school, you’ve bought a car or motorcycle. Did you just see a picture and plop down thousands of dollars for it? Yes, you probably did. Now, how are you going to get back and forth from school? Well, if you use the same care in choosing an art school, your career will be sitting broken down on the side of the road, too.

Speider Schneider has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, LucasFilms, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. He’s a former board member of the Graphic Artists Guild and co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee. He also speaks at art schools across the United States and writes articles on business and professional practices for books and global blogs.

Comments

    • Steph,
    • April 1, 2011
    / Reply

    I think a good art school is essential for all graphic designers. I can’t take someone seriously when they tell me that they’re a graphic designer, but they have no drawing skills or they went to one of those “You too can be a graphic designer in six easy months” “schools” because those are jokes. It’s like saying that I can use a knife, so that makes me a surgeon.

    1. / Reply

      As a self taught designer, would you agree with me if I called myself a designer? I’ve been studying web and graphic design by myself for 7 years now and I would actually dare to say that I’m better than many of those that has been to school, and not to mention those that has completed these online school programs.

      Don’t get me wrong, please. I’m not trying to be rude, I’m just asking for your opinion. :)

      I have put up and application for an art school in my home country and it’s a private one as well, which means I have to pay for it myself. I believe that to succeed in this profession you got to have a huge passion for the profession itself, color, shapes, typography etc. And that you don’t need a school to succeed – Well, what I’m trying to say is that; you can go to the worlds most expensive school and graduate as a art director or whatever you want to call it, but still not succeed because of the lack of passion to the profession. :)

      I’m sorry if my English is rubbish, I’m not a native English speaker and I’m pretty tired right now. Been workin’ late again.. Heh!

      1. / Reply

        The key is being able to make a living and what your CLIENTS think of your work. Creativity is a gift and that is a big separator of a talented designer and… someone who just knows the graphic programs. Self-training, with an eye for the delicate balance that makes design, can be as effective, if not moreso, than years of art school. Both have advantages, which is why this article asks the question of is art school worth the money.

        Just be happy with what you do and who you are. That’s what life is all about. You might like an article along those lines, which I’ve been told changed the way many people see themselves and their career…
        http://tinyurl.com/37u4zwl

  1. / Reply

    Really great article Speider! This article came at a great time for me, I’m about to graduate high school and am thinking about going to an art school(SCAD). I have had some reservations about choosing an art school because of concern for it being a “shoot-them-through” college as you put it. Thanks again, your article helped me out!

    1. / Reply

      SCAD has a great reputation. I will also add that if you feel you’ve taken all the courses you want at that school and really want the diploma for design, you can always transfer to another school and take advantage of their curriculum. Design is not truly about the piece of paper; it’s about the learning and exploring and bringing out your creative thought and ability.

      Best of luck.

      1. / Reply

        Thanks! I’m still looking at other schools though, in case I don’t get enough scholarships/financial aid funds to go.

        1. / Reply

          Jamal, I was working a crap job in a small design firm while taking night classes (about three a semester) before I decided to go full-time. Then a did two-years and then left to pursue a better job and, as mentioned, went back much later to finish for my diploma (I was the art director for a world-famous magazine, so I didn’t really need it). Education can be tailor made for your needs and should never end throughout your career. Just keep moving forward!

          Best of luck.

    • Anthony M. Torres,
    • April 1, 2011
    / Reply

    I think that art schools aren’t the only schools that have this problem. I know many people that I am friends with or are associated with that have Bachelor Degrees in everything from Architecture from Pratt in NYC to Psychology from TCNJ in NJ to friends that are full-time graphic designers working in the industry for over 7 years that went to the Art Institute in Philadelphia and local community colleges for their Associates in Mulit-Media/Graphic Design. They didn’t go to some high end, prestigious named school and most don’t even have their Bachelor’s and are still head designers with a lot of talent, drive, and professionalism.

    As far as student debt goes…what the individual graduate decides to do with their degree, no matter where it is from, is totally up to them. If you want to sit on your degree, and let it collect dust, that is your choice, and only your choice. The student loans are there because most people can’t pay for their college experience in cash, up front or their parents can’t afford it all in one shot. That is the society that all of us had a hand in building and supporting. We take out debt for many things in this world in order to try and make a better life for ourselves, and some people accrue debt for stupid things like clothes, way too expensive cars etc… Once again I yave many friends that have degrees left and right in all kinds of fields, and have never done anything with that degree or chose to go into a field on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from their field of study.

    I say do what is best and what works for you at the present moment. Life is always in flux and things that you were interested in one year fall out of favor just as quickly the next year. Feel it out and don’t listen to everything that everyone has to say…use your autonomy to discover what your strengths are and use those to your advantage. Not every designer is going to excel at every single discipline. Small moves…

    • Heather,
    • April 2, 2011
    / Reply

    FYI – The first “Ad by Google” for this article is The Art Institutes…

      • Anthony M. Torres,
      • April 2, 2011
      / Reply

      Money talks…

    1. / Reply

      The Google ads on my site were for manic depression treatments. What the hell does THAT say?

      It’s funny how I work for many of the sites in the Smashing Network and write articles bashing crowdsourcing and contests and then, BINGO! there’s ads for the very same. It takes money to bring you this content and, as Anthony points out, “money talks.” Sometimes, in life and work, you have to dance with the devil. Sometimes it’s the Lamabada!

    • Freg lincoln,
    • April 2, 2011
    / Reply

    People who just looked at paper qualification are plain superficial. Alot of successful people does not even have a proper cert. Most of them gets the certs after they become famous if they want, usually purchasing them. In today society, skills, experience and contacts are truly what matters.

    1. / Reply

      Very true, which is why I was always confused as to why one of my former employers, with a creative staff of 800, would insist on a valid diploma. When I first was being interviewed, and they checked my alma mater for my degree, the registrar’s office moron made a mistake and said I didn’t graduate. The employer, despite my accomplishments at bigger corporations, said they weren’t interested. The recruiter who was handling the matter shoved his hand over my mouth to prevent me from telling this employer where they could stick a diploma and he did manage to find the certificate.

  2. / Reply

    i too love my school (Full Sail University) and keep in touch with my teachers. i used to visit quite often when i till lived in Orlando, but havent been in a year. the experience i had there and people i met was worth the tuition alone. ive always said i wish the graphic design program was a year longer. not just to be able to learn more but because i didnt want to graduate.

    its a fast paced environment where i learned so much in 13 months. it would have taken me years to gain that knowledge and experience outside of school.

      • Anthony M. Torres,
      • April 2, 2011
      / Reply

      I am close to getting my Associate’s in Web Design and going to work towards my B.S. degree in IT with a concentration on Website Technology & Development. I take some graphic design courses as extra, but I don’t consider myself an artist in the sense of drawing and illustrating free hand etc. I come from a music background, and have gotten out of music over the last 3-4 years to try and get involved in the multi-media industry full-time. I have always been a creative person, whether it is writing and performing music, designing websites, or working as an audio technician in a recording studio.

      I have multiple friends that are professional graphic designers, and most of them went to local public colleges and art institutes here in the NJ/PA/NY area. They have all done very well in this industry by working hard, staying inspired and motivated. There are many paths to reach the same destination.

    1. / Reply

      I f this is a spam/ad for FSU, you aren’t helping with horrid spelling, sentence structure and non-use of uppercase characters. If you are just a happy alumnus of the school, you are showing you wasted your money.

  3. / Reply

    I believe that higher education is essential, you will meet amazing and inspiring people who share the same interest, and later probably become good friends and/or work on some great projects. I never regretted getting my masters in computer graphics, meet amazing people, learn a lot about myself, all good stuff…

    I guess most people worry about student debt, don’t..if you serious about your future, take a loan, suck it up and go for it, you will never regretted..trust me

    Marios

    • Jen,
    • April 2, 2011
    / Reply

    I’m going to be the one to say the unpopular thing I think, but I work with some of the most genius minds in the country for one of the largest corporations in the world. Some of the designers who have the highest levels of respect here have no degrees. They have experience and talent. We’ve hired folks who’ve had the degrees, but they didn’t cut it compared to the ones who had the talent, heart and drive.
    Not ALL people are like this, I realize i’m generalizing. But ….

    In the end… sometimes, it’s just a piece of paper.

    1. / Reply

      I don’t know why so many people failed to read the passages on my own experience, “I left school for a job and didn’t return for over ten years” and “Although I left school to start working, I did go back to get my degree a decade later. Between that time, I took classes in computers and software. The learning process should always continue, even after graduation.”

      Take a look at the companies for which I’ve worked and tell me a piece of paper matters. It only mattered in one place and that was due to some jerk who thought it would elevate the company in the eyes of the creative community. He was dead wrong. I wish he was just dead, but that’s another story!

    • Matt,
    • April 2, 2011
    / Reply

    I hate to say it, the first half of this sounds pretty elitist to me, though the advice starting with “How Do You Choose” is sound.

    You pretty much define two schools – RISD and SVA – as being the best, and seem to relegate the rest to being virtually degree mills. I’m no expert on design schools (and certainly can’t argue that those two are great), but there are lots of other fine schools. It just makes it sound like you’re mainly aware of design schools within a 50 mile radius of NYC.

    Then you essentially condemn online programs as being useless garbage. I’ve taken a lot of online classes (though in development, not design), and got a lot out of them – probably more than I got out of years of in-person classes at a respected university, considering the money and time invested. The reason is that in most case, 90% of actual learning takes place from doing, not from listening to someone yak at you from the front of a classroom (let alone listening to them take roll, answer inane questions from slower classmates, etc.).

    You also seem to equate admissions standards with usefulness of the school. This is the common view, but a flawed one, I believe. Harvard (and likely RISD etc.) are good at producing successful graduates largely because they only admit people who are likely to succeed no matter where they go. I’m not saying top schools don’t give a good education, but I don’t believe the schools themselves are much better than many other places, or do more to “improve” their graduates.

    Yes, the “piece of paper” you get from any school might be useless 10 years from now, but I sure hope that’s not why you go to school. The biggest benefit should come from the amount and difficulty of project work you end up doing and the standards to which it is graded.

    1. / Reply

      Not to argue or embarrass you, Matt, but you missed the passage, “There were certainly other strong schools, but those two were first choice schools for most east coast art students. Every country has the same hard decisions for art students.”

      I also mentioned speaking at many art schools across the country, which has given me a good view of programs offered at the different schools and the ability students have to advance their careers. The schools to which I refer as “diploma mills,” will teach software but not the thought and theories of design, which is why I also made sure to point out that a two-year program USUALLY will not totally prepare a student with everything they need. My own story, which I included to show one COULD take a few years of schooling and make a great career, mentions going back to take some credits in classes that were not essential to being a designer, so picking and choosing the right classes can be great for training as well.

      As for online programs, yes, they are garbage. You cannot 1.) get the proper feedback from the student body which leads to teaching one the thought process others have, which is in itself a learning process, and 2.) you do not set up one of your most important networks that will take you far in your career. Several of my classmates and teachers have given me the plum assignments that helped me gain bigger clients and bigger paychecks.

      Your statement about in-person classes is exactly why I advise students to seek out and audit classes BEFORE handing over cash for an art school. It is true that most of the knowledge comes from “doing” but it has to be based in the lessons imparted by the teacher, who hopefully is a working professional and one who can dissect the work to show you why it works or doesn’t, as the case may be.

      While most corporations don’t give a damn about diplomas for creatives, oddly enough, there are a few and they are the ones with the biggest creative staffs, so tell me in 10 years if your online diploma has worked or if that chance to work for a huge corporation was lost because they don’t consider it legitimate.

  4. / Reply

    A diploma program may be fast, but it is not easy. I did an 18 month diploma program with The Art Institutes and I got a lot out of it. You don’t seem to have considered any other schools, 4 year degree programs are not the only way to do things.

    I find it rather offensive that you seem to be putting people who have worked their butts off to get a diploma in the same category as someone with no training.

    I agree that art school is important, but it seems our opinions differ on what types of schools work.

    1. / Reply

      Honestly, Lauren, you need to go back and reread this article. As with Matt, you didn’t read the entire thing or you would have seen the telling passage, “Although I left school to start working, I did go back to get my degree a decade later. Between that time, I took classes in computers and software. The learning process should always continue, even after graduation.”

      I do know some people who are “self-trained.” A couple are gifted (which I also mention in this article) and some are never going to do more than a hobbyist or wannabe.

      1. / Reply

        Sorry I must have missed that part. It happens sometimes, I probably read it faster than I should have (I tend to speed read online). I apologize.

        I don’t have a problem with people who are self-trained really, but the people that think they’re trained when they really have no clue, but act as if they know everything. If someone has talent and skill then good on them, school or no school.

        1. / Reply

          No problem. There were plenty of people who attended my art school, got their degrees and went nowhere. Talent and drive are the only things that should matter.

    • zothen,
    • April 2, 2011
    / Reply

    I am currently at uni studying primary education. And a very large part of it is the arts. We are being taught to use art in all aspects of being a teacher, because the suudents that we teach, are not just learning maths etc, but learning to use creative ways to solve problems, and this is a good thing because the current way of thinking about thing is not working!

    1. / Reply

      U.S. corporations are starting to talk about creative problem solving in business, so it should only be 40 or 50 years before they start putting it in place.

  5. / Reply

    I have two things to add, that are really the same thing.

    While the opportunities for a good education are available all over, totally agree there, the opportunities for networking aren’t. The thing about that is, it’s not just the school as a whole or the city it’s in, it’s the department for the major you’re thinking of.

    I went to a decently rated art school in a mid-size city. I majored in graphic design. The school’s whole reputation for people working in their fields is a statistical aggregate of individual department’s successes. So you have a school touting great placement rate, but really it’s being carried by the industrial design and painting departments (in my case). For example, the ID department rented a huge hall and the faculty used their connections to put on a job fair for their seniors. Everyone got to present to multiple companies hiring ID folks and almost everyone got a job out of it. Graphic design & illustration (sister departments) got a list of numbers from the department head that we could call ourselves and permission to hang work in the hallway leading into our department.

    So in terms of picking a school, I’d say really scrutinize and pick the department.

    1. / Reply

      True! Some schools are known for certain departments that get the lion’s share of the budget. There are many factors one must explore. It’s an investment in one’s future. For those who think art school is not necessary (as several tweets have told me over the past day or so), then you invest much more in your career as you gamble on your sources and ability to go at a pace that will allow you to train yourself along with your contemporaries who are going to art school.

      One reason I left school is that I picked and chose courses and teachers (once my foundation year was over) and said to hell with most courses required for a diploma. I took the same course several times because the teacher was brilliant and helped me grow as a creative. I only went back for the diploma because I was close to the number of credits needed and was older and more interested in the art history courses I had to take. I regret nothing!

    • Christian,
    • April 3, 2011
    / Reply

    Anyone who has attended an art school will seek to justify it, and I belive; in some cases look down on people who didnt do it “the hard way”. And even more so if you payed for it (tuition fees is perhaps more common in the US then in Europe). The technical and theoretical training is an awesome asset. Pre-print, color theory, learn the software etc. But the most beneficial aspect of art school (imho) is meeting creative people and develop your own creativity. Pure raw talent (without art school) beats a diploma any day.

    • Tom,
    • April 3, 2011
    / Reply

    I’m guessing Donna Karan, the Jib Jab guys, Andy Warhol amongst many others are wondering why Parsons wasn’t mentioned. But then again I Parsons grads are all pretty much succesful so perhaps aren’t relevant to the article.

    1. / Reply

      You may have missed the passage; “There were certainly other strong schools, but those two were first choice schools for most east coast art students.” I actually taught at Parsons! I also spoke regularly at all other NYC area schools, as well as many schools across America.

      I also didn’t mention Pratt, Cooper Union or the Art Student’s League. I suppose I could have done a laundry list of schools east, west north and south, as well as schools throughout every continent but the article doesn’t weigh any of these schools against each other. The article is meant to explore, as the title, so I thought, spelled it out. I used two schools that are often tied for east coast students (as well as international students) in top choices. This is not a personal preference, and as I also mentioned, I have no desire to tout SVA as I have issues with their treatment of me as an alumni, but personal feelings should not cloud the issue or the facts — more successful people come out of those two schools than, if you’ll excuse me… Parsons, despite your examples.

    • Sean,
    • April 4, 2011
    / Reply

    Looking through these comments, half of them seem to be making a criticism of something the commenter feels you left out, with the other half being from you, pointing out a passage or two that you feel the commenter missed.

    I am sure the article is insightful, but if you have to spend that much time correcting your readers, you may want to reflect on how you are writing, as it appears that folks commenting aren’t able to grasp what you are trying to say properly.

    1. / Reply

      Thanks, Zod! It could be, as Lauren pointed out, they just missed reading the passages I mention. We can’t know unless they respond. Personally, I like to join in on discussions in the comments section. It takes the article to a higher level (if kept to professional debate).

      You can find my articles on sixrevisions, smashingmagazine, freelanceswitch, webdesigntuts+, wegraphics and instantshift (aside from my writing for corporate clients). These are reposted on just about every design blog and news sources in many countries. Not every comment is positive and not every comment is based on what is included in an article. Many people admit to either scanning an article and then commenting or getting to a point in the body of the article and commenting without reading the entire thing. I don’t write these articles to stroke my own ego. I write them to educate and inform.

      I always reflect on my writing, and I can’t force people to read articles from start to finish before commenting but I can correct them so they go back and read what they have obviously skipped over. Perhaps they don’t respond to my comments because they then see the point?

    • Dee,
    • April 7, 2011
    / Reply

    I didn’t go to art school, instead I went to a private university in my hometown and got a BA in art, and I’m employed as a designer now. While I can appreciate specialization, if you’re going to go the route of getting a degree higher than an Associates, a liberal arts education will be more beneficial to you in the long term, because your education will have been more well-rounded, which is attractive to most employers. If design jobs dry up due to outsourcing and the bad economy (and it’s looking like they are), it gives you more options if you can’t or don’t want to freelance. Just something to think about.

    But at the end of the day, what matters most is your own hunger for learning, and continuing the pursuit of learning new things post graduation.

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