Finding the right art school is a very individual decision. Everyone has their own approach to learning, their own ideas of what makes a school appealing (or not), and their own extracurricular priorities and considerations. Your own personal approach is going to determine the path that’s best for you.
One of the biggest questions you need to answer when considering your path to art education is what you hope to do with your skills when you’re done. Will you be a full-time artist? Will it be a part-time job? A hobby?
If you want to study art for your own personal enjoyment, maybe you don’t need a degree – though you may want to take a class or two to broaden your awareness of the particular area or aspect of art that interests you. Learn the technique, the vocabulary, the best tools, and then continue on your own.
On the other hand, if you are looking to make a living at it, extensive training is almost always required. Sure, raw talent may get you places, and if your work is good, credentials may not matter to a buyer. But in a wide world of art, you’re more likely to make your mark if you learn from those who have gone before you.
And it’s not like you’re committing to doing anything the way everyone else does it, you’re just learning how they do it so you can incorporate those implements, techniques, and perspectives you find most useful into the style that best suits you personally. After all, even Picasso went to school and learned to paint in the established tradition of the times before taking his tools and pursuing his own direction.
If you do decide to attend an art school, there are a number of considerations to, well, consider. Obviously you’ll have some that wouldn’t appear on anyone else’s list (including the one below), but I’ve highlighted some of the most important issues below to help reduce this big life-affecting decision to a more manageable set of concerns. While you can jump directly to any of the topics by clicking on the links below, I recommend reading through the whole list once starting from the top to get a good overview of the issues involved.
What Kind of School Do do You Want to Attend?
Once again, it all depends on what you’re looking for.
If you want an education that exposes you to a variety of topics in addition to art, and a range of degrees from the Bachelor’s level to the Doctorate (Ph.D.) level, the university style of education may be right for you. Universities require students to complete coursework in the liberal arts outside of their major field of study, typically in areas such as English, History, Humanities, and Science. In fact, you may not even declare your art major at a four-year school until your sophomore or junior year.
Your non-art studies may inspire your artwork, turn you on to a second major, or cause you to reconsider your art focus. The ability to switch majors is a very useful safety net for those who aren’t 100% certain of their choices.
hen again, even if you are completely dedicated to your chosen field of study, only at a university will you be able to mingle with budding philosophers, historians, and professional athletes all dining at the same table. Or at least under the same roof. If you enjoy interacting with all types, consider attending a university.
Four-Year Art-Focused Schools
Like universities, these schools generally offer art instruction couched in a liberal arts program of study, granting degrees at the Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctorate level. As you might guess, however, all degrees offered are art-related, and the required coursework outside of the arts is more tuned to the perspective of the art than what you would find at a university. You get the benefit of an art focus with additional non-art coursework to broaden your perspective but you can’t switch your major to something outside of the arts if you change your mind.
Community Colleges generally offer two-year degrees in the form of associate’s degrees or certification. They offer the benefit of a shorter degree program than the aforementioned types of schools and an education that can stand on its own or be used as transfer credits to a four-year school.
These schools are an affordable way to study in your chosen field and are designed to meet the needs of students who are just beginning their post-high school education, those who want to supplement a prior degree, and those who have already entered the workforce and are looking for a part-time education around a full-time job. Granted, other types of schools may offer part-time or adult education programs; but community colleges most often fill this need. Whether to enhance skills for one’s current career choice or to take the first step toward a new one, community colleges are the answer for many of today’s students.
Vocational education is just that – aimed at teaching you exactly what you need to know to get a job in a particular field. Coursework is practical and hands-on, giving you a real feel for the tasks you’ll be doing if you pursue the related line of work.
Some people use a vocational degree (associate’s degree, certificate, or diploma) as a stepping-stone to a four-year education, but the primary goal of such programs is to make you marketable in the workplace the day you leave. This is the most employment-targeted, no-time-wasted approach to education. Once again, it all depends on what you’re looking for. Your education in another sort of institution may be more “well rounded,” but if you want to learn what you need to know to do the job, this may be the way to go.
Workshops & Special Programs
If you’re not as interested in a degree as you are in brushing up on your techniques or getting a different perspective on what you’ve learned on your own, you probably aren’t looking for full-time art education. Schools, colleges, and other local institutions often have special programs that allow you to broaden your artistic horizons buffet-style, taking courses on a part-time and/or evening basis without enrolling in a degree program. And if you’re looking for brief, intensive training, it’s worth searching for workshops offered in your preferred discipline. Workshops often focus training on a day or a series of days instead of taking the semester-length approach. You may need to travel if there’s nothing like this offered in your area, but this sort of training can be well worth your while.
Majors & Programs Offered
This is a biggie. If you know for sure what you want to study, go where it’s taught. If you don’t, you would do well to go to a school offering degrees in multiple subjects that interest you. A computer graphics school won’t be able to help you if you decide you really prefer sculpting after all. And if you know your interests are varied in advance, find out if the school supports degrees in multiple areas.
School Costs & Financial Aid
If your parents are millionaires, you don’t need to worry about this. But if you’re one of the rest of us, a school’s costs-tuition, room/board when applicable, and fees (think art supplies) – and financial aid options are very important.
The trick is to get your degree without selling yourself into lifetime school-debt bondage. See, schools know education isn’t cheap, and they’re very skilled at helping you figure out how to make ends meet as long as you’re in school. This may come in the form of scholarships, grants, work-study employment (on-campus student jobs), and/or internships. But often a substantial loan figures into the equation, and when you leave school you have to start paying it off. If you can see a clear path from your degree to an adequate loan-paying income, you may be able to take this in stride. If not, however, think carefully before selecting a school that will leave you a huge, long-term, interest-bearing souvenir by which to remember your alma mater.
If you’re concerned about tuition, fees, and not taking on more debt than you can handle, speak frankly with the financial aid counselors at the schools you are considering. If they can help you, you’re probably considering the right schools.
The number of students at a school has a big effect on the environment, but it can go in many ways. A school with tens of thousands of students may have a greater variety of extracurricular activities available to accommodate a broader range of interests. A school with a smaller student body may be less socially distracting. On the other hand, small schools may have social circles that are more closely knit, or a particular club or residence at a larger school may provide this sort of connection.
In terms of your studies, the faculty-to-student ratio is an important factor in school size. Often these ratios are better at smaller schools. However, in a university setting, the ratio tends to get better as your studies become more focused. In other words, while you are completing your general liberal arts coursework (history, sciences, etc.), which are required of all students in the university setting, you may be in classes where one professor is lecturing to more than 400 students. But your art focus is shared by a much smaller percentage of the student body, so there may be only 15 students in your studio class.
These variables will all shift from school to school, but having a general idea of the school size that appeals to you will help you narrow your search a bit, at which point you can inquire further from the schools that make it onto your “shortlist.”
Where do you want to go to school? Maybe you want to live near your Aunt Francine, or as far from her as possible. Maybe you are more interested in the climate, the socio-political environment, or the regional cuisine.
Depending on the type of career you’re looking at, though, there may be other factors to consider. If you want to produce art that will be shown in galleries, you should consider study in or near a large city where you can start to network and get noticed even before you leave school. There may even be internship opportunities or school-arranged public showings of student work in high-profile venues. This should definitely be taken into account if it will help you attain your goals.
- Admission Qualifications/Criteria
Different schools have different ideas of what to look for in a student. Someplace great value on college admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT, while others lean more toward the content of a prospective student’s portfolio. Schools should be able to give you an idea of minimum requirements when asked.
Is the equipment at the school up-to-date? Is there adequate studio space? Is the campus “plugged in” (internet-savvy)? Are there adequate resources for the number of students at the institution?
Are the instructors known in their field? Is the school respected in the industry? Some schools’ reputations are so strong that employers practically wait by the door for students to graduate. Of course, this reputation often means higher tuition, but sometimes it’s worth it.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you. If we’ve done our job right, you’ve got even more questions now than you did when you got here. But hopefully, your questions are more focused, more informed, and (given time and consideration) more answerable. Sleep on it.
- Check out the various content areas on this site to learn more about different majors/programs, artist and art student resources, etc.
- Explore schools using a search engine; compare and contrast, figure out what matters to you.
- Do some reading.
- Talk to counselors, teachers, friends, family members.
And when the pieces all fall together, and you figure out what kind(s) of schools call to you, come back, and let us help you find them.