UPDATE: Another great article on becoming an artist if art school isn't an option or good fit.
I've been picking at these ideas on and off as time permits so I apologize for my disorganization and length. It started as a reaction to a post that art school isn't worth it. (There are good resources in that post so it's definitely worth reading.) While for some people I wholeheartedly agree, for others art school can be a boon. My wish is to share my perspective as a former art student and professor in hopes it'll help someone out there select the right art school, if any, for them. Notice I said "if any". It's not for everyone and that's not a statement of any individual's worth but a statement of every individual's unique needs.
There are many benefits to a college setting beyond just the courses. To name just a few, you have immediate access to social interaction and competition among peers with similar interests promoting artistic and personal growth, cross-pollination of different majors and ideas opening up your mind to new possibilities, access to professionals you otherwise wouldn't have, experiences to build self-discipline and focus, and the beginning of a network to help you build a career. I'm not saying it's the only place to get these things but with art school it's more of a given because you're paying for it.
Speaking of paying for it, there is a huge cost in both time and money and absolutely no guarantee of anything once you get that precious little sheet of paper called a diploma. The truth is a diploma isn't worth much without a portfolio to back it up. Most employers in creative fields care more about your portfolio so focus on that. If you think art school is the best way to do so then look into it.
In the end it's up to you to educate yourself on, well, yourself and the college(s) you want to attend and look at alternatives. So I'm not going to tell you NOT to go but I'm not going to tell you TO go either. Instead I'm going to set to you some questions that you should ask about yourself and the art schools you're interested in.
1> Are you an artist?If you still think art college is for you, then continue! It'll be a challenge, rewarding, punishing, and will in no small part direct your life's path. If you think art college is not for you, guess what? It'll be a challenge, rewarding, punishing, and will in no small part direct your life's path. Getting the point? It's risk assessment so be honest and fair with yourself in this and all things.
Might sound like a stupid question but it's actually quite important. You can tell if you're an artist because it is not a choice. You make art. Period. Nothing stops you. Nothing keeps you from it. You create art even at the detriment to other things (but hopefully not to an unhealthy degree). Many professional artists consider being an artist a disease. It's something you have and are. It's not a hobby. It is a state of being. Melodramatic or not, it's the truth. If you can say that about yourself then continue. If this isn't you, stop now. Art school, which with hard work, cost, and luck will lead to the even harder rigors of being a professional artist, is probably not for you.
2> Do you have any talent?
Not to be crass but if you suck your job prospects are fairly bleak, degree or not. (Yes, you can totally graduate and still suck but that's another story.) Granted, oodles of talent isn't everything. I've seen people with less talent go farther because they worked harder than those with buckets of it and I have seen amazing talent go utterly wasted on people with no discipline or passion (see #3) but you have to have some talent. Some! Get portfolio reviews from professionals you're not related to, or friends with, who have absolutely nothing to gain by being nice to you or lose by being mean. Simply, you need objective critiques. You want to hear not just what you're good at but where you need to improve. If you have any talent then there's hope for you.
3> Are you passionate about your art?
You need passion too. It doesn't matter if you answered "yes" to #1, if it's just something that, eh, ya do all the time cuz, well, it comes easy and is easier than putting effort into other things - that's not passion. That's lazy. Lazy isn't a path to any successful career. Are you actively working on both your strengths and weaknesses? Do you explore new techniques and allow yourself to fail and learn from the experience? Do you explore the works of other artists you respect and admire? And those they admire and respect? Passion isn't myopic.
However, it's also not easy to quantify. To quote Mike Rowe, "I would never advise anyone to “follow their passion” until (they) understand who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Even then, I’d be cautious. Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by." And here Mike Rowe responded to a letter written to him about why one shouldn't follow one's passions. It's spot on. Read it. You need both talent and passion. In another interview he states, "Don't follow your passion but always bring it with you." Whatever you decide on in life, that's sage advice. Here's a Forbes article that puts what he says into a slightly different perspective if you don't agree with the above statement.
4> Does the school require a portfolio to attend?Is answering these questions going to give you a clear indication where to go to art school, if at all? No. I'm not claiming that. These are just things to consider. Too many people seem to go to college because that's what's expected of them and ask nothing at all. Ask something! It's your life! These questions should be no more than a starting point in that direction. That's all I'm aiming for. Some of these questions may not even apply to your individual situation and there are sure to be more questions that need to be asked depending on each situation. So get out there and start asking questions. Maybe art school is for you. Or not. You're the only one who can say.
Many US art schools do not require a portfolio anymore because "so many high schools in the US have cut their art departments it makes it harder for kids to even have a portfolio." Honestly, I think that's a crock but it's what I heard from a recruiter once. If you want to become a professional artist and start your career path by attending art school, the lack of art classes in your high school shouldn't stop you from making a portfolio. If it has, you probably aren't cut out to be an artist because you most likely aren't one. See #1 and 3 above.
I mention this because if they don't require a portfolio then you'll find almost anyone can get into the school regardless of talent, passion, or drive. This is a sad truth. They may only need a certain level of test scores to accept someone. So tour the school, sit in on classes, look at the quality of produced work, and see if student work is recognized outside of academia. That's always a good sign! I'd research these factors anyway but it becomes very important when there isn't a portfolio requirement for acceptance.
5> Does the school offer full scholarships based on portfolio quality?
If the school offers scholarships based on portfolio then they are at least saying they value quality. However, if they do not offer scholarships, especially full-rides, for portfolios then it's a clear indication that art school values something other than the quality of the students they admit. Not a good thing.
6> Are you interested in the majors the school offers?
This should be a no-brainer but when I was a professor I knew lots of students wishing they could major in subjects the school didn't offer. Don't do that. Don't go to a school because it's convenient in some way. If you're going to have to pay an exorbitant tuition, pay it where the degree you want exists.
If you're not sure exactly what you want to major in, and that's okay, then find a school with departments of serious interest to you to choose from during your foundations studies. You want options but those options need to apply to your interests or they aren't options at all. Doesn't matter if a school has 60 departments if none of them float your boat.
7> Does the school allow you to transfer credits from less expensive schools?
Look at alternative ways to cut down on tuition by seeing if you can take general education courses elsewhere and transfer the credits. This could potentially save you thousands of dollars.
8> Do the professors work, or have worked, professionally in the field they teach?
If they don't then you're not really learning practical knowledge from experienced individuals and practical knowledge really is key. (I wish apprenticeships were more widely available in every field!) So research the faculty you'd be learning from. Chances are if they are professionals you'll have a better chance becoming one too AND you'll have better networking opportunities upon graduation. Who you know, and who they know, is extremely important and your professors are the first step in that network. So seek out professionals who teach and not professional teachers, though they can be both. The distinction is subtle but I think it makes a difference.
9> How large are the class sizes?
This is a basic question of any school but if you want more individual attention then the fewer bodies in classes the better. Not a deal breaker but something to think about.
10> Does the college support a faculty and/or student government?
Yeah, some schools don't and, to me, that's a red flag. If the faculty you'll be learning from have no say in how to run the school then it probably isn't run as efficiently as it could be in terms of the teaching environment. (This assumes the best of the faculty.) If the students have no say in how to run the school (dash of salt here, no offense) then the school may not make their students the priorities they should be. In both cases, this is about how the school values the people who teach and those taught. Ideally, you want to go somewhere that values both and faculty and student governments can be a really good sign.
11> How often do professionals in your major of interest visit the campus/classes?
If the school is highly respected you'll see it in how often professionals visit. This doesn't mean Hollywood celebrities. Unless the celebrity is alumnus, they often go to schools only because they are paid for the PR. Those are largely worthless in valuing a school (though it does help show you how they potentially waste money). You want to look to see how often working professionals visit, "celebrity" or not. Depending on your major of interest that could mean different things but check this out. In the end, if the pros don't go, maybe you shouldn't either.
12> Does the school have a good reputation? And in your chosen field/major?
If the school is highly regarded, find out why. Is it because they consistently graduate leaders in various industries or is it all a PR fog to make themselves look good? You really need to look closely at the school and ask around in the field you hope to work about the school. Granted, different people have different experiences at the same schools but getting this feedback will help you determine if the school is truly good at education or spinning news in the media. Check your chosen field/major too. A school could be highly regarded for one department but not the one you are interested in.
13> Does the school have a career/job fair and bring in companies looking to hire?
Networking is unbelievably important so it's a wonderful sign if the school actively brings in companies to hire students as it reflects their commitment to helping you find a job right off the bat. After that...
14> What is the school's placement rate for their graduates?
You're going to find in most art schools that rate is pretty low. After all, thousands of people want the same creative jobs you're aiming for and there are simply not that many of them. (This is another issue about there being careers at all to be had but I won't get into that.) Regardless, this rate in comparison to other schools will help you determine your own probability of finding a job once you graduate. Isn't that the point?
15> How do you feel about debt?
And possibly never owning a home? Never having a nice car? Living paycheck to paycheck? Going without? Owing for years and years and years? If material wealth is important to you (not judging) then you may find post-graduation dismal. Art school often costs six figures. Now, if you're one of the very lucky ones and can pay for school out of pocket then this is a non-issue and you can skip to the end of this post. You may know you're lucky but you won't understand how lucky for years to come. Appreciate your fortune. If that's not you, you really need to ask yourself what life you are willing to have and what you are willing to sacrifice for your art and your education. You need to define that for yourself and you need to face it now before you commit to anything. Hopefully the US government will changes things one day so tuition is less of an issue but this is The Ugly Truth that instigated the article that inspired my post and its full gravity should be thoroughly considered.