I desperately wanted to go to art school after graduating high school. As soon as I enthusiastically shared my plans with anyone, they immediately jumped on the issue of money, and how I wouldn’t make any. It is impractical they said, unreasonable, and frankly a little selfish.
What a crushing response. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life, and the people that mattered the most to me couldn’t share in it. But if I stopped for a moment, and considered it from their perspective, they had a point.
School costs money, living at school costs money (housing, food, etc.), art supplies cost money. During this time you are not bringing in much if any money, relative to the cost of the degree, so you need to find a way to cover all of these costs. Savings? Grants? Loans? And what about after you graduate, isn’t that how most people justify taking on the burden and debt of an education?
It makes sense in a way to think of college in terms of an investment. If one was considered purchasing a home, a very similar kind of math, does one take on a huge debt now to obtain an asset (house, degree), knowing that it will by some metric be worth more later?
While home ownership generally looks good on paper, depending on where the market is when you are considering buying, an art degree tends to look terrible by comparison. You may very well be headed towards a lifetime of paying back a debt that didn’t help you get a job that you couldn’t have gotten with nothing more than a high school degree they tell you.
This is more or less what everyone keeps telling you right? Here you are, finally approaching some semblance of freedom, with the weight of seemingly choosing your entire future, and you’re excited to just spread your wings and follow your dreams… and everyone is shitting on it. I know how you feel!
The thing I haven’t told you to this point, is that I am at the time of writing this 46 years old. Back in 1993 when I graduated high school, desperately wanting to go to school for art, I went in to advertising instead. It was my parents attempt at a compromise. A creative, yet practical career. Advertising isn’t a hugely lucrative field either, at least not in one’s early career, but it makes a lot more sense on paper than “artist”. Nowadays a similar path, and potentially even a bit more lucrative, might be graphic design. In fact it probably makes more direct use of your art skills.
Looking back, it was a false choice.
This is something that parents and guidance counselors don’t tend to emphasize. A bachelors degree is in many ways just a credential, more than it is job training. You don’t graduate college knowing everything you will need to know to work, even in your degree field. Often a degree is simply a way for an employer to know that a qualified institution has put you through your paces, and that you are the kind of person who is able to commit to and carry through a very large goal. College is a lot more work than high school, and you are on your own to manage your time and work in a way you have never been. So once you have a degree from a respected school, you can often work in a career that was not your major.
That is not to say that some employers, for some positions, won’t scoff at an art degree as well. But a good job, a creative job, will acknowledge and understand the unique set of skills that an art education provides. Are these jobs well paying? On average no, not to start, but they can be enough to pay your bills while you chart your own career path.
But here’s the thing. I tool the traditional path. I actually dropped out of advertising and took up programming. But now, 28 years later, I have finally decided to do what I always wanted. To be fair my financial situation now is very different than it was back then. And while it shouldn’t be the only thing you base your decision on, it shouldn’t be something you dismiss either.
Having the Facts
At the end of the day it is your decision, but I think the naysayers make some good points. If you find yourself simply being defensive or dismissive, because you’ve already “made up your mind”, you are doing a disservice to future you. The you that is going to have to live with your decision. So take a moment and do a thought experiment; if this is my circumstance in 5, 10, 15+ years, will I be happy?
The average cost of college in the United States, according to educationdata.org, is $35,720 per year. If you can manage to stay very disciplined and finish your degree in 4 years, this represents $142,880 total cost. The average student loan interest rate, according to credible.com, is 4.66%. The standard repayment period for federal loans is 10 years. This will leave you with a $1,492 a month payment. According to owlguru.com, the average starting salary for a fine artist is $20,020 to $31,750 per year. Let’s stick with averages and say $25,885/yr which breaks down to $2157 a month. Now, some simple math says that leaves $665 a month. Uncle Sam is going to grab $250 of that right off the bat, plus some more for FICA, SS, etc.. So basically you’re now trying to rent an apartment, buy food, pay for transportation, clothing, utilities and perhaps go out (probably not) on $400 a month? The average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment across the nation is $1,234.43 according to businessinsider.com. The average rent in NYC is $3374 according to rentcafe.com.
Take a moment, and seriously look at those numbers, and really stop to imagine a life like that; scraping by and hungry, juggling bills, not going out with your friends. One of two things is going to happen. One is that you would put up with nearly anything, that you can’t imagine doing anything else with your life, then that is your answer right there. If instead you think, “fuck that!”, then hey I don’t blame you for one second. And there are plenty of creative, interesting and fulfilling careers in design and other fields that pay reasonably well.
The Application Process
As an adult
Choosing a school Always remember when applying to any program they aren’t just choosing you, you are choosing them too.
Number of Students Student Demographics Art College vs University Art Department Programs School Rankings For Profit vs Not For Profit Cost Career Aspirations (see is an art degree worth it)
Campus Tour Student Housing Facilities and Tools Teachers (see teachers at the top ten art schools)
Application Applying Directly Common Application
References Portfolio Artist’s Statement
Do you want to leverage your creative talents for a somewhat mainstream, well defined job, or do you have grand visions of a messy, paint covered studio where you work away your days? Luckily you aren’t actually making that decision. Going to art school will provide you with all of the tools you need to choose either path after you graduate. Whatever you decide, remember it is YOUR decision and YOUR life. There is no easy answer. There are plenty of poor, happy artists and plenty of poor, regretful artists. But you know what? There’s plenty of rich, happy bankers and plenty of rich, miserable bankers.