Quality Education: Lessons After Art School

Laura Schell


As I shuffled across the stage to receive my diploma the anxiety was already mounting. How am I going to pay off the $70,000 it cost me to get through art school? A small crowd of family and friends whistled and wailed my name so I put on a smile. If only they knew in a few short weeks I would be asking them to help with rent. In retrospect, I realize my decision to go back to school deserved more thought and extensive research. Can’t cry over spilled change but I can help others avoid making the same decision without contemplating the consequences. Here is the information I came across that every perspective college student should know before taking the plunge into higher education. And for those already in the deep end, you may want to avert your eyes.

The amount of money Americans owe in student loans recently surpassed the nation’s credit card debt. Before students decide to take on student loan debt they should consider if the amount borrowed is relative to their expected starting salary. Otherwise how is the debt going to be repaid? Unfortunately, more and more students are turning a blind eye to the cost until after they have acquired the debt, and many students are abusing financial aid by taking out private loans for extravagant lifestyles. But shouldn’t there be some responsibility on the part of the debtor to make sure repayment is a possibility? Should financial aid be so accessible? Not once was I asked by my financial aid counselor how I planned to repay my loans after I graduated. Now I realize I have few options. The economic downturn has caused high unemployment rates spiking to 10.6% last year and only creeping to 8.7% this spring, which makes for a discouraging job market, especially for artists.

Tuition costs continue to rise astronomically. In the next year it is estimated that tuition will go up another 4.7% and I can’t help but wonder why so many continue to invest in higher education. With the job market looking bleak many students, fresh out of undergrad, thought it wise to skip the job search and pursue higher education in hopes that by the time they get their masters degree the market would have improved and they would be more prepared and qualified for jobs in a higher pay bracket. The flaw lies in basic economics—supply and demand. As long as there is a rising demand for higher education, schools will supply it at costs that match the demand. The demand is steadily rising because students can easily receive financial aid and think about the cost later.

I recently came across a video released by the National Inflation Association called “College Conspiracy” that claims that the value of higher education in America is rapidly deteriorating. According to NIA, college is the only thing in America besides the cost of healthcare that did not at least temporary decline in price during the financial crises of 2008. The reason is inflation. The US Government with the backing of the Federal Reserve is continuing to print money, which only decreases the value of the dollar, and then giving that money to Americans through easy lending practices such as mortgages and student loans with high interest rates. They can promise every American a home and education, but at what costs?

Not being able to pay back your student loans can lead to ruined credit and the government garnishing wages and tax returns. Filing for bankruptcy is not an option. “You are an indentured servant,” claims Gerald Celente director of the Trend Research Institute. “You have to pay it back. There is no way out. That’s the system.” NIA suggests the government leave the student financial aid business so that private banks can offer competitive loans at reasonable interest rates. But these banks would need to be sensitive to the time a graduate may need to pay back the loan and only lend to students who are most likely to pay them back over a realistic period of time. As a result, many students would no longer qualify for financial aid forcing colleges to make their programs more affordable or close. It would be a hard pill to swallow because it is improbable that the solution will yield immediate results and therefore many Americans will lose the opportunity to receive higher education. The focus needs to be on the long-term positive results.

A combination of lowered education standards and easy lending has caused an increase in college enrollment. The value of a college degree decreases if everyone is able to obtain one. Which is why people are now deepening their debt even more for graduate school. High enrollment rates only oil the education machine with money. Non-profits spend this money on the construction of larger facilities and more technology to accommodate more students. For-profits use the money to satisfy their shareholders. (See Quality Education Part 3). Rarely is the investment to better the quality of education offered. 95 percent of college graduates interviewed by the NIA said that their college degree was not a determining factor to their success. It was found that most people gained marketable skills through resources outside of school. So what are they teaching us?

As artists, we can learn the skills of craft up to a certain point, but there is a business side to the art world as well.  A huge determining factor to our success is learning how to be professionals. As a graduate student at a top art school in Chicago, I expected to learn self-marketing techniques and to take career-oriented classes. Instead I found a limited course list of vague class descriptions. I look back on my experience with mixed feelings. Many of my classes were unstructured with an anything-goes type-attitude. I understand and respect the open-minded, laissez-faire culture being cultivated there, but it was hard for me to gauge what the education was worth. What I gained were the valuable connections with other working artists, a platform for discussing my work, and a tough hide from critiques. I took it upon myself to use resources from the school’s Career Services to find internships, believing I would have a more beneficial experience than through classes offered within the school. Still I can’t help but feel some buyer’s remorse, like I purchased expensive designer sunglasses when the cheaper ones work just as well. Are top art schools offering a curriculum that lives up to their reputation? Or are students in for a wild ride on the bandwagon? In Part 2 of this article I talk to students and administrators from two of Chicago’s top art schools about the tough reality that all art students will have to face graduating in this economy.