Is Art School Worth it? Is it a Waste of Money?

is art shool worth it  Art student painting

Art school is a major investment in both time and money but does having an art degree enhance your art career? Is art school worth it, will it pay back your investment, or are you just hoping for the best? This is the answer, in short…

Art school is useful for networking and making connections within the established art world. It’s great socially. A college degree does not guarantee a job or a career path beyond teaching art. For most students, art education is a poor investment.

In other words, borrow money with your eyes open. In this post, I will answer the most common questions people ask.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

Do Artists Need an Art School Degree to Succeed?

I’ll be blunt, artists do not need art degrees to have successful careers.

It’s far more important to have an ability, or natural talent if you will, and develop it. Your attitude, aptitude, and work ethic are much more important than a bachelor’s degree.

It is much better for an artist to be good at what they are doing and work hard rather than just going through the motions of taking classes.

Freelancers with a good portfolio will always be able to find work. Higher education cannot make a poor artist into a good one.

A degree from the best art school might, and I emphasize might open a few doors in the right places. The art world is an elitist, self-contained, and exclusive world and it’s all about who you know and not what you can do.

You have to be the right type of person to play the system.

Student visiting an art school exhibition.
Can you play the system?

Traditional art skills and talent have few admirers within the system. Representational and aesthetic art is dismissed as yesterday’s news, a generic pastiche from the past for those people who can’t move on.

Bad teachers are intimidated by talent, it threatens their credibility and status. It’s in their interest to play down the importance of skills in favor of statements.

You know what they say:

“Those who can do, those who can’t teach”

And that was never more true than in the art world.

And who dictates what is good and bad art? The establishment with a vested interest in churning out showbiz garbage for the rich to buy as speculative investments.

Make no mistake, the art world is a marketing machine that promotes controversy and entertainment to court publicity. It needs celebrity artists to perpetuate this nonsense, not artists who can paint.

So if few artists benefit from the art degree merry-go-round it begs the question, why pay for one?

In the real world where creativity and craft are intertwined, the results are all that matter. Concepts and metaphors are for the self-indulgent.

A freelancer must show a client what they can do and follow through on commitments, that’s all that anyone cares about. No one really gives a fig about your master of fine arts degree, they care about results.

Successful artists have the right mindset, Put in the hours, hard work, and practice and you’ll hone your skills. It helps to have guidance along the way, but paying for a degree is by no means a guarantee you’ll learn anything useful.

For most artists, local art classes, online classes, or even Youtube will offer more practical advice.

An art degree does not matter.

This course is on Domestika. You won’t get better in many art schools.

Why Do Young Artists Go to Art School?

Students go to art school for very simple and naive reasons:

  • They assume that the tutors will teach them how to draw and paint.
  • It’ll be fun and they’ll party
  • They’ll get some kudos
  • They’ll spend all day painting and creating
  • An art degree will help them in their future career

Well, art students often have fun but is a social life a good enough reason to go to art school? Teens make immature life choices and what seems right in the moment can backfire a few years later.

The problem is the treadmill of false expectations and peer pressure that guides youngsters into making ill-informed decisions.

I remember my family glibly stating that I’d go to art school and be an artist when I grew up. Back then higher education was free in the UK and the financial consequences were unimportant. Sadly, parents still offer the same advice except now it costs a fortune.

I was conditioned into thinking that real artists are trained in art school. I had no idea that art was a life choice for anyone with the right aptitude. That didn’t even occur to me until I was stuck on a factory line thinking there must be a better life than this.

I skipped a free education and still succeeded. Not because I was trained but because I dedicated one whole year to teach myself how to paint.

Too many parents still have that narrow preconception of what an artist is and what an art degree means. If they realized, they’d vote with their wallets and the art establishment would have to change.

What Can You Expect to Learn in Art School?

Few students appreciate that a college degree is not like an apprenticeship. A Bachelor of Arts degree is mostly academic and involves studying art history, literature, and psychology, and is not the creative experience they might’ve imagined.

A fine arts degree is more practical and hands-on, with liberal arts still occupying about a third of the course.

an art student graduating from art school
Do you know what to expect?

Either way, an art student can end up spending a great deal of time and money on a formal education with little to no value to them. There are only a few top art colleges out there, most colleges are mediocre with teachers who are themselves mediocre.

A student must weigh up the costs and gauge the quality of the teachers before committing to an art college. Research the teachers online and view their body of work. It’ll give you an idea of what to expect from their tuition.

There are hundreds of art colleges in North America and the UK and surprisingly very few offer students any direct business training.

One successful American artist I follow is Stephen Bauman who trained at the Florence Academy of Art. His style is very classical, not always to my taste in subject matter, but flawless in his technical skills and application.

I admire his extraordinary talent very much but what does he do for a living after all that expense? He teaches, first at the academy and now online. He learned his craft in Florence, undoubtedly for a considerable amount of money, and ends up teaching anyway.

What makes more sense, spending tens of thousands of dollars for a classical education or taking one, or more, of his online courses for less than $100?

His portrait class below currently costs $99 and you are learning from the best. You can find this course on Proko.com. Take a look.

But let’s face it, few students are heading to Florence for their tuition, they’re looking for something closer to home where the choice is limited and the tutors are less inspiring.

How can you learn your craft from teachers with less talent than their students? Tutors have enormous influence and power over their students but their opinions are all subjective.

This is relevant to the question: Can Anyone Learn to Draw?

Most people learn by example and if the teacher can’t instruct, they can only criticize. A student must find their own path and supposedly free up their minds.

That’s all very well if you are mature enough to have a sense of direction and purpose, but the irony of finding your own way is that unless you follow your tutor’s bias you might fail your degree. What freedom is that?

Most students do not have the option to express themselves in traditional media. Of course not, how can a tutor justify their position if you are capable of painting without their input?

All they know is subjective expressionism and you are expected to pay for their opinion. How is that of benefit to anyone?

This will help: This is How to Sell Abstract Art: A Practical Guide For Artists

Most art schools will neither offer you any valuable training nor any marketing skills to prepare you for life when you leave.

They do offer an end-of-year show, well whoopee-do.

Tutorials, mentorship, guidance? You’ll be lucky.

I live in a town with a recognized art school and I meet so many disillusioned art school students, horribly in debt, and following a useless degree.

For the most part, you’re on your own.

What is The Cost of Attending Art School? 

A BA degree in the UK (2021) will cost you £9,250 per year in tuition fees plus living costs averaging £12,200 per year. In reality, add another £3000 for living in London. Add another year for your master’s.

Say goodbye to at least £22,000 a year for 3-4 years.

Yearly Tuition/Fees in the USA for a BA degree average at:

  • $9,687 – Public in-state
  • $21,184 – Public out-of-state
  • $35,087 – Private

Add the average yearly room and board costs for students living away from home:

  • $9,800 Public
  • $11,100 Private

A degree takes 4 years in the States and a Masters’s degree takes another 2 years.

You still have living costs, don’t forget.

The numbers are eye-watering. How is that an investment opportunity? You’d be better off buying Bitcoin.

Art school is not for the faint-hearted or those who are cash-strapped.

What Jobs Require an Arts Degree?

So what does a fine art degree train you for? Very little unless you want to teach the same stuff to your peers.

The problem with an art degree is that it’s just a piece of paper, you are underqualified for anything good and overqualified for menial jobs.

An art degree qualifies you to stare at art all day and critique it.

These are the obvious careers:

  • A professional artist – is very unlikely and you don’t need a degree
  • A teacher. Yep.
  • A curator or researcher for museums – this requires experience and a master’s degree.
  • Graphic Designer – poor salary with so much competition online. A degree is not important
  • Illustrator – I’m an illustrator and I didn’t need college.
  • Photographer – All you need is a good camera and a good eye. A degree is irrelevant
  • Animator – competitive and some technical instruction is useful. No need for a degree.
  • A printmaker – An art school gives you time, studio space, and equipment but you don’t need a degree

What Are The Alternatives To Attending Art School?

So, you’ve decided not to attend art school. Great! You’re in luck because there are a number of different opportunities for professional development that are far less expensive.

All you need is some talent, a passion to succeed, and the drive to pursue your career goals.

These are some alternatives to attending art school:

Workshop training – This is often offered by artists who are recognized experts in their field. Classes put you in contact with other like-minded people and it helps to keep you motivated.

Online coursesSkillshare, Domestika, Proko, and Udemy have many video courses available. Many of the larger art marketing platforms offer tutorials too. There are so many to choose from.

Read these for more info:

I signed up for Patreon to follow some drawing tutorials by an artist I admire. I found him on social media and paid $10 per month for access to his past lessons. A bargain.

Here’s an example from Udemy. They offer courses on everything imaginable and they are ALWAYS offering sales.

This class is by Brent Eviston who offers multiple courses on both Udemy and Skillshare. Check him out.

The art and science of Drawing by Brent Eviston on Udemy
Brent Eviston on Udemy and Skillshare

And there is Domestika where the standard is often very high indeed. It’s not expensive, the site has rolling sales and discounts, so I’m not sure anyone ever pays the full price. What I love is not only the standard but the site itself, it oozes professionalism.

But there’s a catch. Most courses, but by no means all, are in Spanish with either subtitles or dubbed into English. This a minor point and I know it will put some people off, and that’s a pity because they are missing out.

Naturalist illustration techniques: Whales in watercolor on Domestika
Expressive animal portraits in watercolor on Domestika
Naturalist bird illustration with watercolors on Domestika

Proko has positioned itself as a slightly more premium marketplace and some of its tutors charge slightly more for their courses. They do have very good artists but no better than the best on Domestika, in my opinion. You’ll have to compare them yourself.

Youtube – Why pay for instruction that’s given away for free? Youtube tutorials are a great way to get started, learn, and hone a skill. Many lessons are teasers for more lessons elsewhere, but that’s fine.

Private tuition – is probably the nearest you will ever get to an apprenticeship. Employing someone to teach you art can be expensive but it provides a range of benefits: one on one instruction, hands-on learning, and access to expert opinion.

Publications – Art magazines and books are invaluable sources of new ideas, inspiration, and instruction. I learned how to paint pastel portraits from a book called ‘Capturing Personality in Pastel’ by Dennis Frost.

An internship – You can try your luck. If you have a passion for pottery or printmaking you might persuade an existing potter or printmaker to give you some work experience.

Nothing beats practice: How to Get Better at Drawing: 15 Ways to Improve Your Art -FAST

A lack of good company and fellow students is the only drawback to not being in a teaching environment. It really is hard to work by yourself and maintain your motivation. We thrive in a social atmosphere and working from home, or alone in a studio, is challenging.

Is Art School Worth it? Final Thoughts

If you’ve reached the end of this article you’ll know the answer. I think an art degree is a waste of money.

You will tie yourself up in serious debt for an obvious return on your investment. That will be a noose around your neck for many years.

Art school is an expensive social life. Take a year off and go backpacking if you want a good time.

If you borrowed money and bought lessons privately, you’d learn more about art, for a fraction of the cost, in a shorter period of time.

You have to ask yourself, do you want to learn an art trade or do you want a degree?

If it’s the former, don’t throw away your money on art school. If it’s the latter choose a different degree, one with employment prospects.

If a degree is not opening doors, it means nothing.

But, this is my opinion, and open to challenge. You should seek advice from elsewhere and get another perspective.

My one qualification is that I’m a self-taught professional artist who has lived the life.

My art has taken me around the world with no qualifications. I can draw and have a work ethic. It’s all that matters.


crocodile pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Monster Croc’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit:

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Forget about art school. You can start your own art business and you don’t need a degree, that’s for sure. Take a look!

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If You Want to Sell Your Art

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