Is Art School Worth the Money? Do You Need an Arts Degree?

Art school is a major investment in both time and money but does having an art degree enhance your career? Will it pay back your investment or are you just hoping for the best?

You don’t need an art degree to find success. Art school is useful for networking and making useful connections within the art world. Art degrees by themselves will not guarantee you a job or make you a better artist.

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

Do Artists Need an Art School Degree to Succeed?

I’ll be blunt, no you definitely don’t need an art degree to succeed.

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 your 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. Art school cannot make a poor artist into a good one.

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

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

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 publicize itself. It needs celebrity artists to perpetuate this nonsense, not master artists who can paint.

So if few artists benefit from the art degree merry-go-round, it begs the question as to why an art degree is worth paying for.

In the real world where creativity and craft combine, results are all that matters. 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 degree.

Success with art requires the right mindset, it’s no different from any other discipline. Put in the hours and practice and you will hone your craft.

It helps to have guidance along the way but paying for a degree is by no means a guarantee. For most artists, Youtube will offer more practical advice.

An art degree does not matter.

Why Do Students 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 get a job

Well, art students often have fun but is that really enough reason to go to art school? Just because you want a social life?

Teens make immature life choices and what seems right at the moment will make them groan at their decision a few years later.

The problem is the treadmill of false expectations and the peer pressure that guides youngsters into making the wrong choices.

I remember my family glibly stating that I’ll go to art school and be an artist when I grew up. Back then education was free and it didn’t seem important. Sadly, it’s still a meaningless encouragement but 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 dedicate one whole year to teaching myself.

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

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

art graduate
Do you know what to expect?

Either way, a student can end up spending a great deal of time and money studying things that are irrelevant, and with little to no value to them. There are only a few top colleges out there, most are mediocre with teachers who are themselves mediocre.

A student should try to weigh up the cost, quality and accessibility of teachers when looking for an Art School or College.

There are hundreds of art colleges in North America and the UK and surprisingly very few that offer students the opportunity to succeed.

How can you learn your craft from teachers who have less talent than their students? Who needs a professional critic? All they do is tell you what they think is wrong, and what they think would be better. Tutors have enormous influence and power over you but their opinions are all subjective.

Further Reading: Can Anyone Learn to Draw?

Most people learn by example but instruction is not the modern way. A student must find their own path and supposedly free up their minds. All very well if you are mature enough to have some a sense of direction and purpose.

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 of 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?

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 students, horribly in debt and following a useless degree.

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

What is the Cost of Attending an 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 masters.

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

Yearly Tuition/Fees in the USA for a BA degree averages 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 degree another 2 years.

You still have boring 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, your are under qualified for anything good and over qualified 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 – very unlikely, you don’t need a degree
  • A teacher. Yep.
  • A curator or researcher for museums – this requires experience and a masters degree.
  • Graphic Designer – poor salery 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, 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.

Further Reading: 15 Ways to Get Better at Drawing

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

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 courses – Skillshare and Udemy have many courses available. Many of the larger art marketing websites offer tutorials too. There are so many to choose from. I signed up to Patreon see some drawing tutorials by an artist I admire. I found him on Instagram. I paid $10/month.

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

In Conclusion

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

You will tie yourself up in serious debt for 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 and spent a fraction of the amount you need for a degree and bought lessons privately, you will 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 its 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 self-taught professional artist/illustrator who has lived the life.

My art has taken me around the world with no qualifications besides the quality of my work and a work ethic. It’s all that matters.


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