Recently, there’s been a large societal discussion about the necessity of going to college and, for those interested in a career in illustration, art school. Is it a requirement for better job prospects? Or is it simply a waste of time and money, which may, ultimately, lead to crippling debt? The answer, in my opinion, is: it’s complicated.
First and foremost, it’s worth noting that there are absolutely no requirements for being a professional illustrator. You don’t even need to have a high school diploma, let alone a BFA from a fancy $50k/year art school to make it in this field. The only thing that matters is your work. That being said, an art school education can speed up your learning process, provide you with benefits like visiting lecturers and job connections, and set you up with a network of likeminded individuals who may later become crucial to your professional development. Also, if you are going to support yourself with a full-time job before freelancing, a degree is necessary for any kind of decent salary.
Despite the benefits, though, there are things an art school won’t do. Art school is not a magic bullet for becoming a better artist. Most of art school is self-driven. Yes, class critiques and demos are helpful, but the majority of your education is you at your workstation, alone, practicing your craft—something you could easily do on your own, particularly with the abundance of online tutorials. Art schools may also have incredible faculty, currently thriving in the industry, or they may have professors who have never actually done professional illustration. It’s a crapshoot. Art schools may also have some job placement programs, but it’s not something I would bet on.
So, what do I suggest? Well, knowing all of this information, I still think it’s a great idea to go to art school if you want to pursue a career in illustration—with one important caveat: only if you can afford it. There are some important advantages to receiving an arts education, but not a single one that merits saddling yourself with $200k worth of debt. For anyone in that boat, I’d suggest a state school or community college with some kind of art and design program, supplemented with free and paid online tutorials. At the end of the day, art school—and art in general—is a self-driven pursuit. If you’re willing to put in the hours, it can pay off exponentially and be worthwhile. If not, it may be a massive debt-trap, ballooning into a burden you’ll have to live with the rest of your life. Something worth thinking about if you’re considering pursuing a BFA or MFA.