Columbus Metropolitan Library

“Help! Should I Get A Degree In Art?!”: When It Works & When It Doesn’t

“Help! Should I Get A Degree In Art?!”: When It Works & When It Doesn’t

By Daric Gill

There are times when it makes sense and there are times when it doesn’t. In this article I’ll address some questions surrounding this topic.  First, knowing which questions you’re actually asking is important to finding true answers.

“Do I need a degree to be an artist?”

 “I need to go to college to get a job, right?”

“College is a TON of money!? Is it worth it?

Each question is justifiable and indeed has its own individual answers. There are plenty of views to wade through. This is my attempt to address each one of those concerns and hopefully cut through some of the mental clutter. Of course, I openly encourage you to consider other views to help gauge where you fall on the matter. Read on for more.



Do I need a college degree to be an artist?

The short answer: Depends on what you want to do. Sometimes no, not at all. Sometimes yes, probably. Sometimes yes, definitely. Let’s start thinking about what you want to do.

Before you invest 4-6 years in college, accruing vast amounts of debt, possibly moving cities and upheaving your life, ask yourself the tough questions: Do you actually want to be a full-time creative professional or do you just enjoy it as a form of relaxation? Is this a forced next step or do you truly have an interest in learning more about a field? Do you currently have a lot of life experience in the arts? When you exit into the world, how necessary is the degree for the intended life of your art occupation?

The intention of a college degree is to prove that you know what you are doing in your field. It’s simply a certificate that backs up your knowledge with the reputation of a school. Think about what you want to do eventually. Do you need that certificate or do you just need experience?


Careers Where A College Degree Is NOT Needed
Artist: Morris Jackson

Folk & Outsider Artists: One of the biggest trends in studio art today is work produced by artists who specifically carry no formal education at all. Outsider art, as it’s known, generally has a raw and unrefined aesthetic. ‘Correct technique’ is not the motivator in this area. Personal narratives exist entirely without the weight of art history and technique. There’s also the romantic business attraction from the professional circuit to pluck an untrained artist out of obscurity and showcase them amongst the highest echelon.   AHHA: Arrows Street/Mural Artists/Social Media Influencer: Works of graffiti, city murals, large temporary works, and social media personality reps can be a playground for people with no formal training. And believe it or not, it can be a very lucrative career if done properly. Shop/Booth Arts Entrepreneur: Commercial or small-run production items sold through an online shop (anything in the Etsy model) or small brick-and-mortar retailer doesn’t necessarily require college knowhow. While I could argue that taking a few non-degree seeking business courses would certainly help, a full bachelors degree isn’t needed for this model of business. Additionally, festival/booth artists can be either highly educated or totally self-taught. These types of artists typically work with a lower price point and limited mass-production.  Looking across all artist scopes, the type of buyer and the prices for this type of business doesn’t require a fully integrated academic reach. Real-life experiences and practical applications can be equally informative in this scenario. Again, education is indeed helpful, but not entirely necessary. Some Studio Artists/Artisans: A certain niche of painters, textile artists, sculptors, glass blowers, blacksmiths, etc. can work without degrees. Artisans who specialize in traditional craft areas may find it more appropriate to take workshops or understudy with a mentor than spend the hefty price tag of college tuition. Those of whom have long-term access to glass studios or ceramics studios may find a formal education entirely overkill. Studying under a mentor in real life may provide what higher education has to offer. Interior Decorator: Not to be confused with interior design, the keyword ‘decorator’ signifies a person who makes their living at adorning or decorating a space with fashionable or beautiful things. A decorator creates beautiful spaces using their experience and taste levels, rather than formal education. (Interior designers are not at all the same, read below).  

Careers Where A College Degree IS Needed

Corporate design, animation, or restoration careers: interior design, fashion design, product design, industrial design, illustration design, graphic design etc. all need degrees. These careers study the science, understanding, and proper structural codes that provide technical solutions to a problem using design as well as aesthetic choices. In many cases, designers must be legally certified in a specialty and/or adhere to a strict set of research, analysis, and restrictions so as to protect their consumers. For this reason, the hiring structure is the same as in any other corporate career. While there are exceptions, they are few and far between.  Freelance anything (designer/illustrator/artist/etc) can be either. It’s the wild west. Many people spend years getting a degree so they can perform on a higher platform. Reasons for the jump to a freelance career can vary from ditching that corporate job to working as a consultant for many high-end companies at once, all the way to the entry-level graphic designer doing their first paid gig for the local high school. Payscale is typically directly related to the experience level or degree. Illustrators who are freelance might not need an education if they earned their chops in some other way. This can be said for all freelance or self-propelled art industries, studio careers included. However, working for people like Disney or Dreamworks is highly competitive. Naturally, an equally competitive upper-hand may be needed.

Warhol at The Schumacher Gallery

Career Studio Artists: Gallery representation, internships, museum exhibitions, artist residencies, grant proposals, fellowships, etc. typically request a resumé along with the artist’s portfolio. A studio artist who wishes to follow these sorts of avenues has a competitive edge with a degree. These markets may also appreciate an academic background to promote an artist’s intellectual voice. Knowing how to investigate one’s own work and articulate it to important figures takes years of practice. The typical professional reviewing your work is often a fellow educated artist, historian, curator, and investor who may expect that type of personal achievement. Also, having a controlled environment to fail and succeed with peers helping you along the way is a very valuable resource. Professional tutelage of some kind may break down those brick wall moments in the learning process. Art Educators: If you want to be an art teacher in a conventional educational system, you need a degree. Sometimes two. Colleges and universities often require their teachers to have a master’s degree to teach at their institution.

Ok. But Money. Is it worth the price?

No. But then again, neither is love, traveling, having kids, or anything intangible like this. Colleges charge a crazy stupid amount for schooling. If you’re looking for something fiscally responsible, good luck finding ANY career that is an immediate profit above cost.

Yes. It is worth it if you’re interested in pursuing knowledge with the nice little side effect of a possible career in something you are passionate about.

Why accrue $150,000 of debt for a job that may pay only $30,000 a year? 

Don’t go to school to get a job. Go to school to learn.

Just like any other profession, it doesn’t make fiscal sense to spend a fortune for college if the intention is most likely going to be side income or you don’t intend on competing in the highest level of the occupation. Instead, save that income and put it towards your small business.

So, are you going to college with the goal to get a job or education?

College is a privilege; so too is the life-time of education. It is my strong opinion that the biggest problem with our job market (the watering down of college degrees and overly educated but underemployed graduates) is the entire belief structure regarding the end goal of a college education.

Columbus Metropolitan LibraryIf you get an education in something you deeply enjoy, you will always have that. Our society views higher education as a way to secure a stable job with a stable income in the future. As I mapped out earlier, this is partially true. But realistically, that’s not always a guarantee, is it?  If there’s anything that the past 40 years can teach us, it’s that we have a whole workforce dedicated to hating their occupations for a lifetime with the prized carrot being retirement (AKA not doing that job they hate anymore).

This is a case of mild monetary successes resulting in personal failure. Paying debts using a job that requires debt is a soulless cycle if you don’t enjoy what you are doing. However, passionately finding worth through knowledge does make sense, regardless of the occupation afterward. Creating a workforce that values this process will hopefully also result in a change of overly inflated college costs. Free or reasonably priced online resources are already remodeling how our world feels about affordable education. The cost pendulum is swinging.

Be Responsible

Costs are high, I get it. Pursuing grants and scholarships, residing in-state, applying for stipends/teaching assistantships/studio assistantships, and gaining employment during school are among the best way to counter heightened educational costs. Pick a school that suits you and your budget.

Can you learn a given topic online for free? Are you someone who can create their own curriculum? Do you have life experience that is worth the education? Can you make those life experiences happen using what you have at your disposal? All of those are questions that can help prepare you for the art workforce, whatever your background.

Sometimes getting the degree is required. Sometimes it’s not. There are always exceptions to a rule. There are plenty of people who fly their own path of success. This is simply my take on how one may start to navigate the tricky questions surrounding such a heavy topic.

I’m happy with my 2 degrees… and their debt. And would do it again. I still might do it again.

You can find more free articles like this on my Artist Resource page. My mission is to provide free and accessible tools for artists, educators, and enthusiasts. I encourage you to share and refer people here as often as you wish. Naturally, these articles take many hours to thoroughly research and write. If you’d like to support me as an artist and advocate, please consider donating whatever you can. Thank you!

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