10 Questions Parents Should Ask Before Choosing an Art College

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What are the biggest purchases of your life? A car? A house? College can actually cost more than both of these, and will probably play a more significant role in your future than any other purchase you will make.

According to a recent Washington Post article, the most expensive colleges in the country are NOT Ivy Leagues – they are art schools. The author listed the ten most expensive private colleges in the country, which included a few Ivies, but came up with a second list – generated after subtracting the average amount of government and institutional grant/scholarship aid at each institution.

It is shocking to see that the eight most expensive schools in the country, after subtracting the average amount of financial aid at each institution, are art schools and music conservatories. The Art Institute of Chicago tops the list, with a net price of $42,882, with Ringling, The Boston Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, and California Institute of the Arts falling close in line. Although its tuition is rising, MICA was not on the list from 2011-12. Regardless, it is curious that the eight most expensive schools in the country produce graduates in art and music.

If you are asking why these schools are so expensive, you’re asking the wrong question. The right question to ask is, why do consumers pay such a high sticker price for a degree that doesn’t correlate with  high-paying jobs? There are a number of great reasons to go to art school, but there can also be a lot of hype and misinformation involved in this decision as well. Once a graduate starts paying their student loans, what once seemed like a great idea can become tinged with regret. And poverty.

As a consumer, whether a parent or a student, it is your responsibility to educate yourself about the $80,000 – $160,000 investment you are about to make. Successful colleges are great at marketing themselves to you and most students have a strong emotional pull towards one school over another. If you are taking this process seriously, you are visiting potential colleges in person and your first stop will most likely be the admissions office. Admissions counselors are wonderful, smart people who work extremely hard to provide great services but if we are completely honest, they are also salespeople. Their job is to sell the college to you and to make sure each year their school is populated with the best and brightest students possible.

When you visit a school, spend time with admissions counselors and staff and ask every question you can think of. Most college admissions offices have great looking portfolios with helpful resources, statistics, and more information than you can ever process. But beware – there are other stats that colleges keep that are not made readily available to prospective students. For this reason, I asked college counselors, students, and parents to find out – What questions do you wish you had asked before becoming a tuition-paying member of the student population?

1. Employment Statistics. Rather than asking for the employment statistics of recent graduates, which can be padded in a number of ways, including the college’s own hiring practices, ask instead:  What businesses come to recruit on your campus? Although art school does not necessarily prepare you for a white-collar business job, a healthy and well-run school should produce graduates that local, regional, and national companies want to employ. Who are they? How many students, on average, do they hire?

2. Financial Aid. Most private colleges offer need and/or merit-based financial aid and most students say it was just enough to entice them, but not enough to significantly impact the sticker price. Ask: What percentage of students receive financial aid? What is the average amount of need-based awards? What is the average amount of merit-based awards? Ideally, the goal is to find out if they can offer you something better than what they have already offered. Remember, every large purchase has a negotiable price.

3. Full-time, Adjunct, or Graduate Students? Who is teaching the students at the school? What percentage of classes are taught by full-time professors? Adjuncts? Graduate Students? Colleges know exactly, semester by semester, what these numbers are. Knowing that tenure-track professors make about three times what an adjunct makes, does the percentage reflect the tuition price you are paying?

4. Are professors paid enough? If a significant (more than 30%) percentage of classes are taught by adjuncts or graduate students, ask what the salaries are for adjuncts vs. full-time faculty? Also, ask, specifically for adjunct professors, what the job criteria is for hiring them? If you are told it is “department by department,” that means there is no criteria. This means the college can (and does) hire just-graduated MFA’s with no teaching experience. Consider: Are the college’s hiring practices in the best interest of your student? Is this a fair price for your tuition dollars?

5. More on teaching budgets. What percentage of budget goes to teaching vs. the entire operating budget? What does funding go to that does not support teaching? Schools spend a lot of money on all sorts of things – sports, construction, events – so it is important that a school’s values are in line with yours. What do you value? How do you want a school to invest, so that your investment pays off?

6. Proximity and Professors. What percentage of professors live in the same geographic area as the school? It has become a common practice for colleges to hire full-time “commuter” faculty who live in different states, often a train or plane ride away. These professors travel to the college and teach a full-time teaching load of three classes in two days, sleep in campus housing, and then return home for the rest of the week. While it is important for colleges to hire the best professors, this system creates less opportunity for the important relationships, involvement, and learning that happens outside the classroom. It means that less faculty are available to sponsor extra-curricular events and research. And, it also means that commuting professors will not be able to access the local community and opportunities for extending education beyond the campus because they are not a part of it.

7. What percentage of graduates give back to the school? Not only is this an indication of the financial success of graduates, it shows their opinion of the school after graduating.

8. What percentage of students pursue education abroad – outside the country? Study abroad is a marker for a high quality college education. Does your school offer this opportunity to all students? Is it affordable? How many students have the opportunity to earn college credits in another country?

9. What percentage of students are engaged in internships off campus? What are the array of available opportunities to intern or be mentored or employed off campus? How does the college vet a prospective employer for an internship? What are the expectations and parameters of an internship?

10. Is there a Career Development staff and office? How many employees does the office employ? How long do you have to wait for an appointment? What types of services and workshops do they offer? More and more art colleges are adding professional development classes and career services to make their graduates more competitive in the marketplace. This is a must for any prospective art student.

Other suggestions: If you want want to truly know a place, you have to go there and spend time there. When you visit a college,  the admissions office is just the first stop. You should speak to current students, current professors, recent graduates, and career development staff. When touring the campus, ask random students what they think of the place and if they have any complaints about their college. If you have more questions, ask the college for names and email addresses of current students and graduates who would be willing to answer them.

Good luck and happy shopping!

Author Cara Ober is a Fine Arts Graduate (BA) of the American University and holds an MS in Education from McDaniel College and a MFA in Painting from MICA. Her student loans are paid off.

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