Is College Worth it for Creatives?
It's definitely not an unheard of question. In fact, I've heard it more times than I can count; is college worth it, specifically for those in creative fields?
The honest answer is, everyone is different, and some people flourish during their 2 or 4 or more years. There are some fields that absolutely require you to have a degree or certification. My personal opinion, though, is if I had to do it all over again I wouldn't have gone to school.
I remember the college process really well, despite how long ago it was for me (I mean, not that long, but long enough.) I'd applied to some city schools, some state ones, and some art/design colleges - these were the ones I had my hopes up for the most. There were three in particular I really wanted to get into, the School of Visual Arts, Pratt, and Parsons. There had been others, like the Cooper Union but I decided their entrance processes were too time consuming and I didn't make it past the initial app. At the time I was a high school student with a boat load of work to do, plus a job that was wearing me to the bone. I figured with the other three being amazing schools for the arts, I'd be ok, and their app process was much simpler (at the time that is, for all I know it very well could have changed.) I was applying under a fine arts criteria, and I'm pretty sure I just submitted a bunch of sketches of trees that I'd done throughout my HS career, despite being told I had to create new work to submit. But that's part of it too, I know for a fact there were more talented people that didn't get picked and I did. I'm sure they use a balance of artistic skill mixed in with other criteria; test scores, personality etc. But I didn't understand how I essentially faked my way into applying and still got in. Right form the start I had a bad taste in my mouth.
In the end I got into all three of my most hoped for schools and I chose Parsons. Four years really did go by in a snap, but I remember each year so well. Throughout my entire college career I was also working a full time job. I was cramming as many classes into as little days as I could, but as a freshman and sophomore that's extremely hard to do. There were mandatory classes that didn't end until 9pm, and they definitely didn't take into account that some students were commuters, as I was. I wasn't getting home until 10pm from class and I still had homework and either work or school bright and early the next day. The first year was a bit shaky especially, there were several foundation courses I had to take and I didn't feel the descriptions were well written. I ended up signing up for a course that was fashion focused (which is what Parsons is known for, but I had no desire to be in fashion.) But with class names like Time, who really knew what they were getting into? (I actually ended up really liking that class.)
I was surrounded by so many other creative minds for the first time in my life. I thought I'd finally find a place to fit in, but I ended up whole heartedly disliking it. The culture seemed to be that the world owed these people something, and they would create projects meant to 'shock' without anything to back it up. Making art with bodily fluids is great, but if you're doing it to be cool and not referencing the countless other artists that have done it already, are you really just playing with your own pee at the end of the day? Cool, if that's what you like to do. I actually felt my own creativity being sucked out. Being constantly surrounded by people who thought they were the next being thing made me more disgusted than energetic. (Don't get me wrong, of course, there were some great people there, but the majority had a pretentiousness unable to be put into words.) I ended up feeling like my brand of art was 'out' and only computer generated art, or shock factor art had any place in this world. Instead of following my dream of going into fine art, I chose Communication Design & Graphic Arts instead, with the thought that it would at least land me a job in the future.
Going into my second year, I was excited to be done with the foundational core study, and to ready explore graphic design. I'd always had a love for typography and I had this grand idea that I was going to work in magazine layout. I quickly learned that second year would be just as bad as the first. Coding was the bane of my existence, and I had a teacher that couldn't comprehend how some people weren't utterly obsessed with it. I do believe everyone can learn it, but the teaching method has to be tailored since not everyone is going to love coding. I learned this later, because I had a wonderful teacher in my junior year that completely turned my coding skills around, he knew how to translate the mystified language into something that made sense to me, rather than getting angry when I didn't understand something. I guess it's true of all schools, but the teachers were really hit or miss. I had a handful of really dedicated wonderful teachers, who I of course learned the most from, and others that showed up late, seemingly didn't understand their own subjects, or who sounded like their lesson plan for the day had been made at 2am that same morning. The amount of times I ended up in class doing work for my job instead was countless, and it was just so I didn't feel like I was wasting 3 hours of my time. The sad part is, I'm someone who absolutely loves to learn and someone who doesn't mind structure, but I truly felt like I wasn't learning anything half the time. It felt like I was just paying for a piece of paper after 4 years of waste.
I ended up getting an extremely high GPA, which also made me think the college process was all smoke and mirrors. Not that I ever did a bad job, I was always on time with my assignments and showed up for class when I had to etc. But with trying to manage balancing a job too, I definitely didn't put as much effort into my take home projects as I could have, I could just sell it really well in class when presenting. And the teachers ate it up. I ended up feeling really sorry for the students who I knew put an exuberant amount of effort into their work, but didn't have the gab to talk about it and ended up with lesser grades.
The fact that I worked also prevented me from taking internships. But in truth I don't know if I would have anyway. The idea of not being paid to get bossed around doesn't seem like my cup of tea, and in my knowledge of internships the ones that actually teach you something are really rare. Depending on your major or field, they are sometimes necessary, but I found being able to tailor my work experience to give me real world knowledge and skills was more beneficial to me in the end. Nothing teaches you about the world like working retail, customer service, and/or with elitist clientele. The other thing that scared me about internships was; what if I didn't end up in my field? And that's definitely a fair thing to be scared about, I know countless of creatives now in retail management or office jobs, and they’re happier than they were before. Sometimes there's too much competition in the market and you find yourself unable to find a job in your field, and sometimes you liked your major in school but detest it in practice. That can be really devastating, and a lot of post grads go through a crisis where they truly feel lost.
By the way, remember when I said I had the gift of being able to present bad work and make it look good? Well, my karma came back to get me in the end. It was my senior year, and I'd discovered the beauty that was online classes. I no longer had to waste 3 hours of my time per class every week, instead I could zoom through the material on my own time and do my work when it coincided with my schedule. I ended up taking a really fantastic creative writing course, after falling in love with a writing course the year prior, except in that one I was surrounded by frustrated poets - sorry, but it's true. Side note, that first writing class was the first time I'd ever failed anything in college. I failed my first essay and that told me "Oh wow, you can't just skate by here, you have to put max amount of effort in" and it really helped me fine tune my writing, and I was really appreciative that the professor actually cared about the work being produced. Anyways, back to senior year. Aside from my online classes I only had to show up once a week for Thesis. It was beautiful. I had a teacher I absolutely loved, and who encouraged us to forget our major and pick a project to work on that would be fulfilling, as long as it had some aspect that could circle back to communication design or graphic design or typography etc. I decided to write a novella, and to then typeset it and design the cover, while also coming up with a marketing scheme for the book. It was the very first time in my college career I'd thought to myself 'Wow, maybe I actually want to do this, now and maybe even in the future, I love this.' Maybe it was a sudden epiphany, maybe it was because I was doing something for myself with advice from an intelligent professor. This guy built machines in his spare time, he was no joke. Sadly, he didn't return for the second semester, perhaps the soul sucking nature of school got to him too? And I got placed with someone who's personality didn't mesh the best with my own. In fact, on the first day he made me scrap my entire idea and switch it to something I strongly did not want to do, telling me that writing a novella had nothing to do with my major and disregarding the secondary step of typographical layout and marketing planning. In fact, I'd already finished writing the story in my first semester, so the second semester would have been entirely devoted to marketing, but he didn't want to hear it. Fast forward three months and I was presenting to a panel a project I was entirely not proud of but had worked really hard on to try and make it the best I could, it seemed like this professor had had it out for me and I didn't want to give him any reason to give me bad marks, what if I couldn't graduate? But in my presentation it was so clear my heart wasn't in it, what was really killer was one of the judges actually asked why I hadn't done what my original idea was, and I had to lie and say I switched gears. I ended up crying in the back of the room right after my presentation, while another student presented, fingers crossed no one saw.
When I think back to what I learned in school, I think what I came away with was conceptual ideas and software knowledge. But, truthfully I could have easily learned how to use the whole spectrum of the Adobe suite off Youtube, and read blogs about branding and typographical theory. Plus, online you have a plethora of knowledge, not just one person's opinion delegating to 30-300 students. Design is also subjective, so in my humble opinion, there's not really a way to teach good design. I've seen some groups be head over heels in love with their branding that goes against every 'good design' fundamental I've been taught.
At the end of the day, I don't regret my time at Parsons per se, though I wouldn't do it over again. There definitely was some good, and the passionate teachers and students I did encounter were inspiring, though they were few and far between. It's interesting, though, I constantly hear most of my fellow creatives say they wouldn't have gone to school if they knew then what they know now. I'd encourage you, if you're having the college debate with yourself, to ask yourself and answer honestly some questions; will I end up with soul crushing student loans? How sure am I of what I want to do or study? Does what I want to do require a degree? Am I someone who enjoys structure? If you're currently in college, I'd tell you to take from it everything you can, as long as you don't burn yourself out. Sometimes when you put more in you'll get more out. If you make friends with the right peers or teachers, it can definitely help you along the way. Though, networking isn't just limited to those who go to school, if you put yourself into the right social settings you can achieve the same connections.
Hopefully my personal experience can help someone out there decide one way or the other. Again, everyone is totally different and I know some people who adored their college experience. I think it all depends on the personality, and truthfully, what you’re studying. Good luck!