College – no ROI?

The most common money-related mistake artists make is a reluctance to invest in their own careers. (Michelangelo)

These days, going for a four-year degree doen’t make much sense for graphic or fine artists. Colleges are graduating far, far more folks in fields like Art (any kind), Psychology, and Communications than there are jobs for. And the degree you go for might pay a lot today, but near zero four years from now, like the whipsaw rise-and-fall in job prospects for petroleum engineers. Luckily, as an artist, there will always be a need for images, still or motion.

What do employers want?

Surprisingly, they really don’t care about what you learned in college. Or about your degree, according to a very large study by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Number One – they want you to have experience working for someone else, so they don’t have to train you.

Number Two – they want you to have experience as a paid or unpaid Intern (see the next chapter).

Number Three – they greatly value employment experience you had during college, like doing anything art-related.

To employers, nothing else even comes close to these top three. They don’t care about your grades, extracurricular activities, or what college you went to. If you don’t want to end up like the 70% of all graduates NOT working in their field of interest, read the next chapter very carefully!

Most of what you learn in high school and college is a waste of time. Last time I used trigonometry, I was trying to practice navigation, sailing in San Francisco Bay – and ended up in the middle of Marin County. Diversity? I don’t need to take an expensive college course to learn that it’s bad to be a racist, sexist pig. These days, many students (and their parents) are wondering whether a four-year college degree is worth the cost. But some schools – particularly junior colleges – offer trade-specific instruction that gives you a real head start on a new career. America’s junior colleges are an amazing cost bargain... take those near-free Photoshop and Illustrator courses! However, if you have more money, consider excellent schools that offer two-year AA certificates in Graphic Design. Example: the AOS course at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Set to get you out to work fast, not a transfer-to-a-bachelors course, like their AAS certificate. Besides practical software skills, you’ll learn about typography, graphic design, packaging design, digital media, advertising design, and UI/UX design... courses taught by NYC professionals, and you’ll end up with a great portfolio ready to show to top firms in Manhattan just across the East River. Studying in New York City – heart of our communications empire – has tremendous networking and job seeking advantages. Best place in the world for a graphic arts student.

In business, it’s called ROI – Return On Investment. Basically, what do you get for your money? How long does it take to pay back borrowed startup money (student loans) – and then, what’s the payoff on the investment (your salary when you get a job in the field you studied for)? As an extreme example, would you charge up $120,000 for a Bachelor’s degree in Gender Studies from Stanford or Duke? Not much ROI there!

If you’re working as a newspaper production artist, paid $35,000 a year with your boss telling you how lucky you are to get it, that $90,000 you owe for a four-year university Graphics Design BA. Or, God help us, for a Communications degree. Favorite of football players and lazy rich kids. No ROI there, none at all... because for all the word-vomit theory, you haven’t learned any specific job skills at all. You can’t even delude yourself that times will get better; for you, they won’t. Newspapers, low-paid to start with, are failing right and left. Do I hear Craigslist for classified ads?

But Michelangelo was right. You have to invest in yourself. Because to succeed as an artist, you have to know how to do art. You’ve already got the first, and most important, building block – you can draw. But you have to learn the specific skills to turn your sketches, your ideas, into tangible, marketable products – paintings, ads, brochures, web pages, illustrations, animations, and graphics for videos.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean an MFA degree from Harvard (Master of Fine Arts). Which would help if you want to be an art teacher, or a museum curator. But that’s not where we’re going today. And relax – the skills you need aren’t on an Ivy League cost level. Far from it. Many important skills actually can be learned at your local community college... and, surprisingly, at home... self-study. We’ll go over the specific skills in a later chapter. Here, let’s keep talking about educational costs. And, a little further on, I’m going to show you a way to get that art-skills education totally for free. At the end of the next chapter, Magic Secrets!

Degree anxiety

There’s a lot of pressure to get a four-year degree, if not a Master’s. Why? First, because lots more people are getting college degrees today than ever before... and the quality-levels of degree holders are going down, as most universities have dumbed-down core courses, so that their high-tuition-paying students will actually graduate, instead of burning the place down. But all those new degree-holders depress salaries in the workplace. These days, so many new Psychology bachelors and masters degrees, but so few new jobs. Supply and demand.

“Jon,” says Professor Kelley, who teaches Acting for Film at a major Los Angeles university, “It’s not like when you went to college. The students grade ME! And if they don’t like the grades I give them, they – and their parents – complain to my Dean.

“It actually doesn’t matter,” he continues. “Because I can give them all A’s and the grades won’t help one bit when they are after a job in Hollywood. It’s the skills! No skills, no job. I’m here to teach the skills, but all they want are easy grades! They just don’t understand that the grades aren’t important. In my world, nobody cares what grades you got at college. It’s what can you do.”

Now, Hollywood’s a tough place, where you’re only as good as your last project. It’s a different story, much easier, if you’re job-hunting at a large corporation. But with a flood of graduates banging on the doors, what’s an overworked HR department to do? Floods of resumés! What’s the first filter: got a degree? Because no HR manager ever got in trouble with their bosses for asking for a degree. After all, doesn’t that get us better-qualified people?

Well, no. Not necessarily. It gets you workers who did what they were told for four years. If that’s what they want, way it is. But in the meantime, there’s a workaround. If you have a highly desirable brand-new art skill, like ‘AI prompter for corporate branding’ or ‘Photoshop AI content creator’ – just go ahead and apply for the job. The job rec might say ‘needs Masters degree’, but who cares. You’ll need to get past the HR department resumé screeners and contact the actual head of the hiring group – marcom, techpubs, whatever. THAT person will be VERY excited to talk with an applicant with the skills she needs. And she can immediately get the HR people to rewrite the job rec to say ‘Masters degree or equivalent experience’, after you’ve interviewed with her team and they want you. Actually, what every manager wants is somebody with common graphic arts skills who will work hard, stay late now and then, and get along with her team.

But there are Magic Secrets, if you absolutely have to have that 4-year degree and don’t have a zillion dollars to pay a university... or if you can’t learn on the job (best of all) or at a junior college. See the next chapter!

(note: for a full ROI discussion, check out Peter Cappelli’s ‘Will College Pay Off?’ book. Excellent.)

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