From September 2014 to December 2017 I attended a private art college in Colorado and graduated with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Illustration. This is my take on the school and an in-depth examination of my experiences there. I’m writing this because I often wished I had known this information before I decided to enroll and if it’s beneficial to even one person to feel more confident in their decision to enroll in a for-profit art school (for better or worse) it will have been worth the effort of writing it all up. I plan to vacillate between the pros and cons as I go to give a fair overview, but it’s important to note that these things are not weighed evenly against each other. Please know that these are all based on things that I experienced first hand and will not be discussing anything I learned from any other peers, faculty, or staff that I wasn’t personally involved in.
Now that that’s out of the way, lets dig in. It’s important to note that pretty shortly after starting at the school I secured a federal work-study job in the college’s admissions and outreach department. My job was mostly data entry, authenticating transcripts, shredding documents, and random tasks like sharpening hundreds of pencils boasting the schools name before events. First of all – federal work-study jobs are awful and I don’t recommend them if you can manage. It was good in the sense that they basically let me come work whenever I wanted so long as the work got done and I didn’t really have a super rigid schedule. On the other hand I was only making $7.25 an hour (Federal minimum wage) when Colorado’s minimum wage was $10.50 an hour. To me, this seems criminal. It’s by no means a reflection on the college, but frankly the government should be ashamed. The reason I stuck around was because of the schedule, convenience, and low physical labor, which worked out great for a full time student with a medical disability.
Let’s go back to my job duties for a second. That “data entry” part specifically. I was in charge of importing the information from physical papers into a database where I saw every student’s name, date of birth, address, phone number, social security number, GPA, and financial standing. At the time my naïve self thought I was just very trusted (and rightly so because I’m a trustworthy person), but when I was abruptly called in about 14 months after working there and was told that my position was being eliminated and was technically illegal and never authorized, it kind of made a lot of sense in hind sight. They apologized that nobody had really considered this conflict of interest and admitted that their oversight was lacking, but that was it. I was laid off and they had no other work-study positions available at the time. Suddenly that measly $7.25 an hour actually made a pretty big dent in my financial situation. And to think – I could have stolen so many identities and opened dozens of credit cards to help my situation! Kidding of course.
Having this position up in the administrative side of the school gave me insight into a lot of things most students were blind to. For one, many of the staff members just didn’t do their jobs. This isn’t to say that no one did, or even the majority, but there are certain employees that come to mind that spent a lot more time on snap chat and doing online shopping from their work computers than they did doing their jobs. I witnessed things such as one employee shouting derogatory terms at another employee, as well as many sexually explicit and totally NSFW conversations taking place loudly in open doorways of offices. To me the lack of work was best illustrated by the effort put into a spider web made up of 100’s of paper clips that draped over a rack in the copy room. At one point someone told the work-study (me) to disassemble all the paper clips. A week later the damn thing had been reconstructed.
I don’t want to sound overly negative about the administration. There were definitely a few individuals on the staff that stood out and really strove to make life better for everyone and truly cared about the students. I know some of them were aware of all the dysfunction at the school and were genuinely distressed by it.
The positive thing I will say I took away from this job is that it has in fact given me a variety of work experience and skills from improving my typing speed to learning how to repair and maintain a little $40 paper shredder that is not equipped for the demands of an entire college.
Another thing I learned from my work-study position was that at the time, they were accepting every prospective student regardless of their portfolio. This really irked me because they made everyone put together a portfolio, stress about it, go through a review where they had to answer stressful interview type questions, and wait to hear back. Turns out, that at the time anyways, this was all a façade and that they didn’t really care if you had artistic potential or not as long as they could get money from you. I would hear the interviews taking place every day across the hall and so badly wanted to run into the rooms and pull back the curtain on Oz. What could I do though? I was in too deep. I didn’t want to risk my job, educational standing, or make enemies that would make my life difficult.
I didn’t understand the purpose of this immediately. I was mostly confused why the school paid employees for their time to perpetuate this portfolio myth when they could be paying them to do, you know, useful stuff. I now theorize that the purpose was to inflate the potential student’s ego by making them think: “oh gee, I got in to this highly competitive art school! I must be really talented! They even gave me a merit scholarship for 10% of my tuition! I can’t pass on this opportunity.” The trouble is that once the school had you locked in with financial commitments and you had invested any of your time there it became a trap. Drop out and you’re left with a gigantic balance that is due immediately and no degree. Transfer to another school maybe? Good luck with that. Even if your credits transfer and you navigate the bureaucracy of it all, you still need to pay that balance before they’ll release any official transcripts to the school you’re trying to transfer to. While I was attending, the graduation rate was only about 41%. So you could eat your losses and join the 59%, but you’re someone that doesn’t give up so easily. Plus you’ve invested this time and money so far so you might as well grin and bear it right? This is actually a psychological principal called the “sunk cost fallacy.” You think you’re making a logical assumption and weighing the cost and benefit but really when you’ve invested finances, time, energy, or emotion into something you’re less likely to give up on it and the more you invest, the harder and harder it becomes to abandon ship. For profit schools understand this concept very well and bet on it. Did you fall for it? Don’t worry, I did too.
Speaking of being a for-profit college, there was a lot of news coverage about the schools decline after being acquired by another for-profit university in Florida. This isn’t something I know too much about as it was very hush hush, but as this university came under class action lawsuits, my school’s relationship with them was covered up pretty well – so well that even being privy to a lot of extra goings on of the college I had no idea what was happening with them at any given time. I just know that to me it seemed like some super shady shit.
Of course any college or university’s interest is in making money, and mine was no exception. Their tuition rates are outrageous, but here’s the thing. So are a lot of colleges. Before applying, I compared the cost of several colleges including state schools and even with in-state tuition at those schools, my school’s hybrid program (where you take some of your classes online and some on ground) was of equal cost. I was still eligible for the same federal financial aid regardless, and between the artistic merit and academic scholarships I was offered at my school, it actually wound up being less expensive. That’s not to say it was cheap. I still graduated with approximately $55,000 in student debt, but honestly, for a Bachelor’s degree in 2017, that’s pretty average. Additionally the college offered transportation passes and textbooks built into the cost of the tuition, which the other schools I looked at did not. More on that later…
For now let’s talk about the hybrid program. This is something that has people incredibly divided, and honestly, it’s a grey area for me. Online classes are not specific to this college, and a lot of schools offer them. It all sort of comes down to how you learn and how self-motivated you are. Here’s the problem. I’m not someone who’s very self-motivated to actually absorb material, but it’s easy enough to retain it short term and regurgitate it into some bullshit essay. I took every single non-studio class online and don’t feel like I learned much in any of them, yet never got below a 90%. The structure of the classes was meant to be engaging – a mixture of readings, videos, independent research, forum discussions, and homework. However 99% of the time I was bored to tears by the material. Perhaps this was just me, but judging by the quality of discussions on the forums from most students – I feel like most were doing what I was – putting in the bear minimum to fulfill the requirements without putting in any real effort. Since I didn’t take any of these classes on ground I really have nothing to compare them to, so for all I know it may have been just the same. Here’s what I liked about it though – I liked the flexibility to do it on my own time (relatively), and that because I was able to succeed with minimal effort I was able to really put my all in to my on ground studio classes and challenge myself. After all, art was the thing I was going to college for and one of the reasons I chose a school with a focused illustration department was to get a more art-centric education than I would have in an art program at a state college. Had I taken studio classes online as some of my peers had done I would have been much less happy with the program, but as it stands, it was okay with me.
The only major drawback of the hybrid program for me was that it meant I had absolutely no flexibility in determining my schedule because I had to take the classes when they were offered or risk having to take studio classes online. This was especially frustrating when my schedule would change 2 days before the start of the term because they had to cancel a class due to lack of enrollment. This happened with surprising frequency. Worse yet my advisors (of which I had 4 in my 2.25 years of enrollment) were terrible about communicating these changes. I would frequently not be informed of these things, be misinformed, or be told to come in and figure out a solution only to be stood up despite a Google Calendar reminder confirming the meeting. One time I posted a frustrated passive aggressive comment about the situation in an Instagram caption, and boy, did that get attention! I basically had the whole marketing department clamoring to help solve my problems in hopes that I would remove the bad press. To be fair, they did rapidly get things sorted out much more effectively than anyone else in the administration, so I tip my metaphorical hat to them. Maybe the lesson here is that colleges are just like any other business and the best way to get through to them nowadays is to have a bit of clout and complain on social media.
So back to that textbook/transit pass thing. Midway through my college career the school abandoned both of these programs. That’s fine. They do have it written in the fine print of most of their contracts that they can change anything at any time and are void of any responsibility. Sketchy? For sure. Legal? I don’t even know. The thing is, if you advertise that these things were built into the tuition and then you eliminate them…the tuition should reflect that. This seems very basic to me, but the school didn’t seem to understand this. Instead they billed the textbook fee as a mysterious second technology fee. There was such anger that a petition forced them to concede with the transit pass to grandfather current students into the program. The textbook issue wasn’t so successful, so instead the instructors just gave up on using textbooks for the most part. Suddenly every online class had crudely scanned copies of the readings in PDF format and on ground teachers just shared communal books with students. I didn’t mind this compromise with the textbooks because I’ve never been a fan of breaking my back under the weight of them and digital files are more environmentally friendly, but the principal of the administration trying to get away with this enrages me to this day. On a positive note, it’s times like that when the administration was trying to pull on over on us that the presence of a united supportive community of students and faculty was truly felt.
The school’s administration was clearly more concerned about making money than they were about education, but the worst part is that they didn’t know how to effectively manage the money they had. We had a café in the basement of one of the buildings. They made sandwiches and personal pizzas to order and it was great. The whole place was warm and inviting and a nice place to hang out, spend money, and eat. At some point they decided this wasn’t bringing in enough money so they decided to completely remodel the interior design and change the menu 2 or 3 times, constantly searching for what they had in the first place only to end in a ghastly disaster every time. They’ve done the same thing with the school’s website – constantly spending money to re-do it and leave it a broken UX-disaster shell of what it once was. A much more effective use of that money might be fixing the heating/AC in one building that had no temperature regulation, having the cobweb covered fire extinguishers checked and brought up to code, or repairing the elevators that were always out of order and occasionally dropping a couple feet when they weren’t.
In terms of the faculty, that’s one area where my art college shone, at least in the illustration department. I can’t speak to anything outside of my major. I had so many illustration instructors that were so knowledgeable, kind, and supportive. They gave insightful critiques and often went above and beyond to help work through artistic struggles. Some of them had disabilities and health problems and were kind enough to share their stories and inspire a lot of hope. This particularly touched me as I have my own chronic health struggles and disability so it was not only great to see my instructors succeeding in what they do despite it, but to just have faculty that really understand and can relate. The things I learned regarding marketing and digital art were taught by working professionals who really knew what they were talking about and gave unfiltered advice about the real world in the modern era. They were teachers that would truly bond with you over shared interests. As an anatomy enthusiast and part time zoology preparator, I was always excited to talk about my latest animal necropsies with my favorite anatomy teacher and it was a joy to see the interest reflected back. I feel that I built friendships with my teachers, and I can’t say I ever had that experience in any other school I’ve gone to.
I also made friends with classmates that I would not have thought I had much in common with and wouldn’t have had any reason to meet if not for going to class together. Aside from friends I made other connections at school that I wouldn’t have made on my own. These led to my first art jobs including an illustration in a local magazine as well as a several month long subcontracted job to conceptualize the redesign of a nature preserve’s visitor center. It was also a great learning experience to have my work in the schools galleries when they held juried exhibitions and gave me a little sample of what would be involved in future gallery shows.
The campus itself is a beautiful peaceful place. In the summer there are flowers everywhere and the picnic benches are a sunny inviting place to eat lunch or catch up on work. The winter may be gloomy but it adds to the aesthetic of the campus, which used to be a tuberculosis sanitarium. In October you can go on the ghost tour and learn about the grizzly murder of a nurse that took place right between two of the main buildings and explore the network of underground tunnels that are a sight to behold (with a flashlight). The area that has on and off been the café used to be the morgue back in the day, and you can be regaled by stories of harsh Colorado winters providing a natural freezer for stacks of dead bodies. Basically what I’m saying is the campus is a super charming place to spend so much of your time if you happen to be into gruesome history like me.
I’ve heard a lot about how you can get the same education from an art college on your own online for very little money through a combination of things like Skillshare and Khan Academy, and if that works for you, more power to you, but I benefited a lot from the structure of a traditional art school curriculum. Firstly, it’s hard to know what you need to learn and how to break these things down into elements of design, mediums, subjects, and techniques. Second, it’s very tempting to try to jump ahead to what interests you, but if you haven’t mastered the basics this will halt your progress. This is where art instructors come in very handy because they wont hesitate to stop you, make you try again, and call you on your bullshit. Critiques are an invaluable part of learning any creative field. The common expression is that you “can’t learn in a vacuum”, and it is so true. Having a room of peers (not friends – but objective classmates that aren’t preoccupied with your feelings) to give feedback was so important to my personal development as an artist and a person. Learning to take criticism and rejection is also important for an artist and there’s no better place for a crash course in putting your ego aside than a classroom of students who don’t know you or give a shit about your feelings. Besides that, having the technology, library, and other resources afforded by a college or university is a definite plus.
In summary I think that everyone’s college experience probably has pluses and minuses, and things are never black and white but shades of grey. There were a lot of things that I’ve mentioned that I despised about my art college experience, but I think ultimately the things I loved might have outweighed them. Do I feel lied to and bitter about my experiences there? Yes. Do I have an even longer list of complaints than this small novel delves into? Definitely. If I had to do it all over again would I have changed my mind about enrolling? I honestly don’t know.
Like I said – shades of grey.
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