Friday, March 26, 2010

What is College Worth?

Was it worth it?
When I was ten years old I came to my mom, anxious and upset. She asked me what was wrong and I said, "Mom, I don't know what college I want to go to."

At the time my mother thought my worries were both heartrending and adorable. Now I wonder if it wasn't an alarming example of what our current society is doing to learning.

Our social system puts so much pressure on kids to succeed. To study, gain information, get good grades on tests so that they can score well and get into a good college.... and then what?

Colleges in the United States seem to be suffering a case of confused identity. The majority still attempt to stand as bastions of advanced learning and thought, yet they pander to the helicopter parents, lazy students, and a passionless student body so that they can continue to raise enrollment and there by their ever increasing tuition fees. They are building a conveyor belt style of teaching that may work for some but is hardly worth the thousands upon thousands of dollars colleges demand.

Even at a school heralded for its challenging programs, MCAD classes were hit or miss at best. There were several classes, especially in the liberal arts department that I could breeze through on bullshit alone.

I distinctly remember the few professors I had who demanded more from me than just turning my assignments in. My GPA suffered from those few teachers but I felt satisfied and content with my grade, like I had actually accomplished something. They demanded more from me, pushed me beyond my comfort zone and showed me wonderful possibilities, some of which I didn't learn to fully appreciate until months later.

But their passion was rare. There seem to be two sides to higher learning. The avenue of career advancement and the exploration of learning for knowledge's own sake. Both are necessary, but too many colleges try to balance these without acknowledging that either exist as distinct paths.

I learned a lot in college, I can acknowledge that. But for the thousands of dollars I, and my parents have spent there are a few real world skills that I wish had been included in my education...

  • How to write a resume
  • How to make business cards
  • How to write a cover letter
  • How to present myself at an interview
  • More than one solid class in drawing anatomy

Sometimes I wonder sometimes why we seem to have done away with the apprenticeship model of education. If so many of us are focused mainly on getting a job, why do we have to spend thousands of dollars on a mostly theoretical education?

What do you think? High school or college, what wasn't covered in that should have been? Should colleges be more career focused or should they focus on learning for learning's own sake? and what about apprenticeships?


  1. Good first article Alison, but I really disagree with a lot of what you're saying.

    Having lazy and passionless students is hardly the fault of the college. It's not the universities job to get students excited about what they're learning, ideally students should major in what they're already passionate about, and if they aren't excited about what they are doing then it's their own fault.

    Using your example of bull shitting in liberal arts classes as a way the university is catering toward lazy students is something else I disagree with. The teachers can lay out questions and assignments that may be easy to get through, but again it's up to the student to MAKE it challenging,to re-create the assignment so it forces them to work, learn, and improve. This was one of my pet peeves while at MCAD and Nikki Cook's resent blog post about MCAD totally sums up the topic perfectly, "“My teacher doesn’t teach me anything.” Too bad. Learn to ask better questions, or get other teachers. Learning how to make art is on you, not them." (post is here: ). If a student can't learn how to make an assignment worth their while then it's not the fault of the teacher or the university, rather the fault of the student being lazy (and can probably be rooted back into parent's not teaching their kids they have to work for an education, and making it worth their while). (that's another topic all together...)

    I'm pretty sure your professional practice class was different than mine, because I learned ALL of those (resume, business card, cover letter, and interview tips) while at MCAD. Not only did we discuss those in professional practice, but Career Services went through and critiqued what we had and made our resume/cover letters better. So I guess I'm not disagreeing with you that you wish you had learned those in your education, but I'm saying the resources (Career Services, Learning Center, office hours of your professors) were there. And in a way, by paying for college you were paying for those resources which were more than readily available for you to use. Along with anatomy classes. I know I missed out on one of the required anatomy classes (drawing 2 I think?) by transferring in, but anatomy was covered in at least two other classes, and many of the other classes touched base with it and gave good resources about it (thank you Terry Beatty for all the Andrew Loomis handouts!). And for the whole school year there was FREE life drawing on Sundays and Mondays which is just as valuable as any class when it comes to learning anatomy.

    I think it's all about what students want to major in. If they're interested in a career after college, then maybe going to a career focused school would be better than spending thousands of dollars to major in art.

  2. Learning for the sake of learning is best... welllllll... it use to be. Along time ago it use to be that no matter what you got a degree in, you could find a good paying job... math, history, art, whatever. Now it's become you need very specific degree/ skill set. If you don't have said degree, or even if it's an adjacent degree, you're S.O.L.

    This is because it's SO much easier to get a degree now. When the baby boomers started going off to college, they packed the classes... so colleges started to expand. A higher percentage of GenXers went to college then their parents, so more expansion happened. Community colleges started to pop up.

    Then comes our generation... we were smaller then the last two generations. These institutions of learning that spend the last two generation expanding their buildings, found that they could not fill their class rooms anymore... so they lowered their standards for enrollment and raised tuition to compensate. Then you add in online schools offering college degrees.

    In the last 15 to 20 years it's become MUCH easier for people to get student loans. Which colleges have taken advantage of to raise tuition even more.

    In the early 80's there was a big concern about kids dropping out of high school. So it was decided that we should make it that EVERYONE gets a high school diploma. The problem is that not everyone SHOULD get a diploma. If you aren't smart enough or willing to do the work... you shouldn't get a diploma. Anyway, standards were lowered again and again so it's easier... and this is before No Child Left Behind. NCLB just made it WAY worse. When the standards for one level of education is lowered, everything else get's drug down too.

    What the last 50 or 60 years have led up to is... people spending to much money on degrees that are way to easy to get, only to graduate to a job market that is non existent... because the last two LARGER generations are still working... and because having a bachelors degree are not a leg up or an "in" for any job anymore. But we need those higher paying (use to be college degree general) jobs to pay off our "most expensive cost of education in history" loans... but we can't get them.

    What I'm saying? The whole system is broken.

    I loved my time in college, I believe I worked hard and truly deserve my degree. But when you're out there trying to find work, most people don't know the difference between an MCAD degree and University of Phoenix.

    Was it worth it... I don't know.

  3. (pt 1 - too long to post at once.)
    I'm in a funny position to be responding because I was in the unbelievably lucky position that my parents paid for my schooling, and I don't have debt. I had scholarships, too. But as soon as my sister and I were born, my parents began putting money away for us to go to college. So I've had an absurd amount of opportunity most that most people don't.

    Of course there were classes that I could have breezed through on bullshit. But after my first semester, I passed on those classes when I could avoid them. As soon as I was able to pick my teachers, I got as much dirt as I could on every option before registration, and after my first semester, I had one or two mediocre classes.

    I'm pleased with the rate of my growth at MCAD. To go from terrible but showing a little promise to fairly passable in four years with a coulple decent stories done... I'm really happy with that. Four years isn't much time.

    Over those four years, I was cumulatively finding more resources that made the experience seem more and more worthwhile. Christine Daves. Having to get one internship, and able to do two more (they were more external projects, but they counted as internship credits). Margie McGee. The MCAD library. Getting Vince Leo's help to go to Africa. Taking an independent study to make a book. Free printing to make zines with. Having the opportunity to curate an exhibition, with a space and a budget (and I work at a gallery now). The chance to talk to all the great cartoonists and publishers who visited! The list goes on and on. In each instance, all I had to do was ask. People were bended over backwards for me before I even stepped through the door.

    As far as your Pro. Practice class goes - that is a bummer. Barb did teach us all that stuff.
    When I asked a friend of mine recently about how she got her book deal and agent, she described the pitch process to me, and I thought, "Oh good, I did that already, for pro. prac."

    A lot of the learning that I did at MCAD was experiential - outside of MCAD, but as I said, I received credit for it or assistance when I asked for it. Or at MCAD, but outside of the normal classroom curriculum (like Student-Curated Exhibitions). Ghost Comics was neither, but I found help when I needed it, I printed the mock-ups for the grant foundation for almost free (six 100+ page perfect bound books... think about that), and I may not have made it without my GD1 and comic classes.

    The old adage is true. You get what you put into it.

  4. That said, I DO think many teachers there should be tougher, and stop letting any bullshit slide. I don't care that we're all young- we're supposed to be young adults.

    Also. I believe that learning to learn, and learning to advance one's career are in many ways intertwined. Every freelance job I've done (and it is very few), and every art-related job I've had have come as a direct result of me learning something - be it comics, design, or gallery work - because I love it.

    I admit that I live an insane life. I work a day job, soon to find a part time job, liveable because I lucked out on a stupid cheap apartment (it's in bumblefuck, but Bumblefuck, Chicago is still pretty good). I make a piddling amount of money on comics, and I expect to slowly make a little tiny bit more every year. In a world where even the great Jaime Hernandez only supplements his living on comics, it's doubtful that I will ever make a full-time living just plain old writing and drawing- those days are done. Everyone has to be a hustler, an entrepreneur, a bu$ine$$man. That's okay. I've read/seen that most cartoonists worth their salt make a living from work garnered because of their comics - both because art directors had seen their comics, etc., and frankly, to make good comics, you gotta be really good. There's no room for fucking around. It's a hard discipline and staying in the game gives you a good work ethic. A shark-like attitude. Fuckin' do or die. The artists that are producing nowadays are staggering. Rege Jr., Urasawa, Mazzuchelli, Carre, Sally, the Hernandez Bros, Brunetti, Barry, Ware, Groening, Feiffer -- and those are just our contemporaries. That's not even getting into the all-time greats who are now gone, in comics (ok, I have to name a couple. Tezuka. Herriman. Schulz. Herge.), as well as painting, sculpture, film, writing, everything...), nothing less than astounding, shattering work will ever, ever be good enough.

  5. boy, did you hit a nerve or what? anyway, i don't believe a complete education can be found anywhere and that art school is not a place where you learn to do anything that can be applied usefully in the real world.

  6. I think that like a lot of things, college and learning is what you make of out of what you're given. Being smart, self sufficient, working hard, and trying to get a positive perspective on learning to learn is vastly important for anyone and extends into every part of your life.

    God gives you lemons, you make some awesome lemonade.

    That being said, hard work, passion and also doing stuff I dislike just as much (but ultimately think is worth it), are the things I've noticed that have gotten me work I'm satisfied with and a career I really enjoy. Instead of relying on college to give me a career, it's not something I think they can ultimately do, it's got to come from you, and you only in the end.

    There are a lot of problems with our current educational system in terms of standard, "No Child Left Behind" is a great example of a way not to reform a system that's all ready sputtering in public schools. I think that actually apprentice-ships could be a wonderful way to remedy some of that, I wish they still existed.

    That being said, from my perspective, MCAD was really worth it for me in the end. If not just for the network I know am plugged into, but the skill sets I worked hard to attain as well and now use.

    Ed is right that passion and hard work are really the foundations of being successful. There are plenty of really talented individuals who don't have a work ethic and their skills ultimately can't keep up over time, this applies to any career.

    One really good quote I heard a conference I was at was "Don't wait for someone to give you permission to be a game developer, you have to give yourself permission to be one, and tell them fuck you if they say otherwise, until they recognize you're right and give you a job."

  7. "...anyway, i don't believe a complete education can be found anywhere and that art school is not a place where you learn to do anything that can be applied usefully in the real world".

    Why do I like this quote? I like it because it holds truths.

    1. An education is never complete, it is a life long journey, college is simply one potential path. Certainly no one should ever be forced to take one path over another.

    2. "...Art allows you to do useful stuff in the real world...", oh wait that wasn't what was said.

    Art saved my sanity growing up, it offered beauty, escapism, it calmed me, inspired me, made the world around me a more pleasant place to be. I find that all very useful. As far as the craft skills I honed in college, they provided me access to jobs which paid my living expenses for the 15 years prior to my MCAD gig. Useful.

    In looking up what applied skills are desired by employers I found the below list, it mirrors what I told a student when she asked me what I learned in college:

    * The ability to solve problems (critical thinking/problem solving)
    * The ability to communicate (written and oral, okay, I can't spell very well)
    * The ability to work with others (teamwork and collaboration)
    * The ability to formulate new ideas (creativity and innovation)
    * The ability to meet deadlines (organization and planning)
    * The ability to demonstrate respect for others (professionalism)
    * The ability to commit to a project (work ethic)
    * The ability to work on my own (self direction)
    * The ability to balance personal and professional life activities (work life balance and focus, okay I am still working on this skill)

    There was not a course on the above, it is simply what came out of my experiences in college. I also learned a bit about drawing, painting, film making, design, printmaking, history, and science.

    Now I believe in college, because it offered my curious mind a place to expand, but now I want to go back to the statement "...that art school is not a place where you learn to do anything...". True because I believe that until a student asks a question there is no learning. College does not have a magical ability to teach a person anything until they are seeking an answer.

    The author of this blog asked me TONS of questions, and moved on to her next stage of life...before she even finished her Senior Project. This blog is a testament to that.

    Actually EVERYONE commenting here so far, to differing degrees, asks questions.

    If a student is on a path that they have a desire for and that they WANT TO EXPLORE then college can be worth it. A student has a responsibility to seek out the college program that is correct for them, that is in an area they are actually interested in, and that they feel they can afford. The later is a matter of individual value, but I do not personally feel anyone should be encouraged by banks to take on college loans that cannot reasonably be paid back by the time a person is 40. The statistics say the average MCAD debt is around 40 thousand, and that is the inflation equivalent to my own, now comic industry paid off, college education. I take it very seriously that some students are going into a higher debt level than that, and so on my end strive to constantly strengthen the comic program.

    (I will now refrain from commenting further on what this country has done to the cost of education, and government grant money for education. I would start to rant. Do High Schools still even have social living classes that explain debt level, and how to handle a budget? If I started it would move into the housing crisis, retirement funds, health care and the cost of a carton of milk).

  8. Thank you everyone for the amazing comments thus far. I am really really enjoying this discussion and I have found some of the perspectives very enlightening.

    I want to make a point that I realize was not made clear in my original post. I absolutely LOVED my time at MCAD and I would never give it up for anything. Having teachers like Barb opened my eyes to new possibilities and experiences. I learned to be self reliant and effective in my work and I learned the extent of my endurance and my love of learning.

    That being said there were weaknesses and things that I wish could have been better but my experience with MCAD was great.

    My choice to phrase the post like I did was partially intended to raise discussion and also trying to bring up aspects of the college experience as a whole across the United States.

    "by paying for college you were paying for those resources which were more than readily available for you to use. "

    I really like what Anna said and I agree with her completely. College is partially about the classes but it is more about the long term network and resources that are available if you choose to use them.

    However, in other western countries like Europe, students have the same if not more resources available to them during their college experience. They work harder to get into a good school but the resources they receive are great and yet they pay almost nothing beyond their time and their dedication. The government honors and rewards them for their work by offering scholarships and grants that cover almost all of the students and allow them to end their college experience in good financial standing, well trained and with many companies and job opportunities waiting for them.

    Why should students in the United States have to pay $25000+ per year for an experience that they can only hope to be on par with the experience of their peers in Europe?