Picking an Art School, part 2: The Best State School for Art

James McMullan said the search for an illustration style is a very personal thing, like deciding if you prefer to wear silk or cotton. Same goes for picking an art school; you need to know yourself. “Art School,” or  “University” with a good art program? It is a very personal thing.

A big city art school might not have a grassy campus, a rec center with a climbing wall, or varsity sports, but the city has its own rewards. Ben Shahn said ‘the greatest art school is one you walk through a great museum to reach.’ Cities have the advantage of high concentrations of cultural institutions. Some U.S. cities, notably Boston and Pittsburgh, with many colleges clustered together, work at being student-friendly. A Pitt student I.D. gets free entry to the Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Mattress Factory. If you crave a high culture fix, consider a big city art school.

The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, http://www.warhol.org

Speaking as the father of two recent college grads (one creative writer, one fine artist): Do not go deeply into debt to get a degree in the arts. If you are getting a degree in a high demand design area, like web design, maybe, loans are reasonable up to a point. I once toured RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, the luxury liner of art schools. The cafeteria was like a restaurant with vegetarian and vegan options. The studios were amazing, including a fully-equipped glassblowing facility. Tuition is now $38,000; with dorm and meals the bill nears $50,000 a year. Of course, many students get financial aid. I know a very talented young artist who was offered a $3,500 merit scholarship. At a state school $3,500 would be quite a scholarship; at RISD it was more like a discount. If you can afford a luxury class school, like RISD, or Cranbrook, or Pasedena’s Art Center College of Design you will be in good company. Go for it, if you and your parents can afford it. I must admit I get sticker shock even thinking about this sort of expenditure.

I once met a young man who was spending $250,000 at a four-year college to become a potter. I suggested an alternative education. Hire a master potter from Mexico for $50,000 a year, bring the artist to the U.S. and open a collaborative studio gallery. Apprentice to the master potter for three years and sell the pottery as you go. I’d wager the ceramics of that young potter with the three-year apprenticeship would far outshine a college grad’s. Of course, this is a pipe dream. The student loan industry, academic accrediting agencies, immigration laws, the higher education system, and the U.S. tax code, all favor the ‘college experience’ over such a ‘work experience.’

Reality Check: If you have a place to live in the city, and you can get some financial aid, do consider the big city art school. If not, read on.

Consider a State College. Your best value may be a state college. I know many young people want to relocate, but look into your home state first. I teach at Kutztown University of PA. Tuition and fees are a reasonable $7,732 a year for PA residents. The cost more than doubles to $16,557 for out-of-state students. Montclair State, in neighboring N.J., is a tad cheaper, $7,324 a year in-state, $15,654 out-of state. (Montclair has a dorm named for Frank Sinatra. How hip is that?) Be aware that university tuition pages are designed like car dealers’ ads. The tuition appears quite low at first glance, but it is usually quoted in semesters, or even quarters, and doesn’t include mandatory fees. I’m including all fees in my yearly tuition numbers here.

Of course, not every state school has an art program. How does one find the schools with art programs? Ask your art teacher, if you are lucky enough to have one. Or, start with a web guide like Peterson’s Guide to Colleges. I just did an informal test and found Peterson’s was not very useful. Starting with  Search by Major “ART” gets 11,700 schools, “GRAPHIC DESIGN” brings it down to 507. Advanced Search of “Visual and Performing Arts” for “ILLUSTRATION” and “Bachelor’s Degree” gets 63 schools. Screening for PA narrows it down to 4 schools, all privates. Kutztown University, where I teach illustration is not even listed! Technically, illustration is a concentration here, not a separate major. Using the term “GRAPHIC DESIGN” got me a longer list, but still did not include Kutztown. My point is, Peterson’s program is not perfect.

There is another more useful tool at NASAD, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. This art college accreditation organization has a searchable list of their 312 members. (Update 2.12/2011: I went to the NASAD site from an off-campus computer and this list is very difficult to access. Sorry. One must become a “free subscriber” to reach the list.  I don’t understand why NASAD makes this basic member information so difficult for prospective students to see.) A “Pennsylvania” search finds 24 schools (including KU), New York State – 25 , Ohio -17, North Carolina- 4. Now, there are certainly fine schools that are not accredited by NASAD. For many years Kutztown was not a part of NASAD and our program has not fundamentally changed since then, but NASAD might be a good place to start.

I would do a “web visit” to every NASAD school in my state and neighboring states. Search out the terms illustration, communication design, and graphic design. Get a sense of the number of faculty, and where they studied. If you can find individual faculty web pages, look for diversity of faculty backgrounds. If you can’t study at one of those luxury liner schools like RISD yourself, it might be nice to study with someone who did. Check out any school that has the word ‘state’ in it, like Kent State in OH, Montclair State in NJ, Buffalo State College in N Y . Why?  State schools are subsidized by tax dollars. Even though this state subsidy shrinks every year, think of it as an invisible scholarship. Of course, sometimes a state school with a great art program, like Ohio University or Kutztown, doesn’t have the word state in it; maybe your guidance counselor can help weed down your list.

At Kutztown we have a good-sized program in Communication Design. “C.D.” is the most selective program here. We get 250 applicants for 60 freshman seats. We have 12 full-time faculty. The faculty to student ratio is low. Low is good. I teach a design history course of about 110 students, but my largest illustration studio classes has 23 students. For better or worse, Kutztown has the collegiate stuff you don’t find at ‘art schools,’ the rec center, climbing wall, clubs, frats and sororities. The other thing Kutztown has, not found in purest ‘art schools,’ is a general education requirement. Basically, you will need to take a little over a year’s worth of science and math and literature and things you might not have enjoyed in high school. I’m generalizing, but I’ve met many art students, and most find “gen ed” boring. Gen ed is part of the deal you are making with the taxpayers; you may not be working in the arts all your life. A well-rounded education is meant to prepare you for life in the broadest sense.

Last week the blog entry on picking an art college got nearly 500 visitors in three days. That’s not viral by dancing cat standards, but proves there is a lot of interest. I promised to reveal the name of the state college art program that I found most impressive. Kutztown University is wonderful and the CD program is the best thing here, but I must exclude my employer from this pool.

From Joe Fig's 'Inside the Painter's Studio,' now at MassArt.

The most impressive state college art program I’ve ever seen is Massachusetts College of Art and Design.  I believe MassArt is the only state college devoted exclusively to the visual arts. Fittingly, this profound respect for the arts took hold in Massachusetts. In 1780, President John Adams, of Massachusetts, envisioned a time when the U.S. would reach such a level of freedom and prosperity that his descendants might study fine art and applied arts.*

I spent a portfolio day at MassArt with a prospective student. The upper level undergraduate students had their own small studio spaces, a rare and wonderful thing. The arts curriculum was diverse yet deep, offering everything from illustration to “Dynamic Media.” MassArt faculty are practicing artists and the student work I saw was first-rate. On an historical note, one of my favorite illustrators, N.C. Wyeth, began his training there. I’d say MassArt is a wonderful choice for Mass. residents. (In-state tuition & fees: $9,000 a year.) Interestingly, MassArt offers a discounted rate for neighboring New England States of about $15,500 a year. Applicants from all other states, alas, pay a hefty $25,500.

I would be very interested to hear your opinion on where best to study art. Please post a comment if you have thoughts on the matter. Next week we will share some great news about KU grad Scotty Reifsnyder.

* Here is how John Adams put it in a letter to his wife, Abigail, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

36 thoughts on “Picking an Art School, part 2: The Best State School for Art

  1. Is there a major difference between earning a BFA with a concentration in Illustration and a BFA in Illustration? Very interested in Kutztown and Hartford Art School.

    1. Hi Nina, Thanks for your note. No, I don’t think the difference is great, just different terminology at different schools. Many Kutztown students come in intending to concentrate in only illustration. We call the major here Communication Design, within that we have concentrations. Some take 2 concentrations of our 4, Illustration, Graphic Design, Advertising Design Interactive Design (web). Frankly there are more jobs in the other concentrations, especially Interactive.

  2. Hi,
    I really enjoyed your post. My daughter is interested in Graphic Design and has been accepted to KU’s CD program. She was also accepted to William Paterson’s BFA in Graphic Design program and offered a full scholarship. As a parent considering finances, I want to push her toward William Paterson. Am I wrong to do that? I would love to hear your opinion on their program.

  3. Does Kutztown University’s CD major offer a class in children’s book illustration and character drawing for animation?

    1. Hi Kenzie, We do not have a separate class in either area. We offer independent study for children’s book illustration, sometimes.
      Edinboro U of PA offers a BFA in Animation.

  4. Thank you. Would you advise a student who wants to illustrate children’s books to study at KU? Or is there another school you would recommend?

    1. Kenzie If you live in Pennsylvania, Kutztown is a good choice. It is reasonably priced for instate tuition. It is not an art school, but a state university and more general education classes are being required. Art schools tend to be very expensive, Pratt, SVA, U of Arts, but the focus is more pointed. Children’s books are a competitive field. Personally, I would not recommend going deep into debt, say over $15000, if your only ambition is to illustrate for children. Hope this helps. Kevin McCloskey Communication Design Dept Kutztown University BOX 730, Kutztown, PA, 19530 office ph: 610-683-4525 VISIT KU illustration’s unofficial blog: https://illustrationconcentration.wordpress.com

      1. Thank you very much for your reply! ( : I live in PA, so I think I will visit Kutztown and University of the Arts. Last question ( ; Have you heard that University of the Arts has a good illustration program? I haven’t heard. Thanks again!

      2. Kenzie, I last visited the U of Arts about 9 years ago. I saw a student illustration show and it was quite good. Charles Santori taught there then, he may be retired, he is a great children’s book artist.

        PA College of Art and Design in Lancaster is small, but has at least one excellent children’s book illustrator, Matt Novak.

        Ask as many questions as you like. If you want to email me ahead of your visit to Kutztown maybe I can give you the tour.


        Kevin McCloskey Communication Design Dept Kutztown University BOX 730, Kutztown, PA, 19530 office ph: 610-683-4525 VISIT KU illustration’s unofficial blog: https://illustrationconcentration.wordpress.com

    1. I reviewed University of the Arts and Kutztown’s curriculum for Illustration. During senior year at UArts the students have a portfolio day in NYC at the Society of Illustrators. The faculty makes appointments prior to the event, with publishers and art directors, to review UArts senior Illustration portfolios. I heard of one alumni who got their first children’s book publishing job through that portfolio review. It seems like a great opportunity. Does Kutztown offer any similar opportunities to connect with publishers/art directors in NYC? The only reason I would lean towards attending UArts is for that reason. I like that you make connections with people who could hire you to illustrate for children’s books and magazines. What do you think? Thanks again!

      1. Hi Kenzie, Short answer is no. We do send a handful of the best design students to show their portfolios in NYC, but it is not geared exclusively toward children’s book art directors. The SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators) does have events like this in NY, often at the Society of illustrators. Membership is $85; there is an Eastern PA chapter. You can go to a conference with SCBWI and get your portfolio seen that way. We have had successful children’s book illustrators like Kathi Ember and Tom Warburton graduate from KU. I’ve illustrated two children’s books and I went to state schools.

        Tuition at U of the Arts is near $35,000, as I am sure you are aware. That is a lot of money. Many children’s book illustrators don’t make that much money in a year. Tuition at KU is $8400 a year. It is likely to go up each year, but so is U/Arts. Unless they offer you substantial financial aid in the form of scholarships, not loans, KU still might make sense financially.

        I just looked at their curriculum. It is great. Honestly, U/Arts looks better suited to the study of illustration, with 4 courses devoted to the figure, and a very lean 15 credits of liberal arts. Kutztown has beefed up the general ed (liberal arts and science) requirements, this year especially so. If you are absolutely set on illustration and you can afford U/Arts, good luck to you. If you think down the road you might want another sort of career, keep us in mind.

        I have tried to answer as honestly as possible, even though the two sorts of institutions are like apples and oranges. Hope this helps.

        Kevin McCloskey Communication Design Dept Kutztown University BOX 730, Kutztown, PA, 19530 office ph: 610-683-4525 VISIT KU illustration’s unofficial blog: https://illustrationconcentration.wordpress.com

      2. Kevin, Thank you so much for explaining things to me in detail. You have been really helpful. I value your opinion.
        Where do your students show their portfolios in NYC? Would I make connections with magazine art directors and card companies? That is also of interest to me. You said not “exclusively” kid’s book art directors, but do the students meet with some? What types of careers do the CD students at Kutztown generally get into? I read about the annual children’s book convention at Kutztown, that seems interesting.Thanks again!

      3. Hi Kenzie, They show their portfolios at the Art Director’s club in NYC. Each May we have a portfolio day at Kutztown and invite art directors. Kathy Davis Studios comes, as does Crayola, The Morning Call, ad agencies. We do have several former students who have gone onto work for Kathy Davis Studio, also Hallmark. Check this blog entry: http://wp.me/pYdFG-Da

        We do have a KU Children’s Lit Conference every year. April. Brian Selznick, Jerry Pinkney, Matt Phelan, Tomi De Paola, other great illustrators come to campus. Because I serve on the committee for that conference, the illustrator always does a presentation for a communication design class. Even if you are not in the class you can drop in, if interested.

        One thing I have suggested to students is to take a short continuing ed course at SVA , or Parsons in NYC after graduating h.s. over the summer, or even after college. These courses cost perhaps $600. Some are actually taught by art directors in the field.

        I took one at SVA during the regular school year since I’ve taught here. It was exhausting as I had get the last bus from NYC to Kutztown at midnight. Years ago I took a great course at Parsons from Uri Shulevitz. You should look for his book, Writing with Pictures, about making picture books.

        As far as careers for KU CD alums? Many work in ad agencies, design studios, package design studios. Most get some web design experience which helps get the first job. some in card companies. Many in NYC and Conn. I recall a student who loved cars, and he moved to California and works for a magazine called Dub, a hip car magazine. This year the job market has picked up, but students are happy to get any sort of design work for their first job. Some freelance on the side. Kathi Ember was an an director at Rodale Press, and built a freelance portfolio on the side. Here is her portfolio: http://www.childrensillustrators.com/kathiember

        All the best,

        Kevin McCloskey Communication Design Dept Kutztown University BOX 730, Kutztown, PA, 19530 office ph: 610-683-4525 VISIT KU illustration’s unofficial blog: https://illustrationconcentration.wordpress.com

      4. Kevin, Thank you so much! You have been SO helpful! What a great idea to take continuing ed courses in NYC! I am now super excited to start preparing for my career!
        All the Best, Kenzie

  5. We have heard often about KU’s program through the grapevine, but agree with you that it is very difficult to find any reference to it on the “official” lists, so your site is very helpful and informative. Thank you!

    One of the schools on our short list is U Del. We were very impressed with their program. Can you give us your opinion of it?

    1. John Landis, who was one of the founders of our Communication Design Dept. went the U Del so it must be good. The Delaware Museum of Art has great illustration resources, I’ve been there, but never to U Del. so I don’t have first-hand info. I have heard U Del has a sophomore year culling of the class and so only a limited number of students get to go onto get the BFA. That is similar to the system I was part of at ECU in Greenville, NC. It is very tough on the students who get cut. If you are a great student, you will be part of an elite group. At Kutztown we try to only select students who we think will prosper here. Two different philosophies, each has advantages.

      1. Yes, we are aware of that practice at U of Del and are a little wary of it. Thanks for your input.

  6. Do you have any insights for good design programs, both graphic or illustration, at state schools on the west coast, specially the northwest?

    1. Cynthia,
      Sorry I know little about Art Schools in the Northwest.
      Must admit my ignorance re that area of the country.

      San Jose State has had a great program, but recently I heard faculty there complain about the program being dismantled by budget cuts.
      Emily Carr in Vancouver, Canada has a great reputation.

      Best of luck in your search and if you find something let me know,

      Kevin McCloskey

  7. If only I had read this last year when I was applying to college; I currently attend Rutgers U. for a BFA in Visual Arts, but they have a nonexistent illustration program — illustration is what I wanted to do in the first place. Do you have any resources or info on other schools in the tri-state area which offer illustration?

    1. Hi JV, Montclair State, Maybe Ramapo in NJ. Plenty in NYC. They tend to cost a lot. If you are taking fine arts and life drawing with figurative painters at Rutgers that will help. What sort of illustration do you intend to do?

      1. I’m looking into visual development as well as editorial illustration. I was accepted to The New School for the BA/BFA program but ultimately chose RU for its cost and, sadly, neglected to look further into what programs it offers. Of course, the classes here have helped develop my technical skills but I’m not satisfied with such a general fine arts curriculum.

      2. I took 3 editorial illustration classes through the New School’s continuing ed classes. I think Chris Spollen might teach there ,now. Transferring can be tough, as you lose time. Maybe look into individual classes in their continuing ed catolog, also FIT, SVA. I just looked at New School/Parsons, illustration is in the Fine Art section. Here is an SVA offering that looks interesting, if they had something similar next Spring.
        I ended up with a B.A in fine arts, then topped it off with an MFA in Illustration at SVA, very expensive, but if you would ever consider teaching the MFA helps.

      3. Thank you for the information! To my delight, Montclair does offer a BFA in Animation and Illustration. It seems that my credits would transfer over just fine. I will certainly look into continuing ed. courses as well, as they do catch my interest.

  8. My daughter is comparing Kutztown University to study communication design and West Chester University for graphic design. Can you tell me if you know anything about the differences? Right now Kutztown is her first choice.

    1. Hello, I think KU is the better choice. Look to see if West Chester grants a BFA. I am not sure, it might be a BA there. The Bachelors of Fine Arts degree entails more studio hours per credit, so KU may have a greater workload. than other schools.
      Also, though it is not my specialty, typography is strong at KU. So strong that we do not accept transfer credits from West Chester or anywhere else.
      Personally, I think this rule may a bit harsh, but our students are well served by their grounding in type. At KU your daughter will pick a concentration around her junior year. Graphic Design is one option within the Communication Design major. Illustration, Interactive, and Ad Design are the other options. Many students take 2 concnetrations. Illustration comes naturally to many students, but the market for illustration is not great. I suggest even my most gifted illustrators have a back-up concentration. Interactive is the most demanding, but also the most in demand. Nearly all KU grads find work in their field. Hope this helps.

  9. Hello, my name is Marianed, i am a mexican recently graduated student from art school, i spent four years studying what you would call (i think) liberal arts, i graduated a couple of months ago and im currently looking forward to continue my education on illustration, i would love to study in the u.s. since you have such wonderful programs, but, to be honest, tuitions are way too expensive (specially for an international student, considering not only tuition but living expenses), i read both of your articles and i would like to know if you could give me some advice on how to achieve my dream of studying there without expending too much, thank you for your time!

    1. Hello Marianed, Illustration is a very competitive field in the U.S. Only a small fraction of those with illustration degrees succeed to become full-time illustrators. It is relatively expensive study at the graduate level in the U.S. Some U.S schools have short courses in illustration, over the summer, like the the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Of course. NYC is one of the mot expensive cities in the U.S.
      I would advise you to try to launch your career in Mexico. Look for exhibitions opportunities everywhere locally, and then search the internet for galleries or showcases that have international calls for entry. The Society of Illustrators has one every year. Or look up 3X3 magazine, that one is not so expensive to enter. Hope this is some help. Stay encouraged

  10. My son would like to major in Illustration(he also is interested in Animation) and is considering KU, PCAD and Univ of the Arts. He liked all 3 schools but we have a few questions:
    Can a KU student major in Illustration and minor in Animation?
    Do you feel a school’s reputation plays a part in the kind of jobs the student will get when graduating?

    1. Hi Melissa, We have had a few animators graduate from Kutztown. The major I teach in is called Communication Design. At this point we have a concentration in Illustration. In the future we will jettison the concentration concept. All are students will have simply C.D. majors. We don’t have an animation minor. We have Applied Digital Design, which is something similar. It’s new, it doesn’t have life drawing. It is geared towards computer aided motion graphics. It is complicated. I will be happy to try to explain it to your son.

  11. Thanks so much for your response. That’s interesting they will be eliminating the concentrations, can I ask why? When is that expected to happen?
    I agree KU has a great reputation for art, I was concerned with PCAD’s reputation not being as highly regarded as the other two schools.

    1. Changes will begin next year. If He gets a scholarship, PAFA has the most depth in Illustration. The chair there is Jessica Abel. She is a very important Illustrator. There are not enough jobs for Illustrators. So KU wants to graduate students who are more well-rounded and likely to find work. Even in the finest schools less than 5 % of grads manage to make a living solely by that talent. I say it akin to studying acting.

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