The choice between the Big Ten university in my hometown and design school was difficult. I had never known anyone who went to art/design school, and the local university was so familiar. My mom worked there, I learned to swim there, and I still bleed those colors every football season. But for college, it just wasn't right for me. When it came down to it, design school better aligned with my goals and needs.
The truth is, you can have a very successful career with a degree from either. I have several coworkers that graduated from large universities and had amazing experiences. It's really a matter of assessing your goals and deciding what is right for you. This post is intended to highlight a few key differences to help you make a more informed decision.
Here are a few considerations:
In general, most universities are located in college towns and most art/design schools are located in cities. This matters for a couple of reasons. Because my Alma Mater was located in the heart of the city, restaurants and art galleries were just outside our doorstep. My friends and I spent our Fridays at gallery openings and art shows. There was inspiration all around us, and though our school was an active participant, it was not the only contributing agent to the creative community.
In addition to a vibrant art scene, there was a large industry presence in the city. The large number of architecture firms afforded us many job shadowing and networking opportunities before we even graduated. Our senior year, all of us had internships that we went to in the morning before we attended classes in the afternoon and evening. Because of this, we graduated with over a year's worth of experience before entering the workforce full time. It also meant that we were incredibly connected in the community and had a vast network to tap into when we were looking for our first jobs.
In contrast, the university in my hometown has a sprawling campus filled with trees, lawns and beautiful old buildings. There is a clear divide where the campus ends and the rest of the town begins. In typical college town fashion, it is filled with sports bars and a myriad of chain restaurants, but not a ton of culture. In fact, there is no art scene whatsoever. When talking with my friend who graduated from a different Big Ten school (our rival actually), she shared that while there was an art scene present in the area, it was mostly dependent and created by the university.
Similarly, there are barely any firms in my hometown. There is one furniture dealership and a few residential sole practitioners, but that's about it. The designers I know who went to university had to move to a new city for summer internships that lasted three months. My friend said that working during the semester was unheard of, and that every single person she went to school with had to relocate entirely after graduation.
My school was absolutely tiny and I loved it. On average, my classes were no more that 15-20 people and there were about 2-3 department chairs per major. The largest class I ever had was a freshman year Art History class with fifty people. We had two buildings and I spent 90% of my time in two classrooms. Because of this, the student body was pretty close knit and familiar. However, there was a pretty limited amount of clubs and virtually no athletic extracurricular activities.
It goes without saying that universities are bigger than art schools. They tend to be much more diverse and have more opportunities to meet people and socialize. General education classes are held in lecture halls that hold hundreds of people. In addition. most universities have a myriad of clubs, sports, and ways to get involved. The campuses are large and sprawling, and sometimes require a bike to get from class to class on time.
That being said, core interior design studio classes are about the same size no matter where you go. The sweet spot for studio classes being around 10-15 people holds true at both universities and small design schools.
In art school, gen eds are the lowest on everyone's priority list. The students know it, most of the professors know it, and I think on a deep level the administration knows it, even though they would never admit it. There is an unspoken understanding between professors and students that in a battle between gen eds and Studio, Studio always wins. Typically, the coursework reflects that. We took one gen ed per semester and spent the rest of our time in art and design classes all four years.
In contrast, universities require more gen eds and schedule most of them during the first and second years, leaving the design classes to be taken junior and senior year. From what I understand, there is an equal emphasis on all types of classes, regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with your major.
In our junior and senior years, many of our supporting design classes (like Revit) were taught by adjunct professors who worked at architecture firms during the day and taught in the evenings. This ensured that we were being taught by people who have real world experience and are up to date with the newest trends and patterns in the industry. It also served as a great networking opportunity as they would often bring in coworkers and other industry professionals to critique projects and presentations. Also, because the classes were in the afternoons and evenings, it opened up our schedules to work or intern in the morning.
At my friend's university, classes were scheduled throughout the day and were taught by tenured professors or fellows at the university. Most of these professors graduated with their masters or doctorates from ivy league schools and many were sole practitioners with their own design companies, but had not worked in the industry for a very long time. As I mentioned before, because of the class timing and work load, working or interning during the year was virtually impossible.
Transferring into and out of art/design school is really difficult. The gen ed requirements don't align and the course sequence is not easily tampered with. I know several people who tried to get their gen eds out of the way at community college and still spent four years in design school. Changing majors only complicates this. Switching from photography to graphic design isn't too big of a deal, but if you decide you want to teach kindergarten halfway through a design degree, you're going to have to start from scratch.
Universities offer a lot more flexibility. There is a much wider variety of majors to choose from should you change your mind, and transferring from school to school is relatively easy. You can go in undeclared and will have more time to commit to a major.
I can only speak to my experience in this category, but from what I have observed, the culture of an art school is very different than a stereotypical big university. The biggest difference being that there are no sports, sororities, or fraternities. If you spent high school dreaming about living in a dorm, playing Frisbee in the quad, sitting in the student section at football games, and attending frat parties, consider the following before you make your decision.
My art school didn't have dorms, sports, or Greek life. There was no "quad" as it was located smack dab in the middle of the city. My freshman year, I lived with three other girls in a city apartment within walking distance of the school. I cooked for myself in our kitchen, had my own room, did my own grocery shopping, and was responsible for my share of the bills. To be totally honest, it was a hard transition straight from high school. The hard truth is that art school doesn't hold your hand at all in the beginning. I took me a lot longer to get adjusted and make friends because there aren't organized social events to help you.
Eventually I found my stride, got the hang of living on my own, and found my people. My friends and I went to house parties and gallivanted around the city without a care in the world. These people are still my best friends and a few of them were even bridesmaids at my wedding. My sophomore year, we all moved in together and lived in various apartments/houses for the rest of college.
Freshman year at a university is a lot easier. There are (fully furnished) dorms, RA's to help in an emergency, floor events, cafeterias so you don't have to cook for yourself, and big common rooms where you can hang out and meet lots of people. I remember feeling like my friends from high school who went to university made a ton of new friends overnight and were having the best time. They went to frat parties, football games, and did typical "college-y things." But eventually it evened out. Sophomore year, they moved to different dorms, met new people, and totally forgot about the people they met their first year. By the time junior year hit, most of them had moved off campus and preferred going to bars over frat parties.
Though our freshman and sophomore years looked very different, our junior and senior years were pretty similar. By the end of it, everyone was living in an apartment or house, paying their bills, and living with their friends.
Getting a Job
I almost didn't include this category because its so subjective. Not every person I went to school with had the experience I did and I'm sure some universities are better than others when it comes to transitioning out of college and into the real world. I can really only speak to what I have observed with my own eyes, so bear with me.
I said in the last section that design school doesn't hold your hand in the beginning. But it does hold your hand at the end. At least mine did. As I have mentioned before, my school placed a great emphasis on networking, getting experience, and bridging the gap between school and real life. Our professors were extremely integrated into the art and design community and were often the first to hear about internship opportunities and competitions. They often recommended certain individuals apply for specific positions, and always made sure to review and approve the student's resume and portfolio before they sent it in. Its how almost all of us got our first big internship, myself included. They taught us how to write a killer cover letter, craft a compelling resume, and put together a top notch portfolio. We went on practice interviews (quite a few of them) and had our work reviewed by professionals and alumni. By the time we graduated, all of my friends had a resume full of relevant experience, countless industry connections, and a job waiting for us at the end of the semester. For most of us, the transition from college to real life was pretty easy. We had all been living on our own, balancing a full time school schedule, and working in an office for a couple of years.
That being said, there were some people who we took classes with who did not find success. They chose not to take advantage of the opportunities available to them, and it showed. When the time came to find a job, their resume was empty and they were competing for the same jobs as the people who had multiple internships under their belt.
This is where it gets hairy, because I do believe that most universities care about their students getting a job...they just don't necessarily teach them how to do it. Or at least the universities that my friends went to didn't. When my husband was looking for his first engineering job, I was shocked to find out that he had never had a single class or workshop devoted to resume writing or interviewing. On of my best friend's from high school had the same experience. Both universities offered an internal job board for students and a Career Center, but only for the students who scheduled an appointment. I was baffled. Though most of my friends who went to university are gainfully employed, a good number of them are not currently working in their field of study. I have also noticed that the people who waited until graduation to get a job had a much harder time adjusting to post-college life because they had never worked a 9-5, full time office job before and experienced a much more abrupt transition.
I saved this point for last because I believe it is one of the most important aspects of getting a job, but has nothing to do with what type of school you go to. Rather, it has everything to do with where its located. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but its something I have observed time and time again. There are exceptions of course, but generally the rule is this: when looking for entry level employees, the first place companies look is the local school. For example, if you want to work for GM, go to a school in Detroit, if you want to work for Nike, go to the University of Oregon, if you want to work for Proctor and Gamble, go to school in Cincinnati. This is especially true in the architecture and design industry.
This can be an asset if you're strategic. Our senior year, me and my friends were all hand picked by local firms by employers who had several alumni already on staff. They knew the type of education we had had and were confident that we would be capable of doing the job. However, students from other schools in the state didn't really stand a chance. Its harsh, but its true. To get ahead of this problem, do some research about the potential companies you could intern at or work for after graduation before you select a school if possible.
I touched on this in the previous section, but its a point can not be made too much: college is what you make of it. You will not be guaranteed success based solely on the school you attend. Getting a degree of any kind requires a lot of hard work and dedication, and to reach your full potential, you must take advantage of every opportunity available to you and squeeze every ounce out of each experience that comes your way.
Deciding between an art/design school and public university is a very personal decision. The right answer will differ from person to person. Quite a few men in my office have daughters graduating from high school and considering art school. Several of them have approached me to talk about my experience and whether or not it would be right for them.
In general, I recommend design school for people who are serious about interior design and have a clear vision of where they would like to live and work after college. These people thrive best in small, close knit, and supportive communities, but are independent enough to make it through their first year living on their own right out of the gate. Design school is best for people who are passionate about art for arts sake and don't really care about sports or other stereotypical "college-y" things (or have a bunch of friends at university they can visit). Art school is great for people who enjoy the idea of city living and everything that goes along with it.
For those who are less confident about the major or would like to double major in something else, public university is the way to go. There is just no substitute for the flexibility that is afforded in a large institution. Just as long as the student is comfortable with the idea of moving to a new city for summer internships, and relocating after college if there aren't any firms nearby. For those who really crave the stereotypical dorm life, football games, frat house, Frisbee in the quad experience they just won't get it in the same way at art school. Also, for high school seniors who have never lived away from home and might not be ready for full independence at 17, moving into a dorm with the accompanying amenities might make for a smoother transition. That being said there is a certain level of independence that is required to advocate for yourself, get the help you need when you need it, and not get lost in the crowd.
For me, art school was the right choice. For someone else it might be different. Like I said before, I know successful designers who have graduated from both. It really depends on what is right for you.