I don’t know exactly what people take away from this website that they don’t get from the affiliated social media, but a recent change in my student loan situation prompted me to think about the bigger picture of other young artists out there, many of whom may be interested in furthering their art abilities and/or looking for a degree to accredit them in the eyes of potential animation/game art employers. It’s not my place to tell people how to make important decisions in their life, but given my experience in this department, I’ll throw in my two cents: art school is a scam. Still, I’ll give a brief account of what I went through so you can make your own judgment call.
I was eighteen when, with the help of my mom, I enrolled in the Art Institute of California – Inland Empire back in 2006. I signed up for their three-year Media Arts and Animation program. I had no idea of the financial nightmare I was setting myself up for, but as far as that goes, I was lucky. Since they were a fairly new school at the time, they did not have all of their credentials yet – the Game Art and Design majors were forced to enroll in the MAA program along with me (which included classes that would not transfer over to GAD and would not be compensated for in the loans). Since the Art Institute is a private institution/vocational school, community college credits won’t transfer over, meaning you’ll have to pay thousands of dollars per unit for general education classes that would cost merely a few hundred at your local Associates Degree school (or vice-versa, as I would learn later). My ex-husband (whom I met at this school) was told that the Art Institute was in the works for getting accredited with the Veteran’s Association, allowing the VA to pay for his education, but it took well over a year for this to happen, screwing him and several other veterans in the process. Likewise, I think it took even longer than that for the GAD students to get properly transferred to their preferred major, and by that time the Art Institute was approved for Culinary Arts and all their attention went to this field.
Each course was crammed into an eleven-week class (meeting once or twice a week) that was assigned at random according to what classes we had taken as prerequisites or otherwise needed as such. The instructors, although mostly amicable, were largely just random members of the LGBT community with no real qualifications to teach in their field other than a frill Master’s Degree or a generic art portfolio of their own. Although there were multiple teachers/classes for the same subject, each instructor held an entirely unique course and curriculum, meaning a student who had Elements of Design with Mr. A would most likely not learn a single thing in common with a student taking said course with Mr. B. Most instructors had a heavy disdain for Japanese animation outside of Hayao Miyazaki, thus weeaboos like my adult-teen self weren’t taken as seriously as, say, avid fans of western animation like Pixar and Dreamworks (which were supposedly the camps we were training for).
Needless to say, school was stressful – and that’s just taking academics into account. Some interactions with colleagues (particularly my now ex-husband) put me in a mental state that forced me to drop out of classes (which is dangerous, as three failures of one class would result in expulsion). In addition, I had an unwanted altercation with a stranger on the bus on my way home from class one night, and when the police came to pull me out of class to take a report, the school felt the need to get involved in the situation when I would have preferred as few people to know about the incident as possible, especially since they offered no counseling or real help for what happened. About a year into my stay at the Art Institute, one of the students I was tangentially acquainted with committed suicide, and the incident was largely kept mum. I don’t really fault the school for not going out of their way to draw attention to the fact that things like sexual assault and suicide are large-scale issues that college students may encounter, but in retrospect I do feel like an accredited college should have been better equipped to deal with them. Needless to say, I did not finish my MAA major and dropped out about halfway through, around January 2008.
Of course, during my short stint at the Art Institute, I accumulated a great deal of student debt from loans. These were handled (poorly) by Sallie Mae, which in turn was bought out by Navient (along with all my private information, which was sold six ways from Sunday to every collection agency and forgiveness program across the United States). Every time I needed to request a deferment, forbearance, or lower repayment plan, I’ve had to give this company more sensitive financial information than I give the IRS (I wish I wasn’t exaggerating). I understand that these people are just doing their jobs, but the audacity it takes to ask a person about how much they spend on every little financial necessity and insinuate that any money not explicitly allocated to said necessities really makes one lose their faith in humanity. Even now as I log back in to their website, I’m finding some new fee tacked on just 48 hours after I discussed a payment plan reduction with them – I just can’t win with these people. This isn’t even bringing their ever-fluctuating interest rates into account.
But it’s been over a decade – what about loan forgiveness programs? My Facebook feed is full of sponsored posts on this subject, even going as far to list the Art Institute and other diploma mill alumni as prime candidates for forgiveness. These “programs” always list as little information as possible in print, but once you call them up, you’ll find that all you’re really doing is transferring your loan payments from one (more legitimate) loan shark to another, and passing your phone number along to their hungry shark buddies. Every one of these groups that calls me comes up marked as a spam number on my caller ID. As for actual loan forgiveness, I’m sure the criteria varies from one company to another, but Navient lists the criteria as follows:
Under certain circumstances, your outstanding federal student loan balance may be forgiven or canceled (discharged). These situations include:
- - Public Service Forgiveness – If you work at a government or non-profit organization
- - School Closure Discharge – Loan discharge due to school closure
- - Total and Permanent Disability Discharge – Loan discharge due to a disability
- - Teacher Loan Forgiveness – see below for more details
If you teach:
- - At least full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years
- - In certain elementary and secondary schools, and educational service agencies that serve low-income families
- - And meet other qualifications
You may be eligible for forgiveness of up to $5,000 on your Direct or FFELP Loans.
You may receive up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness if you are employed in certain specialty areas and are a highly qualified teacher.
Also, you must not have had an outstanding balance on Direct Loans or FFELP Loans as of 10/1/1998, or on the date that you obtained a Direct Loan or FFELP Loan after 10/1/1998.
Go to StudentAid.gov/teach-forgive for information and eligibility requirements
If you are looking to further your art education or get your foot in the door, I recommend taking classes at your local community college and/or becoming the protégé of a more established artist. There are plenty of sites on the internet where you can share and sell your work, find other creators to collaborate with, and even get tutorials from. Use crowdfunding or a percentage of pay from your day job (assuming you can spare it) to finance your endeavors for better visibility. Look around your community for art festivals, galleries, and fairs to expose more people to your craft (and profit!). I can’t guarantee any of these options will be highly successful, but they’re far better than ruining your life at an art school.
Thank you for taking the time to read my soapbox spiel.