Christian’s Story: Does the School You Choose Ever Matter?

It’s Monday, and I for one am raring to go. Got 45 minutes of cardio in this morning before breakfast (a very healthy one, I might add), and I’ve got a fresh pot of coffee and a quiet house. As Joe from “Family Guy” would say….LET’S DO IIIIIIIT!

A fellow named Christian wrote me a few days. OK, it was 9 days ago and I’m very behind on responding to him because he’s got a deadline coming up. Apologies for the delay!

I have a question extremely similar to Nancy’s:

I have been accepted to the Motion Design (combo of animation and graphic design) program at Ringling College of Art and Design, a prestigious art school (paying for the name) with strong connections to major companies (Disney, Pixar, etc. — Pixar is a MAJOR consumer).

I know nothing about art & design schools personally, but just FYI in a general sense: if they really do have strong connections to big-time companies who hire their designers, then you’re paying for that more than the name. Which is good!

I have also been accepted to the Digital Media program at the University of Tampa.

After scholarships and my parents’ contribution I would be debt-free at Tampa. I would, however, be left with $80,000 in debt after attending Ringling.

Yikes. This one’s going to be tough, I can feel it.

Now the difference between my situation and Nancy’s (in my opinion) is the fact that I will be studying art/design. My concern is that putting UT on a resume will not be powerful while Ringling’s would be. Also, there is the obvious program quality issue.

All good points.

Here you are, Christian. And Nancy. And Elizabeth. And Liz...and....

So in a way I am looking for a psychic who can tell me if businesses will weigh school name very heavily. Also, will I be able to compensate for UT’s program?

Any other things I am not considering? What do you recommend?

Of course, the deadline for my decision is May 1st. I am going to revisit UT in a week or two. A speedy response would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You!!!

Well, I’ve blown the speedy response already, so I’d better make it a good one today. Lots to say on this one, though. Let’s start with some very general comments.

I think I mentioned this with regard to the Duke story, but I’m sure I’ll be repeating it until the end of time, and it concerns “name” schools. You know, prestigious schools, eyebrow-raising schools, schools that enjoy prestige with people in and out of your chosen industry.

Let’s break down how you should regard those institutions.

There are schools who back up the prestige and those that don’t. There are also schools that are perceived as prestigious by outsiders/laypersons, but not nearly so by professionals in your industry, or even by the faculty and students themselves.

Examples of these are everywhere, so you can fit my advice to your situation, but I will use two examples I have personal experience with, since I attended both schools. I’m going to use Boston University and University of Missouri.

I attended Boston University straight out of high school in podunkville, South Dakota, in 1992. For my small, rural Midwestern community, this was seen as quite a coup; sending one of their own to big, fancy, prestigious Boston University. And it wasn’t just the proud townsfolk; I felt the same way.

Then I got to BU and found it to be a fine place and all — but not particularly prestigious. It was private and expensive — that much is for sure, and hasn’t changed — but it was not the door-opening, secret-society, best-of-the-best type place that the folks at home thought I was attending.

For a variety of reasons (though “poverty” was the biggest one) I ended up transferring out after my freshman year. And while I value my experience there, I believe Boston University was a perfect example of a school whose perceived prestige did not justify its cost. Today, the cost may be justified by other things (the living arrangements get pretty posh, for example), but at least back in 1992, it wasn’t by prestige alone.

University of Missouri, though, was the opposite story. I got a master’s degree in journalism there. If you’re even peripherally interested in journalism, you probably know that Missouri’s journalism school is the oldest in the U.S. and is still as prestigious as any (yes, Northwestern and Columbia, including you. 🙂

I will say this without reservation: the prestige of the Missouri program absolutely MADE my career. And get this — I didn’t even go into journalism. Never worked as a journalist for one day after getting my master’s in journalism.

Didn’t matter — the journalism degree from Mizzou opened all the doors I needed to leap-frog others around me. Mizzou’s pipeline with Cox Interactive Media got me a $35,000 job managing a Phoenix news-and-events website (CIM no longer exists, but it existed long enough to launch my career!). Eighteen months later, I was making $75,000 at a company that made software for newspaper websites (it’s defunct now, too. But it worked for me!). And that’s really, really good money for a 25-year-old with a journalism degree.

So, did Mizzou’s prestige get me the software-company job? Absolutely not — I had to bust my ass in the previous job to work my way up the ladder and have a good resume to give to the software company, and then of course I had to convince them to hire me. But don’t miss the point: Without Mizzou, I never get the original job that I used as a stepping stone to the software job. (Which I left after 6 months anyway, but that’s a story for another day).

SO, LET’S RECAP since I write way too much and get off-track (sorry): Sometimes prestige is worth paying for, and sometimes it’s not.

Here’s a lesson that everyone reading this MUST learn, sooner than letter, regardless of your age: PRICE AND VALUE ARE NOT THE SAME THING. Price is just price. Value is what you get for the price.

So, back to Christian Reich (who I think should just ditch art and become a heavy metal lead singer with a name like Christian Reich, but anyway): What should Christian do?

Well, this depends on what he wants to do with his life, for sure, and how good he is. Christian, are you good enough to bang with the big boys of your chosen profession? That is to say, if you go to Ringling, are you going to kick ass and rise to the top your senior year when Disney and Pixar’s reps come rolling in for interviews?

Are you willing to place an $80,000 bet on yourself, Christian? (Whatever you choose, it’s a hell of a lot more exciting when you think of it that way, isn’t it? 🙂 And you should understand that, if you are, your collector won’t break your knees. He’ll take payments via direct debit every month with interest over the next 10-20 years.

Another thing to consider is Tampa’s program. What’s it like? Do they have their own pipelines to other companies? Government agencies? Governments do a LOT of publications, all of which need to be designed. Not necessarily big Pixar-style bucks, but relatively secure work with great benefits. Again, it just depends on what you want out of life.

For both schools, spend an hour or so and run down their claims. Find some Ringling alumni (Facebook!) and ask them about the program, where they work now, whether it lived up to the hype. If you can (and you can if you try hard), run down some people at Pixar and/or Disney and ask them how they view Ringling graduates, and if the Ringling education is really given extra weight when it comes time to hire.

Either choice can be a good choice for you, Christian, so long as you’re doing everything for the right reasons. If you dream of a big studio animation job and Ringling pans out as a good ticket to that sort of thing — go for it. But on the other hand, don’t go to Ringling just because you got in and it’s prestigious and you feel like you’re supposed to or that you’ll let other people down if you turn it down.

The debt issue is one I’ve discussed before and I’ll just link to it here so that this post doesn’t get any more ridiculous in terms of length, but in sum: the debt issue is real and absolutely *will* affect your life once you’re making the payments on it, even if you get a high-paying job. Only you can decide whether the upside of your job and whatever else awaits you as a result of the Ringling education outweighs the stress of making $800-$900 monthly student loan payments.

Let’s say you have $900/month payments. Figuring very roughly here, those payments will eat up about $1200 of your pretax salary per month. That’s $14,400 of pretax salary that’ll go toward student loans, so whatever job you get after Ringling will need to pay at least $15,000 more than something UT gets you, looking purely at the loan payment aspect.

So Christian, I know you’re reading this…let us know in the comments section what you decide to do!

Back to the general advice — and please feel free to chime in with your own below — prestige is sometimes worth it and sometimes not. On one of my other posts, there was a great comment about how perhaps the education different itself at prestigious universities is less significant than WHO you meet and develop relationships with at those schools.

I completely agree. If we’re talking about the Ivy League schools, for example: sure, are the English Literature or Chinese Studies programs in and of themselves worth triple the cost of similar programs at a strong state university? Probably not. But will you be virtually guaranteed to be rubbing elbows with future CEOs, senators, presidents and other heads of state? Well, probably not. And who you know is more important than what you know in any career, bar none.

All right, I’ve gone from totally energized to mildly fatigued. Time for you guys to take over. What do you think Christian Reich should do? Besides lead vocals, which is obvious with a name like Christian Reich. 🙂

I’m off to eat lunch with the family. I have a better chance of getting into Harvard Medical School than I do getting my 5-year-old daughter to eat last night’s leftover asparagus, I’m afraid. Have a good night!

21 thoughts on “Christian’s Story: Does the School You Choose Ever Matter?”

  1. One thing that can compensate for a school not being viewed as highly prestigious is internships and co-ops. If there is a particular company that you want to work for, see if you can get an internship there through the cheaper school. If you can, then the cheaper school will probably serve you just fine.

  2. This is very difficult, but I would say go to Ringling. Ringling might help you be the next highest paid staff member of Pixar or not, but you’ll never know unless you attend. Remember, you can always consolidate your loans after you graduate which can significantly lower your interest rate.

  3. To me, it has always been about what you do with the knowledge and how you use it. You can go to a prestigious school, but if you don’t apply the knowledge or use it and work hard, you’re not going to get very far. An employer might be a bit impressed, but that doesn’t say much about the kind of worker you are.

  4. I will be graduating from Massachusetts College of Art and Design this May. The school isn’t the best in my opinion, but I’ve gotten a lot done here and met some amazing people. The best thing about this school? It’s the only public art school in the country! MA residents pay a mere $8,400 a year, New England residents pay $14,900 a year, and out of state residents pay $24, 400 a year-which makes this college pretty cheap compared to the competition. Among good programs, the college also has good facilities, resources, and has a good reputation.

    This college is also smack dab in the middle of Boston, which decreases the ‘college bubble’ atmosphere.

  5. Stevland Polite

    Hi Christian,

    Coming from a person who took the expensive private school route. I say go to Ringling. I attend Drexel University. Im in a 5-year program and the cost of attendance is about $56,000 a year. Financial Aid pays for some of it, but I’m in my fourth year and have racked up over $100,000 in debt between me and my parents. My parents could no understand why I would pay so much for school when I could’ve gone to a state school with no debt. They were actually trying to convince me not to come here.

    But I decided I wanted to do what was best for me. What bought me here was the Co-op program. Which is 6-month Full-Time internships. I just finished my third Co-op and am currently working part-time for my company while I’m taking classes. All three of my co-op’s were paid and at great companies. I’ve made valuable connections and got a chance to really experience what life would be like after graduation so I could tailor my studies and job search for a career that I would love. I’ve also studied abroad twice, won national competitions, am president of an organization as well as heavily involved in other activities and manage to maintain a good gpa.

    I value my educational experience so much I don’t care about the debt I had to incur for it. But I made the best of my experience. I told myself I would look back and have no regrets, so I go after every opportunity I possibly can. There’s no way I would have so much debt and not make the most of what I’m paying for. Think about what your $80,000 debt. Your not paying to sit in a classroom and get a piece of paper. Your paying to put yourself in a position to get opportunities the people at the state schools might not get the chance to have.

    At the end of the day you have to live with your decision, you have to pay your loans back, and you have to do what’s best for you! Don’t work for your $80,000 debt, make your $80,000 debt work for you! Go to Ringling!

  6. That’s a tough one. I’m thinking of going into screenwriting and tv production and I know there are a lot of big name prestigious schools with those connections.
    I think Christian should do and pursue what he really wants to do at his schoo of choice. However, he should consider the debt he might incur by going to Ringling. Either school he chooses, upon graduation you still have to work hard to get what you want. I wish him the best of luck.

  7. I will be graduating from Massachusetts College of Art and Design this May. The school isn’t the best in my opinion, but I’ve gotten a lot done here and met some amazing people. The best thing about this school? It’s the only public art school in the country! MA residents pay a mere $8,400 a year, New England residents pay $14,900 a year, and out of state residents pay $24, 400 a year-which makes this college pretty cheap compared to the competition. Among good programs, the college also has good facilities, resources, and has a good reputation.

    This college is also smack dab in the middle of Boston, which makes decreases the ‘college bubble’ atmosphere.

  8. I’m Not familiar with either school persay, (school @ all for that matter) but from the two choices it sounds like you have a choice of learning core fundamentals, history, etc.. etc.. versus leaning how to do “a thing.” Right now, that “thing” may make you happy, pay the bills, make your family proud and all that jazz. In terms of “future,” what if in 10 years that “thing” becomes “nothing?” What does that degree in __________ “thing” mean?

  9. Christian, my boyfriend is a professional graphic designer in Emeryville (right by Pixar actually) and his company really looks at what school you go to, especially during this recession when there are billions of resume’s coming in, they will usually first weave through them by looking at your school. After that, then they will look at your portfolio. So for your case, I’d say prestige wins. You still have to be talented and competent at what you do, but having a prestigious school on your resume will keep you from being initially overlooked, I’d say.

    (selfish side note: Virginia Commonwealth University is a public university with a great graphic design program, if you can get Virginia residency 😉

  10. I’m in the same boat – or, was in the same boat 3 years ago! I turned down two free rides to state colleges (CSU Long Beach, CSU Fresno) and a half scholarship to Chapman. To go to USC, which is difficult to get through NOW, and I’m going to have EXACTLY $900/month due in student loans for 10 years after I graduate in a year.

    I am in the best film production school in the world. I hold a job and an internship and am involved in all kinds of student films. I’m also from a small town where everyone expected me to follow my childhood dream and kick butt at USC, and not only did I tunnel-vision on going here, I didn’t want to let anyone down, either!

    My thoughts are, especially with art/entertainment careers like these: it’s what you make of it! This article is spot-on. If I let myself get burnt out or party too much or get side tracked and let other people pull ahead of me, I would have ruined my reputation and fallen more and more behind and I’d graduate with a prestigious degree but none of the valuable connections I have made so far. I’ve interned twice for leading production companies, participated in award-winning student films, met just about all the famous filmmakers I could ever have wanted to (2 days ago it was Henry Selick, if you’re interested in animation!) and have the best and most insightful professors in the world. I am saturated in what I love to do, but it is still very exhausting.

    However, it’s a lot of hard work. Personally, I do not mind sacrificing a social life because I have a project to work on, and I’ve learned how to live affordably and how to balance myself. I am doing what I love and every day is too interesting and eventful (it’s what I’m paying for!) to worry. I’m not concerned about getting a good job because I have made connections and learned about what I want to do and how to get that kind of a job. I have a friend with a free ride to a state college who took it because it was convenient and cheap, and he hates every second of school and it’s making him really doubt his career paths.

    If you’re 100% sure you want to work VERY hard to put yourself out there for 4 years and can pay off that debt with no regrets, then DO it. But if being comfortable and not worrying about money and having lots of free time is more important to you, then go for what’s cheap 🙂

  11. Christian,

    There is always the option of taking your first 2 (or even 3) years of design studies at the generic school where you will get yourself grounded to the grind of college, and then transfer to the brand name school, where the degree on your resume will be “from”, and thus only incur 1/4 to 1/2 the debt load. As long as you keep your eye on the prize and pick courses that are prerequisites for the fancy school, all you would need is good marks. Most career connections are made in the internships in the last year and a half of college.

  12. I have to say that I agree with Desiree’s comment “As someone who has done some hiring (albiet low level hiring), I only cared about what someone actually did with their education?.not about what they hope to do with it. College is about showing what you can do. Go to the school that will enhance that.”
    When I hired I was most concerned about ability rather than cush…. maybe some big companies that are all hype are more interested in cush, but are those places really about ability or are they about prestige? I suppose if I wanted to be known for name and not ability the prestigious school would be the one to pick.
    Maybe you should check at the company in which you wish to land a job and see what they want ( I think Josh mentioned looking up people in facebook) .
    Best wishes!!

  13. Depends on what exactly you will be focusing in. If you are eye-balling Pixar, I take it you are into Digital Animation and/or Visual Effects.

    I am a VFX artist and attended one of the schools in Florida that specializes in the industry. I will tell you from experience. My school is very well connected with big name studios. Instructors in this school have supervised prime time sci-fi shows and big budget sci-fi movies. The school has graduates working in every significant studio in the country and several around the world.

    When it comes to digital animation and VFX, the school, even if nice, won’t land you the job you seek. The question is: How dedicated are you to learn the art?

    At the end, your demo reel is what will land you the job. You could be a graduate fresh out of school and have a demo reel that reflects someone who’s been in the industry for years. This can be the case for you regardless of what school you go to.

    I had fellow students who went for a year to some of these big name school’s and spend the first year doing very little to learn the art. Some schools want to show you 100 ways to do one thing, when others will teach you the 10 most important ways for you to be able to figure out the other 90 with practice.

    I would look into the instructors in both schools. Do they have experience in the industry? Do they really even know how the industry works?

    The majority of the time, it is previous graduates that are the in to the big name studios. Look into the percentage of students from one school actually getting work over the other school. Word gets around when a new student from the school I went to starts to excel at what they want to do. By the time they graduate, it’s the former students who have already shown some of their work to their supervisors.

    Believe me, I am glad I went where I did. I don’t have a huge debt to pay and I am very happy doing what I do.

  14. It sounds like you know a lot about Ringling’s programs. Check out more of the state school’s before making a decision. From personal experience, your work experience will matter WAY more than where you got your degree. If you go to Ringling and never hold a job or get a serious internship (not something where you make photo copies all day) then it probably won’t pay off. If you go to the state school and participate in everything, get an entry level job, and gain experience, then it will pay off huge. As someone who has done some hiring (albiet low level hiring), I only cared about what someone actually did with their education….not about what they hope to do with it. College is about showing what you can do. Go to the school that will enhance that.

  15. Ps- Every CEO or Vice I know went to a state school…It’s the person’s drive that pays off-not the school.

  16. I’m in a hurry and didn’t read everyone’s response. I am answering blindly I guess you would say. I’ve asked myself that question many times and I went to both the school that put me in debt and the public school that was 75% tuition covered (but when your tuition is $3000/year 75% is basically free).
    I think it depends what you are studying and in your case, the arts, the school does matter (sometimes). One thing you need to REALLY TAKE INTO CONSIDERATION is that art and design schools have their own curriculum. I went to the public school then transferred to a private liberal arts college. My liberal arts credits transferred which was great because I only had to focus on the classes in my major. Yes I am in debt with college loans, but 2 years worth as oppose to 4. Had I gone to the liberal arts college first and found it wasn’t a right fit or that I could not afford $80g’s ofe debt later, I would have been stuck starting over because the credits are not transferable. Art schools design their curriculum to fit their needs, making it difficult to transfer credits later.

    My suggestion is find out if your credits from UT will transfer to Ringling. Go to UT for a year, try it out, you’ll be saving money and if you like it then stay there. If you feel their curriculum addresses motion design in theory more than hands on, making it difficult to build the experience you need to find a good job later, then transfer to Ringling.

    When it comes to the arts you need to know what you are doing and it’s your skills that will get you the job, not the school, but if you are like me … I had to learn the skills and network, the school with the name and connections will pay off in the end.

    Maybe I should’ve read everyone else’s response, but I hope that helps.

  17. Josh,

    Thank you so much for the article. I now know that I should be a lead singer in a hard rock band and have decided to give up school…JK. I actually decided on Tampa, after visiting the past two days, mainly for financial reasons. I figure I can always do graduate school if needed. I am a hard worker and think I can take the program to a new level on my own.

    Thanks again,


  18. I’m in a theater program at the University of Minnesota. I chose to come to the U of M even though I had been accepted to NYU because of (1) the EXTREMELY cheaper cost – $60k/year vs. $6k/year for me – and because (2) the U of M is smack dab in the second-largest theater city in the country. In my program, I know three people who chose my school over NYU after attending NYU because they felt they would have a better experience here than at the prestigious-name school.

    Make sure you’ve visited both Ringling and the Florida school before you choose. You might get to Ringling and say “WTF these people are RIDICULOUS” and save yourself $80k in debt. Or, you might get to Florida and say “WTF this program is CRAP” and save yourself a wasted education.

    Good luck!

  19. With the vast amount of graduates today especially in the arts and design field its more about what you can do and the impact you create. School is really about getting your foot in the door. I mean with the internet today you can do anything -include marketing your work or just learning how to do it. I chose a very different field in school because I already had my foot in the door from high school and have been building skillsets. I’m in my fourth year now and I have clients that pay me for jobs building my portfolio. If your parents are going to pay for parts of your education then you can select an more expensive one but if you are going to pay it by yourself then your better off going with the cheaper one. Four years is a long time, a lot of things change. The stuff you learn in the four years will be outdated when you graduate. Continuous learning is key today and if you don’t keep your skills up-to-date no school can help you with that.

    I read somewhere about someone talking about co-ops and would like to comment on that. An co-op option is just a way to push yourself to actually find a job/internship. If you really want to run for your dream, your motivation should come from within. My friends all had co-op options and its no difference from one that doesn’t -they don’t help you find it anyway you got to look for it yourself. Again its all about self motivation. Big companies are also not always the way to go when starting as a graduate because you have less opportunities to learn much. I have been interning under CEOs/VPs that got together as a small business and I can say I learn much more then in bigger organizations. Its about knowing the right people that understands what you do not the amount of people you know. Talk to soon-to-be grads at the university and see what they think.

  20. I don’t think it depends on which college a person chooses; it’s what they learned from their college. Getting a degree from a higher-priced college looks good, but many people have forgotten all that their pretty degree taught them. I know of a close business associate that backed up what I’m saying by it mainly goes towards the faster progress that new workers make, more than what school they actually attended. Higher-priced colleges do teach a higher-level of learning, but its not going to mean much if its forgotten within the next year or two.

  21. I’m a Ringling Alumni, and i just wanted to say it comes down to the individual. Art school is expensive and a lot of graduates don’t make it in the art world. These expensive art schools will provide you with everything you need to be successful in whatever you want, but just doing what is asked will not get you there. You have to live it and breath it. Use these school’s resources to the max. If you take it seriously and make it your life it will be worth the money( not partying, not wasting time with relationships, or drugs). The possibilities are limitless at Ringling. It’s the individual that matters most not the School.

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