An application fee for college?
October 2, 2012 8:07 AM   Subscribe

My son is a senior in high school, and has been very lazy about applying to colleges. He's an art major, and is interested in attending the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. So, he started the application last night, and then asked me for 50.00. They charge for applications? Should that be a warning sign about the quality of the school?

I'm not familiar with the school itself, but it seems like one of those schools that's advertised nationally, and isn't very credible. The 50.00 application fee seems suspect to me.
posted by thanotopsis to Education (53 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a recent grad (MBA program) but even when I applied for colleges in 1998 there was about a $50/application fee (Ivy League and State Schools)
posted by hrj at 8:08 AM on October 2, 2012

Harvard charges an application fee. Most colleges do. Don't worry about that aspect of it.
posted by ghharr at 8:08 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Every school requires an application fee, but some schools will provide waivers.
posted by sandmanwv at 8:09 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm remembering back about 20 years at this point, but I'm pretty sure every college I applied to (all reputable) had an application fee.
posted by amro at 8:09 AM on October 2, 2012

This is absolutely normal and has been for decades, at least. Can't speak to this school in particular, but the application fee is in no way a red flag.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:09 AM on October 2, 2012

When I applied for college 10 years ago, every single (reputable) college and university had an application fee. I have no idea about this specific school, but an application fee is totally normal. Usually there is a process to waive it if you can demonstrate that it is a financial hardship.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:10 AM on October 2, 2012

It takes time to process an application. The $50 fee probably doesn't cover it, but it is a disincentive for those who might otherwise apply to dozens of schools they aren't seriously interested in.
posted by jon1270 at 8:10 AM on October 2, 2012 [12 favorites]

They all charge, basic administrative fee for handling the paperwork and presumably helps to weed out joke/unserious applications.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:10 AM on October 2, 2012

And $50 seems to be standard, even in Canada. A school that charged more than that might be suspicious.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:12 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I applied to colleges in 1999 for entry in 2000, I think I paid something like $300 in application fees for all the schools I applied to. The fees were between $40 and $75 at the time.
posted by zizzle at 8:12 AM on October 2, 2012

If you don't do this, you get overwhelmed with frivolous applications.
posted by thelonius at 8:13 AM on October 2, 2012

There is always an application fee. I'd be nervous if they didn't charge an application fee.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:15 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

We did the college process last fall and every single college we looked at had a fee ranging from $40 - 75 (10 schools). We narrowed down the list, and 3 actually waived the fee based on his grades. All were in the US mid Atlantic region and included both private and state universities.
posted by maxg94 at 8:15 AM on October 2, 2012

The average offline fee in spring 2012 was $37.88. Applying online sometimes reduces the fee.

As you can see at that link, the schools with the highest application fees for undergrads in the United States are Stanford ($90) and Columbia ($80). Dartmouth is close behind, at $85. Duke, U of Chicago, U of Penn, MIT, Yale, and Harvard also have one of the highest fees: $75.

So, the application fee may indeed be an indication of how high-quality the school is. Just not in the direction you were thinking.
posted by John Cohen at 8:16 AM on October 2, 2012

Every college and university I've ever attended (and it's in the double-digits) has asked for an application fee. I started applying in 1979.

Now, the Art Institute (Illinois Institute of Art) is a "blinking and breathing" school along the lines of DeVry or ITT institute. The qualifications to enroll are, blinking, breathing and will sign life away in student loans., this is no great institution of higher learning. Here's a question to ask the admissions/sales rep, "Will the credit I earn here transfer to any other school?"

I think you need to become more involved in the process. If your son wants to go to school to study Art, find a university or college or community college with an art program that suits his needs.

My guess, your son saw a commercial on TV because the Art Institute talks about running a program to learn how to do video games. *sigh*

Start having him check out his scholarship options, also inform him of what you're willing to contribute monitarily, so he can make decisions based on facts, not what some lady on an olive oil can tells him.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:16 AM on October 2, 2012 [31 favorites]

Yeah, most colleges charge an application fee. Just a suggestion: you should strongly consider reading a book (like maybe this one) and/or lots of web information on the college admissions process, as it will cover details like these, and allow you to work better with your son.

Just as an aside, speaking to the underlying legitimacy of the Illinois Institute of Art, seems like lots of people have doubts about its quality after all, as it seems to be a "for profit" college, which can be notoriously problematic.
posted by shivohum at 8:16 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing no correlation between an application fee and the quality of the institution.

The school he's applying to seems to be an affiliate of the Art Institutes chain, which are for-profit. For-profit schools are getting a lot of negative press lately, some of it justified and some of it not. We hired a graphic designer recently and while we didn't hire an AI of Charlotte grad, I was impressed with a couple of the students we interviewed who had gone through their program.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:18 AM on October 2, 2012

Application fees are standard. That said, the Illinois Institute of Art is one of the "Art Institute of ______" schools, a chain of private for-profit art schools nationwide. They have open an open enrollment policy which means that regardless of a student's academic preparedness, they'll be happy to take their money. I'd doubt there are very good student services--no health center, no flourishing on-campus community, no student clubs. Also he probably won't take a humanities class beyond freshman comp and a very tailored art history course. Maybe that's what your son wants--these schools can be great for the right people--but they won't provide support that struggling or not-quite-getting-it students need. I teach at a private for-profit college, and for every excellent student I see coming out of its rigorous-but-poorly-supported programs, I see twenty others not showing up for critiques, failing classes repeatedly, turning in graduate level essays written in Comic Sans with in-text pictures of butterflies.

If you want your son to go to college you need to be reviewing schools with him. The process of choosing a school is overwhelming enough, even with engaged parents; he has no ability gauge the impact of taking out thousands of dollars worth of loans, of assessing the quality of a school, etc, on his own.
posted by soviet sleepover at 8:25 AM on October 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

I have a friend who is an Art Institute (Philadelphia) graduate. She has been happily employed designing video games for the US Army for several years now. From her account, AIs are essentially trade schools. You will usually pay out of pocket for them; they don't have the strong art foundation programs that schools like Parsons, which my sister attended, might. But it might be fine as a way to break into the video game field.

If he wants to be a fine artist or illustrator, however, he needs to not be lazy. He should have been working on his portfolio for the last year. Quality Fine Arts programs won't admit him without one.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:25 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's a question to ask the admissions/sales rep, "Will the credit I earn here transfer to any other school?"

I wouldn't expect forthright answers from an admissions/sales official at a for-profit school. A better question would be to ask would be one of any school your son might consider transferring to later: "Will the credit I earned there transfer here?"
posted by grouse at 8:28 AM on October 2, 2012

Application fees are not a warning sign, but the Illinois Institute of Art is not a quality institute, it's a high-cost trade school.

Ruthless Bunny suggested asking the school if the credit will transfer, I'd argue this isn't quite the right question; I suggest asking a known target school if they'd accept the credit instead. Sales reps at for-profit schools aren't the most honest folks in the world.

If he lacks direction, I'd suggest part-time community college and part-time work. He can wander a bit in community college without incurring a ruinous debt, and I had several friends whose determination to succeed college came when they realized that they hated the jobs that were available without one.

A quick heuristic for whether a school is a probable scam is whether their wikipedia listing includes the words 'for profit'.
posted by grudgebgon at 8:35 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are we all sure that the OP's son wants to go to the Illinois Institute of Art and not the Art Institute of Chicago?

The latter is a legit art school. The former is, as Ruthless Bunny says, a for profit degree mill.

It might be worth sitting down with your son and helping him do some research on reputable art schools. Especially since you will likely be footing the bill (or at least filling out the FAFSA and helping him figure out the student loan landscape), and art school is rarely cheap.

Edit to add: unless your son is a dreadful student, he has a decent shot at getting into a good art school. There's really no reason for him to be looking at schools like Illinois Institute of Art, as a high school senior.
posted by Sara C. at 8:40 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

The application fee is 100% fine.

But he's way way way better off going to community college. I started my fine arts degree at community college. I later got a super pricey BA at a fancy shmanzy college. In retrospect the quality of art at the community college was likely much higher than at my small liberal arts college in New England.

In double retrospect an arts degree is worth close to nothing no matter where you get it from. The jobs I got to pay my way through school proved far more valuable than the education or degree.
posted by French Fry at 8:43 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

He needs to work backward. What does he want to do in the field? This is very important as even grads from quality schools face a lot of competition. (I went to Ringling School of Art. I myself did not finish but I had many friends that did-lots have careers and even their own businesses but not a small number wound up getting additional education in other fields in order to eat.)

I also knew an extremely talented fellow back in the day that was so good that Disney recruited him before he ever went to school-they just needed him to get the piece of paper, he was better than most of the faculty. And the faculty were all recruited from working in the field. They were GOOD.

So, in other words, portfolio, portfolio, portfolio and MASSIVE work ethic. If he doesn't have the work ethic he will be totally wasting his time as I know a lot of very talented people and just talent by itself will not translate into a career.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:43 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are we all sure that the OP's son wants to go to the Illinois Institute of Art and not the Art Institute of Chicago?

He came at me last night with the for-profit school link on his laptop, so he hasn't really shopped around, I think.

What does he want to do in the field?

His literal goal in life is to one day work for Pixar. He'd like to go to Cal Arts, but like most art students, his GPA doesn't reflect anything about him. As CalArts is 38k a year, and financial aid won't be coming to us because of my salary, I generally figured that was out of the question. So, his directive has been to look around and find something that can act as a "step 1" in his journey.
posted by thanotopsis at 8:50 AM on October 2, 2012

In response to your follow-up:
Assuming Cal Arts is a California university (and google suggests it is, but sometimes colleges have very similar names and aren't remotely related), step one could be to determine if it has a transfer agreement with any community colleges. Community colleges are cheaper. Linky.
posted by Michele in California at 9:01 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's a good point, Michele. It looks like CalArts has a portfolio day in Chicago, at one of the schools his mother had already suggested (but which I think he confused with the AI school).
posted by thanotopsis at 9:06 AM on October 2, 2012

Cal Arts is not part of the California State University nor of the public community college system.
posted by lathrop at 9:08 AM on October 2, 2012

A friend of mine did her undergrad in fine arts at Cal Poly Pomona, which is public. Not sure of specific agreements with community colleges, but they seem like the kind of place that would.

She's always had a job and is on her way to a career as a professional ceramicist. In fact, out of all my artist friends, she's the one who has had the most job success in her field.

That said, OP is in Wisconsin, so the California system is probably not such a huge draw.

Though I will say that it's definitely worth looking at arts programs at public schools, wherever his public school of choice might be.

Why is your son googling around for for-profit schools rather than looking at lists of legit universities and narrowing down where he's most interested in applying? I get that he's being laid back about the whole college process, but finding schools to apply to should not be the big problem here. Is anyone helping him on this stuff? Is whoever is helping him doing so with his cooperation and suggesting schools he might actually like to attend? There seems to be a much deeper issue here than an application fee.
posted by Sara C. at 9:15 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just for some perspective, I teach at a "blinking and breathing" art school in San Francisco like the one Ruthless Bunny has described. We even run commercials late night on Adult Swim.

I don't think we are a bad school - but students that really put work into their education will get much more out of it. I have plenty of lazy, unmotivated students that will not likely have a future in the arts - I also have plenty of intelligent, driven students that will learn a ton and move on to be successful creative professionals.

Pursuing animation as a career skill is a totally valid choice IMHO - but if he is not dedicated, willing to work his ass off and compete with other very talented/motivated artists he has literally no shot.

Feel free to PM me if you want more info or opinions.
posted by gnutron at 9:19 AM on October 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree with gnutron, a lot of these schools are fine for what they are, but you MUST have a student who is self-motivating. The kind of self-motivating that has the kid asking for art and animation software for his birthday. The kind of self-motivating that has the kid developing little animations and posting them on You Tube. The kind of self-motivating that has the kid knowing what schools he wants to attend, what he wants to learn and how he wants to apprach his career.

Then there's a kid who's an okay student (his grades doen't reflect his intelligence), never got into too much trouble, and is just now thinking about what he's going to do with his life and the best thing he can come up with is another few years in school playing at learning animation.

Then he thinks the world will beat a path to his door with an offer from Pixar.

I used to teach teenagers and the one thing I used to wish that parents would do is to take a kid's dream and show him how to achieve it, with hard work and goal setting. Wish in one hand, shit in the other, which one fills up first?

So your kid wants to work at Pixar, well so do most kids. How are you going to teach him to get there?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:29 AM on October 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Ringling has a computer animation department but it is expensive as all get out.

gnutron and Ruthless Bunny are absolutely SPOT on. The successful people I know WERE doing things on their own, school or no school. They lived, ate and breathed it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:47 AM on October 2, 2012

Cal Arts graduate here. GPA will not matter too terribly much. His portfolio will be everything. This is the case with most art schools. He should be able to demonstrate technical skill, creativity, originality, storytelling (through pictures is fine), and the ability/interest to try new things and to experiment. To prepare for art school, any art school, he should be drawing constantly, trying different media, and different styles. Please note, I am not affiliated with the school or the admissions department. These are just my thoughts based on what I saw from my fellow students while I was there.

Something else I've noticed is that the undergraduate students from art schools often make art that is technically better but conceptually less interesting than students who did undergraduate studies in liberal arts or something else, then studied art as a graduate student. I think this is because they don't have as much grounding in literature, history, politics, and science as they might get at a typical college. Of course, four years at typical college, then three more at art school is not exactly the fastest path to Pixar so YMMV.
posted by faustessa at 9:49 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

A good first step is to hit the library and find the college admissions section. They will have books that are directories of colleges, broken down according to specialty - that will give him a systematic way to find out what art programs (not necessarily at art-only schools) he should be aiming for. They will explain the difference between - for example - the Art Institute of Chicago (a reputable school) and this other for-profit school. If he needs a simple rule, the rule should be: NO for-profit schools.

He should probably aim to apply to at least three schools: one that is a "safety" (where he comfortably exceeds the GPA and SAT/ACT requirements), one that is a middle pick (where he meets the requirements), and one that is a "reach" (where he doesn't quite meet the requirements, but he might have a shot on a good day). It is common to apply to five or more schools in the safety and middle ranges; you may want to decide as a family how many schools he should be applying to.

That section of the library will also have books about the admissions process (how to prepare your application, what happens after you apply), and about financial aid.

He might want to look at whether any of his schools accept "the Common Application", which simplifies his life if he's applying to a bunch of places. If so, he would be able to just write one set of admissions essays and use them for all the places, rather than writing separate essays for each.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:56 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cal Arts is a private school, not part of the California public university system. I grew up in Southern California and took high school art classes with a number of students who aspired to go there, and it was for serious harder to get into than Harvard.

If your son has a mediocre GPA, that will not be an issue, so long as his portfolio is stellar. Does he have a portfolio? Is it stellar? Do you know? Does he know?

I was lucky enough to go to a high school with an excellent honors art program. The teacher worked very closely with the student who wanted to go to art school to help them find the program that would be the right fit, and to build a strong enough portfolio to get in. His advice for those who wanted to go to Cal Arts was generally to take a year after high school just working on their portfolios to be competitive. And these were the students that were already outstanding.

Your son really needs to talk to his art teacher and his guidance counselor to get an honest assessment of what his options are. Also, he needs parents that are more actively involved in the process. I know you're probably feeling that it's his future so he should take responsibility for it, and his dream that maybe you don't necessarily support, but we're talking about a decision that potentially involves taking on six figures of debt that can't ever be discharged. This isn't the sort of choice a 17 year old is qualified to make without a lot of parental guidance.
posted by psycheslamp at 9:56 AM on October 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Another thing to consider is what is his cheapest reputable option. That will probably be a state school. It might be worth looking into what the arts program is like at the state school nearest you (or whichever one he would be going to in your state's system). The admissions office at that school may be able to arrange a tour of the department, brief meetings with faculty and current students, that sort of thing to see if it would work.

A state school will be large - this can be a double-edged sword. It often means less personalized guidance for him, and if the program has low morale it will be harder to succeed if he's not driven. But it also means a much wider pool of potential friends, the option to do things outside of just art, and it can mean building more independence since he will have to take initiative to get noticed.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:05 AM on October 2, 2012

Re arts programs at public schools.

This is probably not true somewhere like Madison or UT-Austin or the other gigantic state schools, but if we're talking a "directional university" or a smaller state U, in my experience the art programs tend to be smaller and more personalized because that's not what most students are going there for.

So, yeah, the school is gigantic. And probably if you're majoring in Biology or Poli Sci or Econ, the classes are huge and there's no individual attention. But the arts programs might not be that way -- it's definitely worth visiting a few rather than writing them all off as "too big" and "impersonal" and "low morale".
posted by Sara C. at 10:13 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there some kind of college counselor or at least a guidance counselor at his high school? It seems you guys really need to sit down with this person and get a realistic assessment of his choices at this stage. If he's serious about art school, then the art faculty at his high school should be a key resource as well in terms of advice, developing his portfolio, etc...
posted by zachlipton at 10:23 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does he have any idea what he wants to do at Pixar? Does he want to design, work in CG, storyboard? If he is very serious about pursuing a career in animation (instead of just wanting to work at Pixar because it's really cool--and trust me, it's not all roses there all the time), then it might benefit him to reconsider dedicated art schools like Cal Arts, Ringling, Sheridan, SCAD, etc etc. Then again, if he's dedicated enough and naturally works really hard on art all the time, he'll probably find a way in anyway. You get what you put in.

Another option is just taking classes at a smaller school, like Concept Design Academy. Classes are a la carte and they welcome people from all over the world. It is taught by actual working professionals and many of the students there have gone on to work in the industry. It's great for building connections, too.

But to answer your actual question, a fee is totally normal for applications (it got rather expensive back when I was applying for colleges, it was about $60 for each of my apps). I don't have a very high opinion of the Art Institute of _________ Schools, though.
posted by sprezzy at 10:27 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

If he's really set on Pixar, he really should write them and ask what they need to see in a prospective employee. He should check out the CV's of the people he wants to emulate.
posted by Marky at 10:29 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sara C's point is well-taken. I didn't mean to suggest that all state-school art programs would be too impersonal or low-morale. (The first version of that comment actually talked about how finding a refuge in a smaller program like fine arts can be a great bonding experience!) I think there's just no way to predict in general about an arts program at a huge school - some will be energetic and warm, some may have low morale - and visiting and talking to current students is the best way to tell.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:33 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to add--There's nothing wrong with state school art programs. I actually went to a state school with an animation program and managed to find a job right out of school. The quality of instruction is noticeably different, though...just because art schools tend to have current professionals teaching. The major benefit for state school (at least for me) was that it was cheap. You really have to hustle to make connections, though.

I hear really excellent things about San Jose State University. I've encountered a ton of alumni in the industry.
posted by sprezzy at 10:37 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

financial aid won't be coming to us because of my salary,

The sort of people who make too much for financial aid tend to be doctors and corporate lawyers-- the people for whom 38k/year is at least feasible. That doesn't look like what you do for a living. Your son needs to fill out an FAFSA form.

It sounds like you and your family could use some private college counseling services.
posted by deanc at 10:38 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sorry if that came off like a reproach or a rebuttal, LobsterMitten. I didn't entirely mean it to be.

I started the college search looking for small liberal arts schools that specialized in what I wanted to do (either theatre or film, back then) with features like low professor/student ratios, small classes, specialized programs, etc. I got into my target school, but found that it was a really bad fit for a lot of reasons I won't go into here. I ended up at a huge urban public school in a small major, where I got exactly the kind of education I was looking for at the liberal arts school.

I really wish I could have benefitted from the expertise that, while large schools are large, and will have some of the downsides that come with that, if you're studying something a little unconventional, that's largely not going to be an issue in the day to day sense. An art student at SCAD or RISD can feel much more of that overwhelmingness and difficulty distinguishing themselves than an art major at the University of Vermont or Wayne State.

There are upsides to the classic art conservatory experience, and there are downsides to the state school experience. But I wouldn't focus more on one over the other, especially for a student who isn't terribly motivated about the college search. Just get him into college. A legitimate accredited not-for-profit institution. Once there, he'll have plenty of options, and it's a million times better than throwing money down the drain at a for-profit place.
posted by Sara C. at 10:58 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does he have any idea what he wants to do at Pixar? Does he want to design, work in CG, storyboard?

His focus, for the past few years, has been line drawing, scanning to digital, refining in Illustrator, and then trying to animate. He hasn't gotten really far for the last step, as he's had only one class that's focused on it, and he doesn't self motivate toward anything that has something to do with getting him out of the corner of the room, and his nose out of the drawing pad he always carries around. He's an obsessive cartoonist, and just got an adviser to approve an independent study for this semester to complete an entire comic book.

As far as how that translates to work in the professional world, I don't know. We know a few people that have professional comic strips out there, but they also have day jobs (both of them are scientists).

I've been poking around at school sites today, getting myself warmed up to talk to him when he comes home this evening, and I've found that, surprisingly, CalArts is middle-of-the-road as far as tuition goes. Hell, the most expensive I've found is SAIC.

Even middle of the road is daunting, though. I wonder if he wouldn't be served by throwing a few years at an AD in an art-related field, and then try and transfer the credits to his BA. My eldest son is doing that, but it's easier for him, I think, as he's in a technical field, and tech schools abound.
posted by thanotopsis at 11:07 AM on October 2, 2012

Pixar! Ok, so that's an ambitious as shit goal. I worked for ACME, and had Gigs at ILM, Stan Winston and other luminaries. (Never Pixar though)

no college will not put him into employment at those places, but it might give him the guidance and tools he would need to get there. But this goal needs to be chased NOW. My jobs in the industry came from contacts I made in highschool, not after college.

He is entering an extremely competitive world. One that requires a lot of ambition and focus starting as soon as possible. His portfolio and contacts will be more important than anything else. He must get his portfolio together.

MeMail me if you want to know more, If he wants to email/talk about the industry i'd be happy to be a resource for him.
posted by French Fry at 11:09 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you for your offer, Fry. I'll see if I can steer him toward some specific questions. I have a friend at ILM right now, and I didn't even think to ask his opinion.
posted by thanotopsis at 11:11 AM on October 2, 2012

he doesn't self motivate toward anything that has something to do with getting him out of the corner of the room, and his nose out of the drawing pad he always carries around.

Whew! It sounds like he'll be a great fit in an arts program somewhere.

Capital-A capital-S Art School is very expensive, yes. I know two groups of people who went that way: people from wealthy families and people who qualified for a ton of financial aid (whether merit or need based). It's worth applying to schools like that, but prepare him to ultimately turn down the opportunity when the financial aid package doesn't make it feasible.

I would not have him get an associates degree. I would have him apply to some state schools that are more in line with what you guys can afford, as well as maybe think about community college as a cheaper path to a four year school.

An associates in the arts is going to be practically useless in terms of work. The people applying for entry level arts jobs -- even technical/practical stuff like graphic design -- are going to have BA's. In fact, if he's interested in a career in the arts, he should probably start mentally preparing himself for years of hard work at very low pay, as well as the probability that he will need a day job in an unrelated field for at least a few years.

I don't say this to discourage him, but the path to a job in the arts is very different from the path to a job as an accountant or an engineer. It's not like "four years of college, send out your resume, BAM awesome gig as an animator at Pixar!" It's more like, "four years of college, pick up some bartending skills, do a ton of internships, start a web comic, get a low-level non-creative job for an animation company nobody's ever heard of, consider grad school, keep doing the webcomic, make connections, get a couple more promotions, then FINALLY when you're 30, you get the big call from somewhere like Pixar." This is sucky, but it's not impossible. You just have to adjust your expectations and take a very long view of what success means. Which is part of why the insane debt load is a bad thing, and why it might be better to look at a public school. Because if you graduate and have six figure debt hanging over your head, you can't really tend bar and make comics and pay your dues.
posted by Sara C. at 11:21 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your son wants the Art Institute of Chicago, NOT the Illinois one. Cal Arts and Ringling are other great choices, but expensive!

I've met the team at Disney Toons (I was flown in for a preview of the second Tinker Bell movie), so I went and dug up my notes:

Bradley Raymond --Joe Kubert School of Cartoon Art
John Lasseter (Exec Producer, and he is the "Chief Creative Officer" behind rebooting the Tinker Bell series and turning her into the MacGyver of fairies) --Pasadena's Art Institute
Jenny Lin (Art Director) -- Otis, in LA

Several of the animators went to Cal Arts, and they do a lot of recruiting and internships from there.

Pixar, Dreamworks and Disney Toon Studios all want fine arts majors from accredited college and universities with strong illustration skills. Strong portfolio is a MUST.

Their software is proprietary, so while learning Maya is never a bad idea, they are more concerned with traditional art skills than CGI and software knowledge.

Your son may want to go to the current job listings over at Pixar, where they have FAQs and information on internships, etc. If he does, he will see the skills Pixar is looking for, and also the application process.

Protip: there is a drop-down list of schools when filling out an application. If the school is not on that drop-down list, it's a good sign he shouldn't be considering that school!

Nice link for your son (especially the part about "what should I study":

Disney Animation Studios Student Programs
posted by misha at 11:30 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pixar, Dreamworks and Disney Toon Studios all want fine arts majors from accredited college and universities with strong illustration skills.

I was going to say this about Pixar. Drawing, painting, modelling are going to be important because they build their own software. I would imagine that a brilliant fine arts portfolio would be the way to get in there, but as Marky says he should write to Pixar and ask them.

I went to the Pixar Exhibit, and a huge huge portion of their design work is done by hand. The exhibit book is great for understanding the process (look for one used).
posted by oneirodynia at 4:49 PM on October 2, 2012

What's your willingness to support him? You could suggest that he take a year, get a part-time job for spending money, and make a contract with his you that he'll work x hours a day on a serious portfolio. Advantages:

- there will never be a better time than when you're 18 to do nothing but work on your art
- it will tell him whether he's self-motivated enough to do this
- a lot cheaper for you than a year at CalArts or any other school except a community college

Once he knows whether he has the discipline and the desire to do this, he'll be in a better position to decide if an expensive art school is the right way to go. And, if he's successful, he'll have the killer portfolio he needs.
posted by thehandsomecamel at 5:10 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seems like your app fee question is resolved, so...
Senior-year illustration student here at a well-known art school. You get out of an art education what you put into it, as others have mentioned. Strong traditional skill and strong ideas/creativity are way more important than being able to use a specific program... the idea here being that you can teach a creative person to use a computer program (or to use the house style, etc.) more easily than you can teach someone to come up with cool ideas.

My understanding - and granted, this is through what I've been told as a student who is at a, as Sara C. says, capital-A capital S Art School, so bias is there, sure - is that a lot of AI/similar schools are more of the nature of teaching you a specific way of doing things (you can often see very similar styles emerging from the same school) as well as often being specific about learning programs. That's not to say that NOBODY at an Art Institute of X is creative or has strong skills, or that NOBODY at a more established art school lacks skill or creativity. A great deal of it has to do with motivation and being willing to put in the long hours.

Feel free to message me or get your son in contact with me as well, I'd be happy to answer any questions about art school life, putting together a portfolio for applications, and the like.
posted by jorlyfish at 7:02 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

So here's the rules, as I see 'em, that your son needs to be following.

1) Do not ever go to a for-profit school. There are some people who have gone to for-profits and come out okay, but the odds of really benefiting from the experience are low. The for-profits exist mainly to extract loan money from kids — and they do that really efficiently, but not a whole lot else.

2) In the current state of things, if a school advertises on TV, they are almost certainly a for-profit. Other kinds of advertising are less damning. Community colleges where I live often take out PSA-like ads on billboards or bus signs, for instance, and those aren't necessarily a bad sign. But those "you could have a fun effortless career in less than a year without ever even getting off your ass" late-night TV ads? Bad news. Avoid. (Ask yourself: "This ad is clearly targetting overoptimistic slackers; why would a school want to attract overoptimistic slackers?")

3) In ads or brochures or whatever, a school can say basically whatever they want about the job prospects that await you after graduation. Everyone (not just the big mean for-profits, even the nonprofit universities and community colleges and so on) is going to hint like mad that their program is the gateway to wealth and success. Sometimes it will be true, sometimes it will be a big fat lie. Just don't listen.

4) If you have a specific career in mind, there's only one source of information you do need to pay attention to, and that's people who already have jobs in your chosen field. They know what they're talking about, and generally speaking have no particular incentive to lie. Everyone else is either clueless or selling you something. So you set up informational interviews with whatever contacts you can find in the field. And you ask those people what schools they're currently seeing the most promising new employees hired from, and what qualities set those promising new employees apart. And then do whatever it takes to get into one of those schools and acquire those qualities.

5) If the promising schools are too expensive or too selective, repeat the game from step #4 with their admissions officers. Don't listen to what admissions officers say about the school itself; but it's okay to listen to them when it comes to stuff like transfer programs. Make an appointment with someone in the admissions office, and ask: What state schools or community colleges do people tend to transfer in from? How many transfer students get into the computer animation program? Out of how many applicants? What special qualifications do those successful transfer students have? And then if the odds look okay, do whatever it takes to become one of those transfer students.

Also, a word of wisdom to you and your wife: Resist the urge to offer advice on which specific schools he should go to, because frankly you'd just be making it up. You might have opinions, but they aren't based in fact. You don't have the faintest idea which school have good animation programs. So don't pretend. If he wants to know whether a specific school is good, the only reasonable answer you can give is "We'd better find someone who actually knows about this stuff, and see what they have to say." Show him how to get in touch with people who know this stuff and ask their advice, and hold his hand through that process, and then go with whatever the experts say you should do, modulo whatever family budget constraints you've got.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:12 AM on October 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

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