Art School Checklist: MFA Program Must-Haves

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Don’t be an artist who chooses your MFA program based on a random set of criteria. You wouldn’t choose who you want to marry based on your emotions after spending the day with a person. Your gut could feel right, but the program could turn out to be very wrong. Obviously, the school’s website is not a good measure for whether or not you’ll have a good educational experience while studying there.

If you are considering getting an Master of Fine Arts degree in art, here are some things to consider before spending your money on tuition.

Working Artists as Teachers

Do you like the professors? Have you seen their work? Do they have websites and portfolios that knock your socks off? Have you seen their public performances? Can you sit in on their classes/lectures before you enroll? Are they self-driven and creating work outside of the classroom?

A Proper or External Redress Procedure

Schools often have an internal redress procedure, which means you might end up complaining to Professor X’s friend or subordinate if/when you have an argument or encounter a problem with Professor X.

How does the school handle things when students and faculty don’t get along? They should have a definite answer about how they smooth everything out. Ask to speak to a student and faculty member who had to go through the redress procedure. Ask them to tell their story.

Real Financial Aide

The financial aide office used to be a place where financial councilors searched for grants and scholarships that could help you pay for tuition so you could stay in the program until you gradutate. Make sure the financial aid office isn’t all about putting you in debt. Ask them how they work on your behalf. If they only help with getting you into private and federal student loans, then that’s a financially-aid-the-school office.

Alumni Job Placement Support

Chances are that you’ll be looking for a way to make a living after you graduate. If you’re interested in teaching, does your college have a department that helps students find teaching positions? If you’re looking to become a studio artist, does your college have a history of helping students connect with gallery representation, museums, and/or artist residencies? Talk to those departments, ask how it all works, and ask for examples. If possible, talk to an artist that they successfully placed.

A Working Network

When you attend a state business school (for example), you get plugged into a network of people who also went to that school. For instance, graduates from the University of Oregon have an extensive and established business and alumni network. See if your prospective school has a network of any kind. If so, ask to attend a meetup, talk with the alumni organizers, or at least see a list of recent events and outreach.

Talk to Current Students

If you’re trying to choose between two schools, talk to current students. If you ask the admissions department to connect you with a student, you’ll end up with someone who the admissions department knows is going to give you that party line. That’s okay, but go to the campus (if possible) or post on a forum where students of that school would see. Ask for the dirt on the school. Every school has dirt, but you want to find dirt that doesn’t make you worried about investing your time and money.

Talk to Older Graduates

The people who went to school twenty years ago will have a lofty-viewed take on their experience, and they’ll be able to give you real world advice about your choices. The alumni association should be able to put you in touch with an older graduate. If not, try searching LinkedIn.

Special Needs Assistance

If you have learning assistance needs, talk to students with similar concerns who are, or were, in the program. Did they have to struggle to get the help they needed? If you can, go to the college for a tour and request the kind of help you’ll actually need as an enrolled student. If they can’t provide the kind of aid you require during your tour, imagine how you’ll feel after you’ve payed tuition and you can’t get it.

What’s the Dropout Rate?

If 50% or more of the students who enroll choose to drop out instead of graduate, something is wrong. Maybe the school admits too many students, has no idea how to filter out the students who aren’t a good fit, or the program has hidden flaws that drive people away after a semester or two. Dropout rates can be found on any college rating website.

Transferable Credit

Say you choose to go to School A. Then, two semesters into it, you find that it’s just not the right fit. Now you’ve got to transfer to School B. You have to apply and get accepted to a new program, then attempt to get credit at School B for the work you did at School A.

Typically, the more desperate a school is for graduates, the more open they are to accepting credits. The more exclusive the school, the more likely it is that you’ll have to retake classes at their place with their instructors. Beware of schools where your credits won’t transfer, because if you find yourself two semesters in and hating life, you have no choice but to stick it out or lose your investment and drop out.

Next: 10 Subjects Art School Students Should Learn