THE BLOG
05/24/2011 04:14 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2012

For-Profit Art Schools on the Rise

Art, we are told again and again, is a business, but teaching art is also a business. For a growing number of artists, professional training is taking place at for-profit art schools, rather than at the traditional nonprofit college, and the number of these schools has been increasing to meet the very clear demand. Some of these degree-granting schools you may have heard of without knowing that they are "proprietary," or for-profit, for instance, New York City's School of Visual Arts, which has approximately 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

There are some other, smaller ones around the country, such as Art Center Design College in Tucson, Arizona, Paier College of Art in Hamden, Connecticut and the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver. However, the largest art school in the country, the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, is a for-profit with more than 17,000 students, far more than the largest nonprofit art college (Savannah College of Art and Design, around 8,200 total students) and dwarfing some of the most prestigious (Rhode Island School of Design, 2,400 students; CalArts, 1,460; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, around 3,100; Maryland Institute College of Art, around 1,930).

For prospective students (and, perhaps, their parents), the question may be, 'Are the for-profits as good as the nonprofits in terms of what they offer and the quality of instruction?'

The answer appears to be yes, a for-profit art education does not mean a lower-quality education. John Erwin, chairman of the fine arts and photography department at the Art Center Design College, who had received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of the South and a Master of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, claimed that "the experience here is extremely similar to both the university and independent art college I attended in terms of the quality of teaching and depth of study." Similarly, Jaime Levy Russell, who lives in Los Angeles and teaches a course on website development at the for-profit Art Institute of California-Hollywood (part of a network of more than 45 Art Institute schools around the country) but who herself earned an undergraduate degree from California State University at San Francisco and a Master's from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, stated that "all the teachers I've met here are very sincere about offering the best classes they could."

"The customers generally are quite happy," said Richard K. Vedder, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and also an economics professor at Ohio University in Athens. "These schools, and the number of them, wouldn't be growing if people were dissatisfield."

Students as customers? Perhaps the only notable difference between instructors at for-profit art schools and those at nonprofits is the use of business terminology at the for-profits. "Our college is centered on a performance-based curriculum," Erwin said, and Robert Zappalorti, director of Paier College's fine art department, noted that "we are very career-oriented." Try getting those kinds of words out of the mouth of a fine arts instructor or administrator at Cooper Union or CalArts!

The difference between the non- and for-profit art colleges may not be the quality of the education, but the nature of the student. They are not the traditional 18-22 age group (the average age of an Art Institutes student is 25); they are more racially and ethnically diverse and they come from less affluent homes. "A very large percentage of our students are first-generation college students," said Dr. Steven Goldman, president of the Art Institute of Portland, Oregon, "which may be more significant than race or national origin." In addition, many of his students are deficient in basic reading and math skills, which has led him to institute "an ambitious tutoring project to get them to appropriate college-level skills."

The Academy of Art University has a "no barriers to admission policy," which means that anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent may enroll. No need to submit SAT scores or high school grade point averages or even a portfolio, as all the nonprofit art schools do. "We're a very, very democratic school," said Dr. Elisa Stephens, president of the university and granddaughter of the school's founder, Richard A. Stephens. "We try to find a very passionate student who has a commitment to learning." She noted that there are "not many good art programs in high schools, especially in California," so judging a student by a portfolio may not be a good barometer of current or future talent. Students develop a portfolio while taking courses at the Academy of Art University and, after the fourth semester, "we do a portfolio review to see which program we offer might be most suited to the individual student's abilities."

A lower academic profile affects the six-year graduation rates.The percentage of students who obtain a baccalaureate degree within a period of six years is 36 percent at the Academy of Art University, 43 percent at the Art Institute of Portland. That compares to 63 percent for schools that are members of the San Francisco-based Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, a consortium of mostly not-for-profit art schools.

Standing out among all the for-profit art colleges is the Pittsburgh-based Art Institutes, Inc. (www.artinstitutes.edu), a subsidiary of Education Management Corporation, which has been opening one similarly named school (Art Institute of Atlanta, Art Institute of Houston and Art Institute of Tucson, among others) after another around the country. The school chain is the largest of its kind and, since 2005, the number of Art Institutes has jumped more than 50 percent, now up to 48 (and counting) schools and currently teaching over 83,800 students.

As of 1985, there were only nine Art Institutes schools. "Opening new locations in high-demand markets and expanding our online education capabilities are an important part of The Art Institutes' mission," according to John Pufahl, Vice President of Academic Affairs for The Art Institutes.

Unlike the School of Visual Arts, Paier, Art Center Design and the Academy of Arts University, the "art" in the Art Institute schools refers not to traditional fine arts but to design fields (advertising, fashion, graphic, industrial, interior) culinary arts, media (animation, film production, game design, interactive media and Web design) and photography.

Much that goes on at these schools is determined in Pittsburgh. Tuition rates are largely identical, as are the curricula and the websites. There might be variations in courses and in course numbering, but the curricula are standardized using system models. Representatives of the different schools get together and vote on the models they want to use. Standardization ensures that students at every one of these art institutes are trained at the same level, and that picking a particular school to attend only involves a question of what is closest to home or where they might want to live.

Even standardization hasn't had a negative effect. "I had some skepticism about the for-profit model initially," said Craig Stockwell, a painter who teaches drawing at Keene State College in New Hampshire and has lectured at the Boston-based New England Institute of Art. "I worried that the school was just there to crank out students, but what I saw made a favorable impression on me. They had good students; it seemed very academic; the facilities seemed good. In the graphic arts area, they seemed to do a good job in delivering a product."