10/10/2012 06:27 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

Touring That Art School? Sit in on a Class, Too

Contrary to the beliefs of many art school applicants, a Bachelor of Fine Arts is not simply a certificate of training in art but a college degree, for which a student must complete and pass both studio and academic courses. At most art schools, liberal arts colleges and universities, academic subjects account for between one-third and one-half of the credits in BFA programs, yet these classes are rarely highlighted in art school catalogues.

There is often a conspiracy of silence, with art schools not emphasizing the academic courses required of students and many incoming students not asking about the nonstudio classes they will have to take. On tours of the facilities, administrators at independent art colleges may show applicants the library but otherwise direct them away from the classrooms because they are not seen as a selling point, according to the presidents of a number of these schools. As a result, some students come in thinking they'll never crack another book or write another term paper. The situation is found at many schools, as liberal arts faculty must prod students to take seriously their general education requirements. They find that there is more than the occasional 18 year-old who says, "I am an artist. Why do I have to take these courses?"

At times, independent art colleges create arrangements with neighboring liberal arts colleges where students will take their academic courses. The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for example, is affiliated with Tufts University, while the Rhode Island School of Design allows its students to register for courses at Brown University (Brown students may also take art classes at RISD). Most often, however, art schools simply hire their own liberal arts faculty and establish their own programs in accordance with the curriculum guidelines set out by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, the membership group to which many of the art schools belong.

Do BFA students get the same level and rigor of teaching and coursework at independent art colleges as at university art departments. Sometimes, but perhaps not often enough. There are often considerable differences between academic courses taught at art schools and those at liberal arts colleges and universities. Reading lists are usually smaller at art schools, and essay exams are more prevalent than true-false tests or term papers. "Students enrolled for the BFA have to spend so much time in the studio -- making art is such a time-intensive activity -- that they have less time to spend in a library," said Samuel Hope, director of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

As a result, the reading list for the same level courses at independent art colleges and universities is shorter at the art school, where there may be fewer tests and papers assigned and overall lower expectations for students. The percentage of full-time liberal arts faculty at independent art colleges with doctorates is often much lower than at universities. Of course, having a doctorate doesn't mean that anyone is a better instructor, as the PhD is a research degree. Faculty at art schools aren't encouraged through promotions and raises to do research and bring in foundation and government grants for this type of work. Still, research keeps faculty current in their fields, engendering excitement in new ideas and discoveries, and that is less likely to take place at art schools.

Some independent art colleges do encourage more academic inquisitiveness and work on the part of their students, giving their students plenty to read and write about, grading them as strictly as their university counterparts.

Why does any of this matter for prospective students and their parents? Liberal arts courses are offered at art schools not only to satisfy the requirements for a college degree. They inform and provide greater depth to the art that a student is creating and will make in the future. In a classical education, the liberal arts represent a body of thought and a way of thinking about the world; in a more immediate sense, the acquisition of a broad area of knowledge is likely to make students more employable as graduates are not likely to earn a living from the sale of their artwork immediately upon leaving school. For all of these reasons, the general education program at art schools should be examined with care.

A number of questions may arise that written material or, better, a visit to the school should answer: Is there depth and breadth in the course offerings, and do these courses have a relationship to the studio majors? Inversely, do studio art projects reflect liberal arts content? Are courses in the basic areas (English, history, mathematics, science) offered, and how well equipped are the classrooms (are there laboratories for science classes, for instance)? How extensive are the holdings in the library, and what kind of collection of art books does the library have that supports the program that the student is undertaking (for example, are there books on computer art for students with that interest)? What percentage of the academic faculty has doctoral degrees, and how (and how often) is the overall faculty evaluated? What percentage of the faculty is part-time, and how long have most of those part-timers taught at the school (is teaching a revolving door or do faculty have long-term commitments to students and the school)? Is there an academic resource center or other programs to help students with their coursework (this kind of center or these programs indicate the school's commitment to the liberal arts)? A tour of an art school should include sitting in on a class, a visit to the library and perhaps a conversation with an academic faculty member or two to get a feel for how a third or more of one's education will be spent.