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Liberal Arts vs. Art School: Which is Right for Me?

Amy Hollshwandner

Most people are surprised when I mention that I was an Applied Math major at a small liberal arts college for two years. That’s not something you’d normally expect to learn about a current Illustration major at an art school. As a transfer student, I am in the unique position to directly compare two very distinct college experiences, which I think is a valuable point of view. As you can imagine, there are many differences between my time at these two colleges. However, there are also some surprising similarities.

Generally, liberal arts colleges and art schools promote a similar philosophy. Both keep a small student population, which encourages the development of strong individual relationships with professors and emphasizes the importance of in-class discussion and participation. However, the main difference between these types of schools is in their respective levels of specificity. A liberal arts college puts greater emphasis on a well-rounded education. Art schools have a laser focus, with every program dedicated to education in art and design. For example, my previous college had one room for ceramics, while my current art school has an entire building and department dedicated to it.

In my experience, the two most important factors that shaped my liberal arts and art school education were the resources and general environment, and how each factor affected my work.

The focus of each school dictates how resources are allocated. Generally, liberal arts colleges have a tons of resources, but they are spread across a greater variety of disciplines and extra curriculars. At the liberal arts college I attended, I enjoyed an extensive library, a brand new athletics center, and many cross-disciplinary pursuits.

For me, the quantity of general education requirements allowed me to explore many academic interests that inspired me in different ways. For example, I took a drawing class while I was taking probability and statistics courses for my major. The combination of those different subjects got me interested in data visualization and inspired a general passion for visual communication as well.

However, my liberal arts college lacked resources in visual arts. The art department was small, with maybe a dozen art majors in each grade, 8 permanent faculty members and a handful of guest faculty members each year. The department had a limited variety of classes largely because the size of the student body did not demand these classes. The vast majority of art courses were introductory classes, such as basic drawing, painting, ceramics, printmaking and photography.

It was difficult to delve deeply into any one visual arts field because basic courses could only go so far, and highly specific classes were not offered. I always wanted to take a class that explored comics and storyboarding, but that was too specific for the size of the department and it was never offered. If I wanted to learn a visual arts topic on a more advanced level, the only option was to craft an independent study course.

Comparatively, the art school I attend offers an enormous variety of classes, covering practically every potential artistic interest. However, since the student population of artists is so much larger, there is a much higher demand for each course. During registration, it can be really hard to get into certain classes because of the volume of students interested in the same topic. I still have yet to take that comic and storyboarding class I’m interested in;not because it isn’t offered, but because I haven’t been able to get an open spot yet.

The resources at my art school are infinitely more tailored to an artist’s needs outside of the classroom as well. There are school art supply stores located in the heart of the campus, which provide easy access to an enormous range of tools and art supplies. We have incredible spaces dedicated to first hand observation, such as a picture collection, a materials lab, and a center dedicated to to cultivating a working knowledge of biology and natural systems. You can also check out all kinds of equipment: cameras, film equipment, and more. On campus there are high quality printers, wood shops,metal shops, dark rooms for photography, and much more.

Additionally, my art school has a Career Resources Center, whose entire focus is on careers in any creative field. Our Career Resources center has knowledgeable staff, a notable reputation, and connections in the industry. I’ve had a professor reach out to me about an internship opportunity, I’ve attended a few helpful talks about the securing summer internships, and have spent countless hours on the career website where job offerings are posted for students to see first. Next year, I’ll be attending the annual career fair where hundreds of art and design companies review portfolios and speak with students.  

Amy Hollshwandner, paper sculpture

However, this specificity leaves gaps in the educational framework as well. There are less liberal arts course options and a very casual athletics scene, which is starkly different from most liberal arts colleges. I ran track & field competitively before transferring, and I have definitely found it difficult to find any like-minded athletes at art school, which has been a huge and unanticipated lifestyle adjustment I’ve had to make.

I’ve discovered that environment I exist in—including the people, places, or programs I have access to—heavily influences the artwork I produce. There was certainly something wonderful about being surrounded by peers with lots of different academic interests at a liberal arts college, which made for vibrant discussions and a nice life balance when it came to sports, school, and my social life.

It was less common to see students pigeonholing themselves in their major, as most students chose a liberal arts education due to their academic versatility and broad range of interests. It was inspiring to be around such versatile and interesting people. My old roommate has an original song on iTunes and Spotify, yet is getting her degree in Organismal Biology and is happier in a research lab than she is in the recording studio.

Logistically speaking, there is less time spent in the art studio overall at a liberal arts college. Studio classes only lasted 2.5 hours, while at art school they often last 5 hours or more. Beyond that, a heavier core course requirement meant more time had to be dedicated to my academic courses as well. I spent more late nights finishing problem sets in the math building than I did in the drawing studio.

The most impactful difference for me was that there was no discourse centered around art in my social life in college. At the time, this didn’t actively bother me because I had grown so accustomed to it. In hindsight, this really affected the way I created art. Without any sort of creative discussion or proximity to other people’s creative ideas and craft, I think my work suffered and I didn’t push myself.

While fundamental studio art courses at my school are rigorous, they successfully cultivate a supportive and rewarding relationship with the artists who surround you in class. I have grown to appreciate the value of bouncing around ideas and the informal discussions that comes with working alongside other artists.

One time, I was ridiculously nervous to present a final drawing project I had been working on all week. I had stepped out of my comfort zone and taken risks with this project, experimenting with paper cutting and exploring three dimensional illustration, but that made me even more apprehensive about my presentation. When I got up in front of the classroom and started talking, I realized that I had perfected this presentation a thousand times over by simply verbally working through my creative decisions with my peers during multiple late nights in the studio. I had prepared to speak about my work without even realizing it, and I now consider time spent with other artists in the studio to be a crucial part of the creative process.

Keep in mind that there is no formula for choosing a school and there is no one right answer. Most importantly, nothing is set in stone. I ultimately realized that my initial college choice didn’t match my priorities or my long term goals as well as I thought it would, and I made a change. Transferring requires a lot of work and flexibility, but it is an option for a reason–your first college decision does not always have to be your last.

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