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Is Photo School Worth It?

In recent years, the world of for-profit education has been criticized in the media for making promises of high-paying jobs upon graduation. At the forefront of these criticisms have been cooking schools, thanks in part to the proliferation of reality-based cooking shows on TV, which show young, hipster chefs spinning their magic and transforming disparate ingredients into culinary masterpieces within 30 minutes. It’s easy to buy into the fantasy. Look at how cool and artistic these chefs are. All you need are some classes to acquire the special knowledge, which you can combine with your natural creative talent and off you go—a new culinary genius is born, and a high-paying career is launched. For-profit cooking schools have enrolled multitudes of young aspiring chefs with the allure of a great job upon graduation. Many of these graduates, however, have found that instead of becoming a top chef in a successful restaurant, they’re faced with a low-level, insecure job at low wages. A great many graduates felt that their schools had made promises that weren’t kept. Some sued, and over the past few years, there have been several settlements.

Art Center College of Design

We mention the cooking schools because similar issues have become increasingly prevalent among photography schools. Many of these schools are also run for profit, which has caused some students to question their motivation. Do these schools want to educate, or do they just want to make a quick buck? Have photo schools overpromised what a graduate should expect to make upon graduation?

What seems to have been lost in the conversation is the whole notion of an education. Going to a photography school, like going to any other school whether it’s for profit or not, is about acquiring the skills and knowledge to compete in the marketplace. It’s not about collecting a receipt. Certainly many schools have emphasized the successes of their graduates, but to take these successes as a guarantee that all students will achieve similar successes upon graduation is far-fetched.

Brooks Institute of Photography

There’s an old joke that says the prerequisite to being a professional photographer is owning a camera. While students in artistic fields, such as painting and sculpture, might spend years studying and apprenticing to learn how their medium behaves and how to create art from it, an aspiring photographer can buy a camera and a lens and start creating photographs. Some individuals with natural talent can take interesting and meaningful images right away. So what’s the purpose of a photography school? Put simply, photo school is about much more than just teaching someone how to use a camera.

Today, more than ever, the profession of photography is up against significant challenges. Margins have eroded. High-paying jobs are increasingly difficult to come by and the competition is fierce. Amidst these challenges, teaching the differences between an ƒ-stop and a bus stop is only a part of the benefit of going to a photography school. In an article in the November 2010 issue of this magazine, Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler summed up how modern educators are tailoring their programs to deal with these challenges and equipping their graduates to be ready to make their way in the world:

Academy Of Art University

A critical challenge for modern photographic educators is presenting students with the best introduction to the immediate, modern workforce. Although this concept walks hand in hand with looking forward, there is a more pressing need to do the best by students in the here and now. The industry continues to change very quickly, and educators can look forward to what the trends seem to be and where things seem to be going, but they have a responsibility to offer students the best possible education in the moment. The problem is, at this point in time, the purpose and expectations of established photographers are shifting, as well.

As Bill Gratton, the MAC Group National Manager of Educational Markets, travels around the country and meets with educators, he also works with industry professionals, giving him a front-row seat to the changing demands on the photographer. "It used to be really clear what was expected of us and what we were producing as final products," he explains, "and now there’s so many different possibilities with what we can do with it and so many different places where our images can end up."

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