The rise in the cost of tuition in the United States has been incredible. Here’s a good article comparing the rise in cost between education, healthcare, and housing.
It’s no surprise that education beats them all. In other words, there is a huge bubble in the price of education and there have been a few articles recently challenging the notion of getting a higher education.
In the vfx, games, and animation industry, there have been many for-profit institutions that offer a curriculum that will help you start a career in the industry, but is the return on such a huge investment really worth it?
Games Student Grad Becomes A Stripper
I came across a cringe-inducing story of a young woman who attended Art Institute in Florida for a career in the games industry. She graduated with $73,000+ in student loan debt and couldn’t get a job at any games studio. In order to pay off her student loan debt, she became a stripper.
After realizing how much of a rip-off her education was, she started a website and a series of youtube videos warning other students about these schools. Does she bear responsibility for her poor choice in education? Absolutely, but give her credit for coming out and speaking about the issue.
Regardless of whether a school is for-profit or not, at the end of the day, money is needed to keep things running. When money is involved, someone is bound to be taken advantage of. There needs to be two fundamental questions that need to be answered for potential vfx students:
- What is the return on investment on a vfx education?
- Does a vfx education give you a competitive advantage in the vfx industry?
Let me first address the return on investment. When you pay for an education, you are investing your money in the hopes of a career that provides a significant return. Some students get their investment money from parents, while most get student loans. Sallie Mae is one the largest servicers of student loans in the United States.
They have an excellent website that helps estimate how much debt you should take on. Best of all, it also suggests what kind of income you will need to pay off such debt. I ran some numbers through the site of some popular vfx schools. Sallie Mae suggests that the monthly student loan debt payment be 10% of the monthly income after graduation. As you can see, it’s not pretty.
2 years at Academy of Art College
Tuition: $85,278 (Tuition & fees, Room & board, Books & supplies, Other fees)
Monthly loan payment after graduation: $987
Total paid after 15 years: $177,746
Estimated annual income needed: $118,440
Tuition: $66,075 (Does not include Room & board, books & supplies)
Monthly loan payment after graduation: $765
Total paid after 15 years: $137,700
Estimated annual income needed: $91800
2 years at Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale
Tuition: $67,982 (Tuition & fees, Room & board, Books & supplies, Other fees)
Monthly loan payment after graduation: $787
Total paid after 15 years: $141,660
Estimated annual income needed: $94,440
Higher Education Demands Higher Compensation
You can see that with such high costs of education why vfx artists command such high wages. The problem is that it’s very rare for a graduate to be making a six figure income and in an industry that looks at recent graduates as a cheap form of labor.
One vfx facility hired animators out of school at $12.50 an hour. While the work they did wasn’t on par with what senior animators could do, the logic was that if any of them could final at least one shot, it would be worth the savings. The problem is none of them could finish their shots and eventually a senior animator would have to finish the job.
When you see how high a vfx education is and that the best companies like Pixar pay the lowest in the industry at about $60,000 a year, you realize that it’s a bad investment.
Does A VFX Education Give You A Competitive Advantage?
Even if you did have the money, can a vfx education give you the competitive advantage to get a job in the industry? Not really. Most vfx facilities have stacks and stacks of applicants with demo reels. The supervisors have very little time to review reels so they go by referrals or a list of experienced artists. Even if a student reel is exceptional, it’s up to a recruiter who probably doesn’t know much about vfx to put it up for review.
The VFX industry isn’t about what school you went to or even how good your demo reel is. It’s all about leverage. If you have the ability and are able to get companies to compete for your services, you have the ability to quickly raise your rate. In some cases, paying for a VFX education can hurt you. Having a mountain of student loan debt can put you in a desperate situation where you have to take on whatever a company offers to pay off student loan bills.
So what is my advice for aspiring vfx artists who want to get into the industry?
Instead of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a vfx education, spend a few thousand on a good computer and a bunch of training DVDs. You can save a lot of money by learning vfx on your own. It’s those moments where you discover answers to common problems that you become a self learner which is a very important characteristic to have in the vfx industry. While tutorials and DVDs will show you how to use certain tools and do some cool vfx procedures, it’s knowing when to use a tool or a procedure that is key.
Attend Junior College
Critical thinking skills help bring maturity and a level head that can be the difference in communication with others. Higher education can help develop that and is still a valuable thing, it’s just way overpriced. Local community colleges provide excellent courses at very reasonable prices. You should consider getting your general education done at a junior college while supplementing your studies at home in vfx.
Don’t Just Be An Artist
The VFX industry doesn’t require a specific major or any education at all. In fact, it might be worth majoring in finance, computer science or something else to hedge your bets while you train yourself in vfx on your own. The goal should be to get a job in vfx. If that means being a wrangler, coordinator, finance assistant, do it. Get your foot in the door and start making connections with working artists. People will get to know how you work, they will see that you indeed have a demo reel that shows your interest and capabilities, and eventually you will get your chance.
My Personal Education Story
I attended junior college and later a public university. I studied computer art and quickly realized that the education I was getting was inadequate for getting a job in the industry. I continued with my education but supplemented it with courses in Computer Science and training myself on Saturdays with VFX dvds. My computer programming skills quickly landed me a job as a Technical Assistant at a VFX company where I eventually made some solid relationships with many artists who noticed my vfx skills. They ultimately were the ones and still the ones today that help me get my jobs. Your best employer isn’t the company you work for, it’s the people you work with.
The nation is beginning to notice the problems with the education system and there are calls for reform. People can’t continue running themselves into debt and not being paid appropriately. I’ve heard some mention reforming the student loan system so the amount you pay is a percentage of the income you make which seems like a good idea.
In the meantime, Soldier On.