Is a degree worth it?

I’ve been making art my whole life, but I don’t have a degree in art. Many jobs in my area (San Francisco/North Bay) want you to have a BFA or BA in graphic design. But at this point, I’ve had several “professional” graphic design jobs - professional in quotes because they were small companies.
So I wonder, I’ve made it this far - do I need a degree?
At this point I’m trying to do freelance, not apply to regular full time jobs so I don’t need a degree in that sense, but someday that might change.
I’ve been following some professional digital artists on youtube, and they all seem to have gone to an art university.
Were I to go back to school, I would learn some things, and it would force me to make projects and improve my skill, but that’s a lot of time, money and commitment. I’m not sure it’s worth it.
I might be better off taking a few courses here or there (like say an online course in handlettering) to improve my skills. I do enjoy learning and taking classes.

What are your thoughts on degrees and online courses?

I think the path you choose depends on the destination. Some types of graphic design jobs are going to require degrees. Some don’t, but those are also the ones that may stunt your professional development and earning potential. A small company may not care about a degree because the only thing they need you to do is update their brochures.

A well designed degree will develop your ability to solve visual problems, and that’s why it’s sought after by certain employers.

I think the big question is to ask where you want to end up in 20-30 years; what kind of projects do you want to work on, what type of work do you want to do, etc. Then come back to the degree/no degree issue.


If you are in the USA, for some of the higher level agencies and in-house work (ie, the work that pays a livable wage,) a degree is the first thing on the list of job requirements. No degree, and they won’t even bother looking at your resume, let alone your portfolio. There are people here on the GDF that have been in the design field a long time, have a ton more experience than any college grad, but because they came up the old-school learn-by-doing way, they don’t even get a consideration because they do not have that little piece of paper.
That’s not saying there aren’t jobs out there. We hire with or without a degree. But we also don’t do design work. We realize other’s designs.
Think about which end of that stick you want to be on.

Yes, my story is exactly that. I posted about it several times in the old forum, and the much-shortened version here in this post: Hello. I know nothing. Please treat me kindly

I don’t know if this will help you in your decision however it may help you to identify the pros and cons in your situation. I started my design work in the early 80s as a sign painter and slowly got into design in print and web. This process took over 20 years to get enough knowledge and training to be able to work in the web design industry. Even no I am stuck in a low end UX UI position making less than most of the younger designers and developers. I think depending on you career path and age a degree can be a great advantage when faced with the competition in the workforce. Most of the young people I work with come to the job with html, css, and very high level writing skills it’s so important.

PD and HB are right. When I went to school, ugh almost 18 years ago, getting a certificate was sufficient, the associates i chose to get gave me a significant edge.

Nowadays it’s bachelors or bust. Im sure you’d be fine freelancing without it - but if you’re like me, and can’t sustain on freelance alone, it’s time to enroll in school and carry 10’s of thousands of dollars in debt with you for a considerable period of time like the rest of us.

Dont get me wrong, it’s worth it, and if you’re a bit (a lot) more responsible than i was as kid, you can have them paid off in a reasonable time frame.

Remember, Student loans and a mortgage are acceptable forms of debt, and they pay off in the end. Unless you’re myself. Then they haunt you for the rest of your days :wink:

I think what you want to achieve. If you want to work in a corporate job then for sure a degree is a must. But if you want to work as a freelancer and want to become an entrepreneur then it doesn’t matter a lot.

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That is a tough question to answer. I’ve never actually thought that far ahead in the future.

Makin’ it sound super appealing lol

For me, it’s a no-brainer. Get the degree. Not only will it open doors for you that would remain firmly shut otherwise, it will – and this is the important thing – teach you what the job it all about. Once you have competed your degree, then getting a job will teach you how to do the job. The combination of these two things is invaluable. There are good people who have skipped the first bit, but they are the exception.

I’d also determine that design is where you want to go. You talk about ‘making art’ for your whole life. Design is definitely not art. You need to know the difference (apologies for sounding patronising if you already do). If you are looking at self-initiated creativity, then perhaps you need to be looking at the fine art route – an even more difficult and bumpy path to take.

Whichever path you take, you need to have a real passion for it to carry you through the tough times.

Don’t let that put you off. I am not trying to sound negative. It is a fantastically rewarding career if you go about it the right way.

Don’t assume potential clients won’t be interested in a freelancer having a degree. I can guarantee that upper level clients consider that detail when deciding whether or not to award a project to someone. Graphic Design pay is already low. The degree will only enhance that. Up to a point.
If you ever decide to go beyond Bachelor Degree level, try to broaden your base. IOW, if going for a Masters later, do it in a complimentary field, not in Graphic Design.

The goal should be to learn as much as possible.

To do that you need access to equipment and experts. So the degree is worth it if it gives you access to:

  1. tools you wouldn’t normally have, and
  2. real world experts as teachers.

Otherwise you are better off getting a line job at a print house (maybe find a third shift or seasonal employment) to learn things like color theory, print terminology, and other real world applications. Many art schools are filled with whiney judgmental brats who fell into art because it’s perceived as “easy”. This is false. There is nothing different about Art education than any other expertise. Natural talent will get you started. If you have no natural artistic ability you can learn it. Either way you can make a living if you put in the practice.

If you work hard, keep learning, and drive yourself, you can do anything.

If not, find something that pays better.

Well, investing in expensive graphic design education doesn’t promise a well-to-do career (not instantly, at least). There’s too much going on in the education industry, also based on where you live. Here are a few things I’d want to mention.

  1. The career landscape is changing and we’re no longer stuck to the usual college career goals. The reason is that if you earn a college degree, you will still need to merge the theory and practice gap, which will obviously take time.

  2. If you’re getting professional offers from small companies, I would say you should own your experience here. Take some time to consider as your career will strengthen more based on your practise and commitment in the field.

  3. Freelance isn’t all too bad, if you’re opting for a solo-standing. In this area, you’d see many graphic designers with degrees ditching full-time jobs to work on their own pace. You can still be a creative graphic designer even if you haven’t had a degree.

  4. I don’t deny the benefits of proper education (you get to learn here), but i feel that it kind of binds you to the old school teaching and training method. Staying in the field will help you understand the changing ways of the graphic design jobs.

  5. If you’re trying to go for a handlettering online course, i would suggest you go for the paid options to gain access to better insights (because the free ones usually lack the details and resources)

I’ve been a degree holder and have a job as a creative manager, and whatever I’ve shared is based on my own experience. I’m not saying that getting a degree is a total no-no, but i’d rather rely on my own skill security than depending on degree-related jobs.

Hope it helps!

Thank you all so much for your input - you’ve given me a lot to chew on!!! I’m really glad I have this forum as a resource.

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this! my life. and I have an Associates Degree in Design. And 25+ years working experience. Can’t get anyone to look at my resume, much less hire me. I need the piece of paper that says I’m smart.

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