Lately I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how art school is a waste of money and time.

I am here to tell you it’s not.

Don’t get me wrong, there were things I found aggravating about art school, but odds are I wouldn’t be a successful freelance artist now if I hadn’t gone to college–one that fit my needs.

Art school taught me more than just technique. It also taught me work ethic. I could have learned technique on my own, but work ethic was difficult to wrap my head around when I was a teenager. Some artists are motivated enough to pick up a book, watch some courses online, and put in the work. Good for them! However, most of us need a little push, especially when we’re young. Art school can give you the structure and motivation you need to develop a work ethic. Your work ethic is all you have to lean on sometimes, especially if you end up being your own boss.

That’s why it art school is so important. Attending the right one is life changing.

When I graduated from high school, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. I knew it was something art related, but I didn’t have a plan. I thought it was a foregone conclusion that I’d attend a local university, at least up until the day I got a card in the mail advertising the Kansas City Art Institute.  It was eye opening since I hadn’t even realized that there were actual schools dedicated to art! (Don’t laugh. I grew up on a farm in Topeka.) Nobody had ever talked to me about art school, let alone told me there were options with different specialties. Needless to say, I went with the first option that presented itself: KCAI.

I was already into comics and illustration, and had I known enough to do a little research, I would have found out that KCAI wasn’t going to be a good fit. It’s a great school–I earned my BFA there–but I should have looked a little harder.

Choosing a school or an area of focus seems complex, but it all comes down to answering three simple questions:

What kind of artwork do I want to create?
Every school caters to a genre: animation, graphic design, comics, illustration, game art, gallery art, etc. Choose a school that specializes in your area of interest, if you can. You’ll be working with the all-stars in your field and getting targeted education to help you on your path.

Do I want to make art for clients or for myself?
If you want to make art for yourself, consider fine arts or and gallery art. If you want to get paid upfront for your work, consider a more commercial program such as illustration, graphic design, animation, or gaming.

Would I prefer to work for a company or for myself?
Graduating from a graphic design, animation, or gaming program positions you to get a job working for a company. If you want make money as a freelance artist, your best bets are programs in comics, illustration, and gallery art.

Don’t stress too much if your options are limited by family ties or financial concerns–or if you don’t get into your dream school. There’s a lot of crossover amongst the fields, and you can still get a great education. You’ll have to work a little harder at making your program serve your needs, though. For example, fine arts schools tend to focus on concept more than technique. If you’re a painting major, you’ll have to seek out every opportunity to learn technique. Enroll in illustration classes (or look for illustration programs) to get the foundation you need to become an excellent painter.

I wasn’t getting what I needed at KCAI, so I ended up at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Grahphic Art for a few years. Although I returned to the Midwest and graduated from KCAI, I learned almost everything I use today in my time at JKS. (Just ask me about the “work ethic” portion of my studies; I never worked so hard in my life, nor have I since!) JKS was a perfect fit, and that made all the difference.

Here are the schools I’d recommend to aspiring comic artists and illustrators. If I had to do it over again, these are the ones I’d be applying to:

The School of Visual Arts, New York City, NY

Savannah School of Art and Design, Savannah, GA

Ringling College of Art + Design, Sarasota, FL

FZD School of Design, Singapore

Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI

That’s all, young padawans. Stay tuned for the next installment of Professional Practices.

Thank you for reading.