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Why Choose a School of the Arts?

Last year was particularly meaningful to me as I watched my own son leave high school and begin college. Like his parents before him, and many of his peers, my son wrestled with where to pursue his passion for art. At an art college? A liberal arts university with an art program? A multidisciplinary school of the arts?  How to decide?

Beginning the College Search

If you are reading this article, you probably at some point in your life realized you had a talent for the arts.  It may have been at the age of four or just within the last four years. Perhaps it is drawing or dance, acting or music. It may be architecture or television production. Now that it's time for college, you are probably considering how best to turn your love for the arts into a college major, and your major into a career. 

Differences Among Types of Schools

The fact is, there are many possibilities, as arts programs come in all shapes, sizes, and settings. One of your considerations will be whether an environment devoted exclusively to the arts would be where you would thrive most, or if a multi-faceted college which includes the arts would be a better fit. 

Art Colleges and Conservatories

Art colleges and conservatories can be an appropriate choice for students seeking a highly specialized arts learning environment. The concentration of these institutions is generally exclusive to an art medium (e.g. art or music), though some embrace a cluster of aligned disciplines in the visual or performing arts such as art, design and architecture, or music and dance. 

The most common degrees offered by art colleges and conservatories are a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or a Bachelor of Music (BM). These degrees require that the majority (two-thirds) of your educational experience be in your arts major and the rest (about one-third) in general education (e.g. courses in the humanities, sciences, and/or foreign languages).

The dedicated focus of art colleges and conservatories enables intensive training in the arts and peripheral exposure to other academic subjects.  (The general education curriculum is often also related to the arts.) Such environments are best suited for students who are certain they want to be professional visual or performing artists and who want all of their education to be focused on or related to this singular pursuit. 

Arts Programs in Liberal Arts Colleges

As an alternative to attending an art college or conservatory, an appealing option for many students is to major in the arts at a liberal arts college. Many liberal arts colleges offer the same degrees as the art colleges and conservatories (though the focus of the general education part of the curriculum would not necessarily relate to the arts).

In addition to the BFA and BM, however, many such colleges also offer the alternative choice of a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. The reverse focus of the BA is that the majority (two-thirds) of the educational experience is in general education (the broad array of academic subjects) and about one-third is focused in the arts major. 

Liberal arts colleges also tend to offer minors or concentrations in the arts, sometimes allowing the option of starting with a course, which may lead to a minor or evolve into a major. 

Another advantage of a liberal arts college is the opportunity to study alongside students in both arts and non-arts majors. A liberal arts college is a solid alternative for a student who want the option of a broad-based education with a choice of either an intensive or less intensive training in the arts.

Benefits of Attending a School of the Arts

A third alternative exists for the arts student who has a focused talent or multiple talents—i.e. the actor who can sing and dance; the painter who loves to write. For these students, a liberal arts university offering a full range of visual and performing arts programs in a School of the Arts may provide the best of all worlds. Respecting the often-multidisciplinary interests of creative people, schools of the arts tend to provide portals for cross-disciplinary study (e.g. interdisciplinary courses or majors such as musical theatre or broadcasting) in addition to intensive experiences in the single disciplines. It is especially suited for students who want to bridge several of their creative interests, perhaps through a double-major, elective courses, or a minor in a different area. Some schools also allow students to pursue a combination BFA/BA or BM/BA degree to reap the benefits of educational breadth without sacrificing depth.

How Do You Find the Right School?

There is no substitute for doing the research and visiting the campuses to determine what college "fits" best. Internet search engines are great places to start. Also, bear in mind that many arts programs require a successful audition or portfolio review for admission, along with your high school academic credentials.

After narrowing the field to colleges that offer both the major and preferred degree(s), the next best step is to visit at least one school of each type. Open houses and campus tours give a good overview of an institution, but students should also ask about events that focus on their chosen major, if available, or opportunities to sit in on classes and speak with the faculty. 

In studying the arts, the fit between the student and faculty is especially important. Consider both the number of professors to study with as well as their affiliations and teaching styles. Facilities are also important  as are exhibition, performance, and internship opportunities.

In the end, a good college decision matches your instinct; however, the best decision includes understanding the options, experiencing those options, and knowing the alternatives. It is a decision, which if well made, will positively impact not only your high school transition but the rest of your life.

Editorial provided by Linda Davidson, Assistant Dean for Student Services, Montclair State University's School of the Arts, Upper Montclair, New Jersey.

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