An uncertain future
at the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design
As the school shifts toward online curriculum,
a graduate reflects on the value of his
Note from June 2019: This article started getting a lot of readers suddenly, about five years after it was published. I still believe what I wrote here, but I have no knowledge of RMCAD’s current administration, faculty, students, or curriculum. This was written in the early days of a big digital transformation within higher education (at RMCAD and everywhere else), so I’m sure there are more up-to-date perspectives on this topic. If you’re considering going to RMCAD, talk to current students and faculty about their experiences as you make your decision — they will be much more helpful and knowledgeable about the quality of the education versus the cost. It was a fantastic school for me, and might be for you too!
In a crummy cluster of mismatched office buildings in Aurora, I had my first experience with the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. I was a 17-year-old slacker, seriously doubtful that I was college material, but with a growing passion for design. The chair of the graphic design program at the school, Martin Mendelsberg, gave open house attendees a quick presentation about the program, and I had never before met someone so excited and passionate about the power of design. After an hour with Martin, I knew immediately that this was the right school for me.
The school quickly became my home, and the eccentricities of fellow art school kids became normalcy. In my junior year, the college moved from its miserable—yet oddly charming—office buildings on Evans street to a gorgeous 100-year-old campus in Lakewood. Faculty came and went. Things changed for better and worse, but the school always felt like it was on a decent trajectory.
Last week, some larger and more worrying changes at the school were outlined in a feature on Colorado Public Radio, “Upheavals lead to uncertainty at Colorado art school,” which explains that the school is controversially shifting toward online education:
RMCAD now offers online classes, certificates and online bachelor’s and master’s degrees, while also moving all of its lecture-based classes online for on-campus students. School officials say the move to a hybrid model — the school offers a mixture of online and campus options — comes in part as a result of the shifting demographics of its student body.
The article notes that many of the recent changes have caused dissent among faculty, with some 60 staff members leaving or being laid off in the last year. According to the alumni rumor mill, among those forced out was Martin Mendelsberg, who brought his impassioned brand of design education to Metropolitan State University in Denver. The number of online-only students has grown while the on-campus population has dwindled by nearly 150 students since its peak in the fall trimester of 2010.
In the public radio story, the directors of the school give a nod to the controversy caused by the changes, but describe the shift toward online education as almost inevitable:
“Every student who leaves here is going to have to go out and contend with online, and I think it’s irresponsible if we don’t start to innovate around that,” RMCAD Provost and Vice President of academic affairs Kiki Gilderhus says. “Sometimes it’s hard to see the bigger picture because this is still really new, and new things scare people.”
In their few public comments, decision makers at the school seem unified in their messaging, making the case that their hand was played for them:
“Ultimately, we need faculty to teach in the areas that are growing,” RMCAD President Maria Puzziferro says. “But when that’s not possible, we have no choice but to make changes.”
As a private college, I understand that RMCAD is a for-profit business, and I do not pretend to grasp what is likely a complex and constantly changing business model. Gilderhus and Puzziferro may prove to be forward-thinking about this decision, surprising naysayers. I also have not seen the online courses provided to students, which may very well be wonderfuly executed.
While I don’t have inside knowledge of how the school is run, I have been a customer of RMCAD as a business, both as a full-time student and working professional. Ten years since graduating, I am now a Creative Director at Markit On Demand, a technology firm that has hired dozens of graduates from the graphic design program at the college. We currently employ more than ten RMCAD graduates, and have provided paid internships to students every summer for almost a decade. I would be surprised if any business has hired more RMCAD graduates over the years than we have. I also co-taught the junior/senior-level Interaction Design course at the school in 2011 under the direction of the terrific professor Fred Murrell.
Those perspectives make me doubtful that these changes are good for students or the school, for a few key reasons:
Serendipity is important
At my high school, we had a 45-minute period every morning called “Access,” which students could use to get caught up on homework, reach out to teachers, or get one-on-one tutoring. You could also use it to socialize, get donuts in the cafeteria, or smoke cigarettes off school grounds. As a result, Access was often decried by teachers and parents as a total waste of time. It wasn’t a waste of time, however. Learning to effectively manage your own time and maintain relationships with peers are both critical skills to learn on the path to adulthood, and Access was an important time for growing those skills.
The notion that lecture-based courses at RMCAD should be taught online makes the same bad assumption: that these courses only exist as a vehicle for providing lectures. Just like a bookstore offers a more serendipitous experience for discovering books, having classes in-person with real people has advantages that are hard to quantify, but they are very important.
In my junior year at RMCAD, I was floored by a hilarious presentation about designer Lester Beall delivered by my classmate Mike during our lecture-oriented History of Graphic Design course. I had not talked to Mike very often before that point, but his presentation gave me something to talk to him about, and we ended up becoming lifelong friends and professional sounding boards for each other’s design work, even now, long after both graduating. Mike has made me a much better designer, and if he was just an avatar on a screen, I’m not convinced we would have benefitted each other to the degree that we have.
Serendipity comes in other forms too: I only ever ended up with one class taught by Martin Mendelsberg, late into my senior year. Yet, Martin knew who I was throughout my time at RMCAD, and I was able to get feedback on my design work and benefit from his expertise simply because I would randomly run into him in classrooms or hallways. Those unstructured moments between classes are important, and are very difficult to replicate in an online classroom.
Admittedly, RMCAD is not shifting completely toward online education for every student, but for every class moved online, the frequency and quality of these serendipitous moments decreases. I am convinced that these moments are as important as formal time in the classroom, and that serendipitous moments often make the difference between a good career and a great career.
Students can find better courses for cheaper
Perhaps you are unpersuaded by the argument that serendipity matters, or you think it’s a nice-to-have, but it ends up being too costly. Along these lines, the Colorado Public Radio story quotes Associate Professor Dr. Kevin Kinser from the University at Albany-SUNY:
“You want to be able to standardize the educational product so that it can be delivered to as many students as possible at lowest cost,” Kinser says. With the move to the online model, the cost of tuition at RMCAD — nearly $22,000 for the academic year — has decreased by nearly $6,000 since 2012.
On the surface, that sounds great. Attending a private art college is notoriously expensive, with many students burdened for decades afterward with deep student loan debt, so keeping costs down seems like a noble goal.
The problem, however, is that a shift to an less expensive online model also puts RMCAD in a position where it is competing with much cheaper—and potentially better—alternatives for students.
For example, Skillshare offers an online lettering course taught by renowned designer and illustrator Jessica Hische, or a course on design-led product innovation from Jon Kolko, the former Creative Director of Frog, an industry-leading product design firm.
Other online offerings like Treehouse, Codecademy, or Lynda teach technical skills like coding a website, or learning the ins-and-outs of software products professional designers use daily. These services are free or are available for low monthly subscription fees: $0 for Codecademy, $10 for Skillshare, and $25 per month for Treehouse or Lynda. They each have active communities of students and instructors.
A bevy of free lectures are available from actual universities and colleges too. Apple’s iTunesU allows anyone to watch a series of remarkable guest lectures from the Stanford Human-Computer Interaction program, or learn about the history of graphic design directly from Steven Heller, prolific design historian and professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Similarly, Coursera culls teachers from the universities around the world, offering free classes about a variety of topics. Organizations like Khan Academy provide introductory art history and humanities lectures for free.
Other services like Dribbble or Pinterest offer places for designers to share their work for critique, build community, and improve visual literacy. They may be a far cry from an in-person critique in a classroom setting, but they have the potential to be very valuable forums for a growing designer.
Compared to these alternatives, RMCAD’s online courses have an unknown quality until a student makes a significant investment in taking them, and are needlessly expensive. Why would a student take a class to learn Adobe Illustrator at RMCAD for thousands of dollars when one of similar quality is available online for the cost of a sandwich?
It doesn’t make any sense for a student to burden themselves financially for decades unless there is clearly higher value that the RMCAD classes are providing. I do not believe the school could make a convincing argument that their online classes are thousands of dollars better than available alternatives, especially when many online classes are taught by people famous within the industry for their talent and expertise.
That brings us to the college degree, that coveted piece of paper that society posits people must attain in order to get a decent job. I can’t speak for the art world, or even other design agencies, but as someone who has interviewed upward of 150 designers for positions at our firm, I’m not convinced that a college degree is essential.
You can see a good designer in their work. The process and underlying thinking are solid. Choices about typefaces, scale, emphasis, color are well-considered. The writing and craft are high-quality. A degree matters very little compared to these qualities in someone’s work. Five minutes into an interview, it is usually very obvious whether the person is well-suited for the job based on the quality of their work and how they present it. A good designer is much easier to see in their work compared to their degree.
Still, college is a convenient four year package where motivated students can buckle down and focus on learning a specific set of skills, and often college graduates benefit greatly from that immersion. I certainly did. However, many of those same skills could be learned without going through a formal college program, and it is fairly easy to make it through a for-profit college like RMCAD without learning much along the way. I went to school with people who worked hard to become spectacular professional designers now working at Carbone Smolan, Maya, Sapient, Penguin Books, among other great firms. Yet many other graduates are baristas or bartenders, facing daunting student loans.
Between two extremes
Paradoxically, it may seem like I am arguing for two opposing views at the same time: promoting online education services like Skillshare while simultaneously arguing that online education does not work very well.
My issue is that my alma mater seems to have settled on the worst of both worlds: an educational experience that doesn’t offer as many opportunities for serendipitous or immersive learning moments, yet an extremely high cost compared to comparable alternatives available online. If you think about RMCAD strictly as a business venture, that is a very bad position to be in, and I’m not convinced that it is sustainable in the long term.
Ten years from now, I could see design education transforming significantly. Imagine if a group of design professionals carefully selected and sequenced free or inexpensive courses available online, then provided a structured place where students could regularly meet in-person to have discussions, critiques, and interactions with their peers and professional designers and educators. If done well, a high-quality education could be delivered for a significantly lower cost than anything RMCAD would be willing to offer, because this approach would be too disruptive to the standard college or university business model.
I still see a great deal of value in a traditional design education: being instructed in-person by local designers, interacting with your peers in both structured and unstructured environments, and having the full immersive and serendipitous experience of going to college. To me, that’s what RMCAD can do really well, certainly better than any service available online.
Unfortunately, RMCAD is shooting for somewhere in-between, providing extremely expensive online classes, hoping that accreditation and a college degree will be enough to distract people from alternatives that are either less expensive or more immersive. Time will tell how well the new RMCAD strategy works, but consider me a strong skeptic of the approach.