Not everyone goes to college to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or tech employee.
Many students prioritize their passions over their pocketbooks when it comes to choosing a college major.
Perhaps the major best exemplifying this mantra is Art. At art school, students learn about the craft of creating visual art, including painting, graphic design, ceramics, printmaking, and more disciplines.
The professions for these degrees can be surprisingly lucrative.
Common jobs for art majors include animation, graphic design, art direction for businesses, interior art, and even becoming an art teacher or professor.
For this list, we compiled eight lists available online of the top art schools in the country, then assigned a weighted score to each school based on their position in each list. Sources are at the end of this article.
Here are, by critical consensus, the 10 best art schools in the country.
10. Yale University (New Haven, CT)
Yale has held an unusually large influence in the world of fine arts.
The Yale School of Art is perhaps the most selective fine arts institution worldwide. In its class of 2010, 1,142 students applied; only 65 were accepted. This represents an astoundingly low 5.7% acceptance rate!
So what does Yale look for in its class of students? Exceptional student accomplishment, top grades, and a portfolio demonstrating exceptional artistic ability.
Yale has an important and historic collection of fine art housed in the Yale University Art Gallery. Yale’s gallery, according to Wikipedia, is best known for Italian painting, African sculpture, and modern art.
One of the most important summer arts program for collegiate students is also held at Yale, known as the Yale Norfolk School of Art program. A fellowship offering, the Norfolk School brings together student artists from around the world to participate in a week-long session of hands-on artistic growth and study.
Some of the world’s most famous painters come from Yale; they include Chuck Close as well as Jennifer Bartlett.
9. School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
What makes School of the Art Institute of Chicago, abbreviated as SAIC, so unique is its inherent connection to one of the world’s great art museums. This museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, permanently houses some 300,000 works and hosts 1.5 million attendees annually, according to this source.
SAIC itself has seven buildings dedicated to its campus, all located within downtown Chicago.
SAIC is known for funding resident artist visits. In these residencies, established fine arts professionals host classes and workshops for students, providing a forum where students and masters may interact.
Many of the most influential artists attended SAIC or its predecessor Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Perhaps the most universally recognized are Walt Disney and Orson Welles. Other prominent alumni include installation artist Tania Bruguera, sculptor Jean Shin, and author Ben Marcus, faculty at Columbia University.
In 2002, the school was named the most influential art school. Since then, SAIC has continued in the conversation among the top 10 arts programs in the nation.
8. University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)
Among the most competitive arts programs in the country for admission, USC Roski’s acceptance rate is regularly less than 10%.
In addition to Roski, USC also houses other top schools dedicated to the arts, including USC School of Architecture as well as the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Although not normally included within fine arts rankings, it is important to note that USC has a fourth arts program, the Thornton School of Music, dedicated to the musical arts.
Its vast array of artistic offerings – in combination with its location in one of America’s great artistic epicenters – and its status as a top-tier academic school – make USC among the most desired schools in the country for any applicant and their family.
Some of the most famous artists in the world have called USC their alma mater. Frank Gehry in architecture, George Lucas in film, Michael Tilson Thomas in music, and hundreds more.
7. Columbia University (New York, NY)
Columbia is home to the Columbia University School of the Arts, one of the most widely-regarded MFA institutions worldwide.
This school at Columbia is home to programs in Film, Theatre, Creative Writing, and the Visual Arts. Widely regarded a top Film school, the Film program specifically accepts only 6% of applicants each year.
Perhaps the two most well-known faculty members in Columbia’s School of the Arts are Lynn Nottage, the only woman to win the Pulitzer twice, and David Henry Hwang, a Tony award winning playwright and librettist.
Many alumni of the school affiliate themselves with New York City’s many cultural institutions, making Columbia one of the most desired schools for an art degree.
Some of New York City’s most well-known institutions include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Tibet House, Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), and over a hundred more.
6. California College of the Arts (San Francisco & Oakland, CA)
Based across two cities in one of the country’s great artistic hubs, California College of the Arts is routinely ranked among the best schools in the country for fine arts.
According to data, it is also the highest “ROI” art school in the country, according to Payscale.com. The net ROI after 20 years is an impressive $361,000, which accounts for career earnings minus cost of degree.
CCA is associated with starting a number of arts movements. Former faculty and alumni, including artist Viola Frey, are credited with popularizing ceramics as a legitimate fine arts craft.
Another genre of art, photorealism, is strongly associated with faculty and alumni of CCA, including faculty artist Jack Mendenhall and alumnus Robert Bechtle. The Bay Area Figurative Movement, an important even in modern art history, has strong ties to this unique institution.
Widely regarded among the top schools, it’s MFA program is ranked in the top 15 by US News.
5. Carnegie-Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA)
Carnegie-Mellon is known for housing both traditional art as well as avant-garde work. Regarding the latter, Carnegie-Mellon is home to the Studio For Creative Inquiry, one of the most unique centers in all of fine arts academia.
In the Studio for Creative Inquiry, students are encouraged to create work that is, according to their own website, “atypical, anti-disciplinary, and inter-institutional research at the intersection of arts, science, technology, and culture.”
However, Carnegie-Mellon’s most unique “claim-to-fame” as an art school, besides graduating Andy Warhol, is its Electronic and Time-Based Media program. Ranked #1 in 2016 by US News, the program embraces the artistic intersection of film, video, sound, and other technology elements viewed over a given period of time.
Carnegie-Mellon houses some of the world’s most famous artists. They include social practice artist Jon Rubin and animator James Duesing.
Students at the school are benefitted by Pittsburgh’s amazing arts scene that is home to over 100 arts organizations.
4. Pratt Institute (New York, NY)
If The New School (also on this list) is known as NYC’s fashion design school, Pratt is perhaps best known as NYC’s highest-ranked architecture & industrial design program.
Faculty at Pratt consist of New York City’s most respected fine arts scholars. They include Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Tiffany award winners.
Pratt is divided into an undergraduate and graduate school for arts. Digital Arts, Photography, Filmmaking, and even Creative Arts Therapy are just a handful of their flagship offerings.
Although the school has a special focus on the arts, Pratt is a comprehensive academic university as well. For students who want the best of both a private arts college as well as academics, Pratt represents a top-tier option.
3. The New School Parsons School of Design (New York, NY)
Many consider the New School to be perhaps New York City’s finest college arts program. It is easy to see why; alumni of Parsons are among today’s top fashion designers, illustrators, designers, and more.
Some of these alumni are practically household names in the world of fashion and beyond, including Tom Ford, Anna Sui, Donna Karan (of DKNY brand), and Marc Jacobs, who was named, in 2010, on the Time 100 “most influential” list.
Founded over a century ago in 1896, the purpose of the school was to stand out and create an education suitable for a contemporary artist. Because of this, it was one of the first schools in the world to offer programs in graphic, fashion, and interior design.
Parsons has a satellite campus outside of the United States in Paris, known as Parsons Paris. While Parsons Paris is a degree-granting institution, students from The New School in NYC can do a study-abroad there.
2. University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA)
Although widely known as one of the most academically prestigious schools in the world, UCLA’s artistic side comes with a history of tremendous accomplishment and merit.
The faculty at UCLA are among the most decorated at any American school. They include theatre director Peter Sellars, a MacArthur “Genius” award winner who has known for his unique approach to staging contemporary opera. American painter Lari Pittman is also on the faculty at UCLA, whose work is included in many of the world’s most prominent museums, including Los Angeles’ very own The Broad.
Unlike some university arts departments, UCLA’s is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. For students seeking art education in a liberal arts education and context, perhaps no school ranks higher.
1. Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, RI)
Consistently regarded on most lists as the very best art school in the country, RISD has produced some of the most successful alumni of any art school in the world.
These alumni include actor James Franco, businessman Brian Chesky (CEO of AirBnB), Seth MacFarlane, creator of the Family Guy television series, Robert Richardson, Academy-award winning cinematographer, and thousands more.
The average alum of RISD is handsomely paid; accordingly to Payscale, their average BFA students earns about $64,000 a year after graduation.
Based in Providence, Rhode Island, RISD is adjacent to Brown University. As a result, many of the social interactions of students at the school take place not only among the RISD community, but also with students of the contiguous Ivy league campus.
Unlike some art departments throughout the country, RISD’s focus is on intensive, hands-on studio work in combination with a liberal arts curriculum.
Only 2,500 students at any given time are enrolled at RISD, about 80% of which are undergraduates. Amazingly, the institution’s endowment is $330m, which is the highest of any private studio-based visual art school in the country.
Thirty-thousand people call themselves alumni of RISD. The serious arts applicant should consider applying.
This ranking was created via a meta-analysis of other online rankings. Read more about our methodology here.
The sourced rankings are:
Rankings sourced on August 2nd, 2019