These 10 Art Schools Have the Best ROI

Return on investment. ROI. It’s a term you typically hear when it comes to investing.

It refers to the amount of money you’ve gained (or lost) compared to the amount you’ve invested. You take your total profit and divide it by your total investment. Multiply by 100, and you’ve got your ROI.

You might not typically think of college as an investment, but it absolutely is. You’re investing money in tuition in hopes of graduating and securing a job with a decent salary — your return. The general goal: Pay less for school and make more post graduation. The higher the ROI, the better the value.

That’s why we put together a list of the 10 best value art schools in the U.S. These have the highest 20-year net ROI, according to Payscale.

For reference, the 20-year net ROI refers to the difference between 20-year median pay for a graduate with a bachelor’s degree and the 24-year median pay for a high school graduate graduate minus the four-year cost of college. Basically, that’s the difference in earnings over 20 years between someone who went to art school versus someone who didn’t.

Without further ado, here are the top 10 best value colleges with the highest ROI:

10. California Institute of the Arts (Santa Clarita, California)

Californai Institute of the Arts
Bobak Ha’Eri, CalArts, CC BY 3.0

The California Institute of the Arts (also referred to as CalArts) was founded by Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, in 1961. Their vision was to build a multidisciplinary “community of the arts.”

Since then, CalArts has attracted top talent to its schools of art, critical studies, dance, film/video, music, and theater. CalArts says its programs are designed for a “new kind of artist,” one who looks beyond aesthetics and considers the way their art impacts the world.

Outside the classroom, CalArts offers students a number of student clubs and organizations. These include (but aren’t limited to) CalArts Comedy, Game Makers (for video game producers), and Queer Arts Collective.

Additionally, students have plenty of opportunities to collaborate with each other. At the center of the CalArts’ campus is a five-story, 500,000-square-foot building full of classrooms, studios, rehearsal rooms, galleries, costume and machine shops, photo labs, and digital recording studios. This was part of Walt Disney’s vision — to bring various disciplines together under one roof.

20-year net ROI: $185,000

9. University of North Carolina School of the Arts (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)

William Davis, Ncsa5, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), founded in 1963, was the first public arts conservatory in the country. It has five processional schools: dance, design and production, drama, filmmaking, and music. It stands out from other schools on this list because it also enrolls high school students.

Throughout the year, the school hosts three seasonal performances. In these, students are able to perform on stage and also behind the scenes. The School of Design and Production handles the scenery, lighting, sound, costumes, makeup, and wigs for these performances. Every four years, the school produces an all-school music — a Broadway-style production that involves students from all five of the university’s schools.

UNSCA’s list of notable alumni is pages long, but some fun ones include Kennedy Davenport from “RuPaul’s Drag Race;” Brett Gelman, who played Murray in “Stranger Things;” Vera Herbert, a screenwriter for “This Is Us;” Danny McBride, who’s been in “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” and “Eastbound & Down;” and Eddie Barbash, saxophonist for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

20-year net ROI: $194,000

8. College for Creative Studies (Detroit, Michigan)

College for the Creative Studies
Stanthejeep, CCS Detroit, CC BY-SA 2.5

This private college located in Detroit’s Midtown has more than 1,400 students and offers a number of majors, including advertising design, fashion accessories, interior design, photography, and transportation design.

Detroit offers the perfect backdrop to the school’s art students. Nearby, you’ll find the Detroit Film Theater as well as the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is one of the largest art museums in the U.S. (Bonus: Admission is free for students.) It’s also worth noting that while the city offers everything students would want from a big city, Detroit is one of the most affordable cities on this list.

Each year, the College for Creative Studies (CCS) hosts its Student Exhibition Opening, which gives students the chance to showcase their artwork to more than 3,000 attendees. All proceeds go directly to the student artists to help them jumpstart their careers.

What also makes the College of Creative Studies stand out from others on this list is that it also offers free art education programs to more than 4,000 Detroit kids through its Community Arts Partnerships program.

20-year net ROI: $212,000

7. Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, Rhode Island)

DanielPenfield, RISD auditorium, CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition to ranking No. 7 on Payscale’s list of best value colleges, the Rhode Island School of Design boasts the highest graduation rates amongst the other top 10 contenders, at 90 percent.

The private art and design school has a little more than 2,500 students and more than 30,000 alumni. It has more than 20 programs, including architecture, apparel design, glass, furniture design, jewelry and metalsmithing, and printmaking.

The school offers students a number of diverse spaces to learn. The RISD Museum is home to more than 90,000 works of art from around the world. Additionally, it hosts lectures, concerts and screenings. You’ll also find the Nature Lab, which allows students to learn about design in nature, as well as Co-Works, an research space for students and faculty to experience and explore new materials.

20-year net ROI: $236,000

6. Otis College of Art and Design (Los Angeles, California)

On Payscale’s list of best value art schools, Otis College of Art and Design comes in at No. 6. It’s worth noting, though, the private college has the lowest average loan amount out of the top ten contenders. The average full-time undergraduate student borrows $26,100 in their four years at Otis College.

Students at Otis College of Art and Design spend their first year taking foundational courses before diving into their chosen major. Majors range from communication arts to game and entertainment design to product design to toy design. The school also offers student abroad programs that take place around the world.

Graduates from Otis College have gone on to receive Fulbright, MacArthur, and Guggenheim grants. They’ve also won Oscars, become costume designers, entrepreneurs, and designers at well-known brands including Apple, Pixar, DreamWorks, Nike, and Disney.

Here’s a fun fact: The school’s main campus, in Los Angeles, is located in the former IBM Aerospace Headquarters.

20-year net ROI: $245,000

5. Pratt Institute (New York, New York)

Pratt Institute
Jim.henderson, Higgins Institute Pratt, CC BY-SA 4.0

With its main campus located in Brooklyn, New York, the Pratt Institute is a private college with nearly 5,000 students. Its location offers students the perfect opportunity to learn and dive into their professional art careers. 

When Pratt was established back in 1887, its goal was to offer an affordable college education. Additionally, it was one of the first schools in the country to accept students regardless of gender, color, or class. Today, Pratt has more than 62,000 alumni in 83 countries.

Incoming students take part in what’s called the Pratt Foundation. This allows students to explore core creative concepts. After their first year, students dive into their chosen program, whether that’s architecture, printmaking, fashion design, or writing, to name a few options.

Students also have ample opportunities to study abroad. The school has programs in cities around the world, including Florence, Milan, Tokyo, and Copenhagen.

20-year net ROI: $247,000

4. Massachusetts College of Art and Design (Boston, Massachusetts)

Daderot, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons

Payscale ranks the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (commonly referred to as MassArt) No. 4 on its list of best value art schools for students who are paying in-state tuition.

The school, founded in 1873, is the oldest on this list — and one of the oldest in the country. It was actually the first art college in the U.S. to give an art degree.

MassArt is home to more than 2,000 students. Its campus, located in Boston, houses the MassArt Art Museum, which opened in February 2020. The contemporary art museum is also a teaching museum and gives students the opportunity to showcase their works. You can also check out the school’s online interactive gallery.

The school has all amenities other colleges have — residence halls, cafeteries, a school store library, student center, etc. But it also has some other unique features. These include a letterpress lab, studio spaces, a spray booth, a woodworking spot, a digital maker’s studio, a sound studio, and performing spaces.

20-year net ROI: $250,000

3. The New School (New York, New York)

New School University
Beyond My Ken, New School University Center, CC BY-SA 4.0

The New School is a private university located in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It has five major schools, including the Parsons School of Design and the College of Performing Arts.

The New School boasts some impressive stats. For one, 88% of 2017 graduates went on to professional opportunities within a year of graduation. Additionally, more than 1,000 employers hired New School students for internships in the 2016 school year. Some of its notable alumni include American fashion designer Alexander Wang and author Jack Kerouac.

The school’s integrated curriculum allows students to explore coursework across the school’s colleges. That means students have more flexibility to study various disciplines. The New School’s Parsons School of Design also has a Paris program, which allows students to study abroad in Paris for up to a year.

20-year net ROI: $254,000

2. Laguna College of Art and Design (Laguna Beach, California)

A private college located in Laguna Beach, California, Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) is one of the smallest colleges on this list with approximately 700 students. It offers 11 majors under its Bachelor of Fine Arts program. It also has three Master of Fine Arts degree programs, which include game design, drawing, and painting.

LCAD offers its students a unique opportunity to study fine arts abroad at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. It also offers a program at Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy. There, students work alongside faculty members to create art and immerse themselves in the local culture.

Back at home, LCAD is home to the LCAD Gallery, which is located in downtown Laguna Beach. It gives students the opportunity to showcase their work through exhibitions and also educate the local community.

20-year net ROI: $328,000

1. California College of the Arts (San Francisco and Oakland, California)

California College of the Arts
edwardhblake, Montgomery Building, California College of the Arts, CC BY 2.0

California College of The Arts (CCA) is a private college of art, design, architecture, and writing, and it has two campuses — one in San Francisco and one across the bay in Oakland.

It offers both undergraduate and graduate programs. Its graduate school is particularly well known; U.S. News and World Report ranked it No. 10 for fine arts programs, No. 6 for ceramics, and No. 4 for graphic design. In addition to ranking No. 1 on Payscale’s list of best value art schools, CCA landed No. 3 on its list for top average alumni salary (for those with undergraduate degrees).

Aside from rankings, CCA is all about “learning through making.” Not only does it focus on theory, it also emphasizes the importance of practicing, and the Bay Area is the perfect backdrop for students to gain the skills and exposure they need to succeed. 

CCA graduates have gone on to work for big-name companies, including Pixar/Disney, Apple, Facebook, Google, Mattel, and Nike. Additionally, many alumni have launched their own businesses and have had their work featured in major museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, MoMA New York, Guggenheim Museum, and The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

20-year net ROI: $361,000