At Large  September 22, 2021  Art & Object Staff

The 10 Best Art Schools in the U.S.

Created: Wed, 09/22/2021 - 10:00
Author: chandra

Art & Object's 2021 ranking of America's top art schools showcases the best of the best. We have taken the top schools from our regional rankings and compared them to create this final top ten. Spanning coast to coast, featuring institutions of all sizes—this list encompasses an incredible range of schools that offer the finest art education.

This national listing gives prominent place to institutions like the Savannah College of Art and Design and CalArts, who have shown dedication to online and continuing education for many years. Schools that encourage interdisciplinary practice and education—such as Virginia Commonwealth University, Arizona State University, and the majority of research institutions—have also been highlighted.

To determine its final rankings, Art & Object's editorial staff weighed the following factors: degree and curriculum variety, quality of school museums, school renown, tuition cost (undergraduate, graduate, etc. if applicable), employment rate, graduation rate, internship opportunities, student body diversity*, surrounding art scene, cultural opportunities, and student statements. While Art & Object strived to craft a list in the most objective manner possible, we recognize that measures of "best" could include many other factors. With that said, here are the ten best art schools in the U.S.

You can find our rankings for the Southeast, Northeast, Southwest, Midwest, and West here.

*Editor’s Note: LGBTQ+ individuals may not always be accurately represented in gender data reported by institutions and organizations.
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flickr, Jeff Gunn
University of Texas Austin main quad with tower
10. The University of Texas at Austin

 

The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) is home to three departments that offer art-related programs—the Department of Art and Art History, the School of Design and Creative Technologies, and the Center for Creative Entrepreneurship.

The Department of Art and Art History also offers courses on and degrees in Art Education. Within the Studio program, training is offered across five broad areas of interest rather than specific, singular mediums.

UT Austin is one of the larger schools of this top ten with 40,804 undergraduates and 11,028 graduates as of 2018. It is only moderately expensive for this list, even for out-of-state students. Currently, in-state tuition is around $11,630 and out-of-state tuition is just over $41,000.

Based on the most recent data available, UT Austin’s graduation rate (first-time, full-time students) is about 80.8 percent. As for employment, about 75 percent of graduates are employed full time and 38 percent of students report having a job lined up before graduation.

According to the University, students engaged in the UTeach Fine Arts Program who wish to teach art in public, Texas schools, “have virtually 100 percent job placement.” UT Austin has fifteen distinct career centers including one that is entirely dedicated to Fine Arts students.

The student body at UT Austin is 54.4 percent female, 38.9 percent white, and 10 percent international. Although some of the other schools listed do not report or share such numbers, UT Austin is one of the most diverse of the schools that do.

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wikimedia commons/Jeff Auth.
a long modern brick building at Virginia Commonwealth University
9. Virginia Commonwealth University

 

Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is home to one of the top public art programs in the nation. VCU’s School of the Arts offers eighteen undergraduate and five graduate degrees. The school's programs span a wide range of disciplines and features departments including but not limited to Craft/Material Studies—which boasts majors that span from glassmaking to furniture design—and Kinetic Imaging—which covers mediums like animation and sound.

Undergraduate tuition is currently $14,710 for Virginia residents and $36,048 for non-residents. Compared to other schools listed, VCU is one of the most affordable schools for residents and non-residents alike. According to reports on the University at large, within 6 months of graduation, 74 percent of former students are either employed or enrolled in graduate school.

The arts program boasts a state-of-the-art foundry and metal fabrication shop. Genius Grant winners and Alumni of the school’s MFA program Tara Donovan and Teresita Fernández both work with the kind of heavy-duty industrial materials that this shop makes accessible to students.

As a research University, interdisciplinary opportunities abound on VCU's campus. The da Vinci Center for Innovation was established to make a space for and encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration via a unique collegiate model. The University has also established many institutional programs designed to promote diversity such as Special Interest Institutes and Centers (SIICs) which specifically do so via research, education, advocacy, and community partnerships.

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Ringling College of Art and Design
Ringling College of Art and Design Campus building with trees
8. Ringling College of Art and Design

 

Ringling College of Art and Design offers two BA programs—in Business of Art and Design, Visual Studies—and eleven BFA programs—in Computer Animation, Creative Writing, Entertainment Design, Film, Fine Arts, Game Art, Graphic Design, Illustration, Motion Design, Photography and Imaging, and Virtual Reality Development. That last program is the world's first of its kind. With a student body of 1,624 individuals, Ringling is the second smallest school in this top ten. 

In the words of current student, Joseph Janssen, Virtual Reality Development BFA, Class of 2022: "Ringling has provided incredible opportunities for personal growth and they’ve helped me build a professional network of clients. While working on the client-based project with the Moffitt Cancer Center, I worked alongside doctors and researchers in the field. Opportunities like this provide the perfect exposure to a professional, real-world setting and delivering a final product to a client on time, and on budget."

All Ringling programs dedicate a third of their curriculum requirements to liberal arts courses and the school places a strong emphasis on story-telling, even in its Fine Arts program. Its Animation, Game Design, and Illustration programs are consistently awarded and highly ranked by various outlets.

Undergraduate tuition at Ringling is approximately $45,000, making it the second most expensive school of this year's Southeast list. Compared to the schools of this top ten, however, Ringling is moderately expensive. According to surveys conducted by the school, approximately 75 percent of Ringling graduates find employment within the first six months of graduation. The school shared that its current, annual operating budget sits at $87 million and that 68 percent of it is funded by tuition and fees. Ringling’s candor on the matter shows a unique degree of openness.

Ringling College students hail from fifty-five countries, forty-five states, and five commonwealths and territories. While numerical percentages of diversity were not offered, Ringling expresses a commitment to fostering diversity and places an emphasis on community and comfort. A Ringling states, “Every member of our community adds to who we are: a dedicated, curious, quirky, and talented blend of creatives. We are relentless in our pursuit of brilliance and uncompromising in our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

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wikimedia commons
Arizona State University campus with sculptures
7. Arizona State University

 

Arizona State University (ASU), located in Tempe, is home to several top-tier arts programs all under the domain of the University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Through Herberger, ASU offers fifty-two undergraduate degrees, forty-seven graduate degrees, and nineteen minor and certificate programs.

The school clearly offers a wide range of modern and traditional training and specialization in the arts. Uniquely, ASU graduate students may participate in the ASU-LACMA Master’s Fellowship in Art History and Herberger has its own career services.

Currently, in-state tuition is about $11,338 while out-of-state tuition is $29,428. This makes ASU is the most affordable school of this top ten for any and all prospective students.  On top of that, an impressive 92 percent of ASU undergraduate students received some level of financial assistance in fall 2019 and 34 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants.

At the end of the 2018–19 school year, ASU’s graduation rate was 67.1 percent for first-time, full-time undergraduates. The year after, 83 percent of undergraduates and 87 percent of graduate students looking for work found it within six months of graduation. Although high compared to schools across the nation at large—and within the Southwest list—these numbers fall behind many of the other schools featured in this top ten. 

According to accessible data, ASU seems to have average diversity. 23 percent of ASU’s undergraduate student body are first-generation college students and, interestingly, the University records and shares diversity info on students, faculty, and employees.

ASU’s art programs take advantage of the resources afforded to a large university in a remarkable and innovative manner. The Herberger Institute has multiple fascinating research programs and initiatives in place including the Windgate Contemporary Craft initiative and the Ceramics Research Archive.

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wikimedia commons
Columbia campus with students
6. Columbia University

 

Columbia University’s graduate and undergraduate programs are structured to prioritize the development of a student’s vision over their development as, for example, a traditional painter. Although prospective MFA students are sorted into disciplines during the application process, they may work however they wish—free to explore new mediums and blend processes—once accepted.

The undergraduate Visual Arts major is similarly versatile. Concentrations are offered in Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, Photography, Printmaking, and Video but students may choose to focus on any combination of these disciplines.

The University also offers a unique Sound Art program, which former student Gerónimo M., MFA, Class of 2017, expands on: “Sound Arts has transformed the way I think and expanded and solidified my ideas at the same time... The faculty was a dream team. It's a great privilege to be part of the program and I learned so much from the students—the high quality of the students challenged me. It was a once in a lifetime chance to explore academia and practice, with the best tools possible.”

According to most recent data from Columbia, the graduate program consists of fifty-four students and twenty faculty—thirteen are full-time, seven adjunct. The University’s 2020-2021 undergraduate tuition is $60,514 and the graduate tuition is $65,116. Though only one of the most expensive programs within its regional list, Columbia is by far the most expensive of this final top ten. The University’s graduate program is rather diverse, with a student body that is around 30 percent domestic students of color and around 40 percent international.

Located in the heart of New York City, cultural opportunities are abundant and the school’s Arts Initiative makes them accessible with a passport program that offers free admission to more than thirty museums. Additionally, Columbia’s own LeRoy Neiman Gallery and Wallach Art Gallery offer a wide array of opportunities to students. The Wallach is a premier visual arts space and works closely with the Department of Art History and Archaeology, School of the Arts, and the University libraries. The Neiman hosts exhibitions that showcase work from invited artists, faculty, and students.

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School of the Art Institute of Chicago
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Exterior
5. School of the Arts Institute of Chicago

 

Founded in 1866, the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is one of the oldest accredited and independent schools of art and design in the country. SAIC offers BAs in Art History and Visual & Critical Studies as well as BFAs in Studio, Art Education, and Writing. While all majors have interdisciplinary aspects and opportunities for cross-over, students who pursue a BFA in Studio have thirteen different departments to choose from and dabble in. Additionally, the schools’ Animation, Graphic Design, and Fine Arts programs are all highly lauded and award-winning.

Undergraduate tuition during the 2019-2020 school year was $50,920, making it the most expensive school of the Midwestern top five and the fourth most expensive school of this national top ten. SAIC is a moderately small school, with a student body that consists of about 3,132 students total, 645 of whom are graduate students.

According to the most recent data, SAIC’s graduation rate is at 65.5 percent, but the employment rate of students is impressively high—although not the highest of this list—with 94.5 percent of undergraduate students employed or enrolled in a higher education program within six months of graduation from SAIC.

SAIC is one of the most diverse schools featured in all of our listings, particularly in terms of racial diversity. According to most recent data, its student body is 25.8 percent male, 36.5 percent white, and 31 percent international.

Located in the heart of Chicago, SAIC’s educational buildings and its internationally award-winning art museum—The Art Institute of Chicago—make up the largest campus in the U.S. The school is also the top producer of Fulbright Scholars among all art and design schools. Notable alumni and staff include Richard Hunt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cynthia Rowley, Nick Cave, Jeff Koons, and LeRoy Neiman.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/ Photo by Alton.
UCLA Royce Hall
4. University of California, Los Angeles

 

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is home to the School of the Arts and Architecture where students have access to leading programs in four degree-granting departments: Architecture and Urban Design, Art, Design/ Media Arts, and World Arts and Cultures/Dance. The BA program allows students to take foundational courses in six different media categories and then advance in whichever of these media they are most drawn to.

The University is home to a wide range of top-notch resources. From the UCLA Art & Global Health think tank to the collection of the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, which features 45,000 art pieces dating from the Renaissance to present.

Students here have access to interdisciplinary opportunities inherent to a research university and, according to UCLA, “our eight research centers foster groundbreaking connections between the arts and other disciplines, bringing together creativity and research to address issues such as global health, climate change, urbanism and other critical challenges of the 21st century.”

UCLA is one of the largest schools in this top ten, with over 45,000 students. It is also one of the most affordable schools for in-state students with an undergraduate tuition of $13,240. For out-of-state undergrads, however, this is not the case. These students will pay around $42,994 for tuition. Even so, the university reports that more than half of its undergraduates receive financial assistance and 35 percent receive Pell Grants—one of the highest percentages within the nation’s top-tier, public universities.

In terms of diversity, the University’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) offers, among other things, resources for racial trauma as well as EDI Toolkits.

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wikimedia commons, Bobak Ha'Eri.
CalArts sign on campus
3. California Institute of the Arts

 

The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), located in Santa Clarita, is the smallest school of this top ten with around 1,520 enrolled students. The school offers over seventy different majors in performing, visual, and literary arts. CalArts’ Visual Arts program includes seven programs within the School of Art and six within the School of Film and Video.

With so many programs to choose from, students are encouraged to explore and think critically about the art they wish to make. Both graduate and undergraduate students may receive instruction across a wide range of media including installation, video, film, writing, performance, painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, digital imaging, and sculpture. A special emphasis is placed on individualized instruction and mentoring as students learn how to articulate ideas, develop personal methodologies, and establish an independent studio practice.

In the words of former student, Vashti Harrison, Film and Video MFA, Class of 2014: “CalArts is like its own little ecosystem and you feel that when you walk into the building. I came for a visit and tour on the admitted students weekend. Instantly, the atmosphere was inspiring. But the moment I felt it was a no-brainer, was when I saw the students’ work. I thought, 'They have a great faculty here and if I have the opportunity to learn from them, and become part of a personal community with these people, my work will certainly expand and flow and change. It’s really impressive.”

CalArts is moderately expensive compared to other schools listed. It’s fall 2021-22 tuition is $52,850. Although the school does not currently have holistic data on the employment rate of former students, it did share graduation and retention rates. The school’s six-year graduation rate sits at 61.4 percent and, between fall 2018 and 2019, 83.7 percent of freshmen re-enrolled.

CalArts shows its commitment to fostering an environment of equity and diversity through a variety of initiatives including specialized grants, programs, and identity projects. The school also keeps up an extensive and interactive factbook that holds data points on the current academic year as well as the last five years.

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Photo by George Gray. Courtesy of RISD.
RISD Campus viewed over the river.
2. Rhode Island School of Design

 

The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is located in Providence, RI. The school offers forty-four full-time Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs including Jewelry and Metalsmithing, Interior Architecture, and Graphic Design. All first-years are required to take Experimental and Foundation Studies.

RISD—in partnership with Brown University—offers a Dual Degree program referred to as BRDD. Students in the BRDD program pursue a BFA with RISD and a Bachelor of Arts or Science with Brown.

Tuition, according to RISD, currently stands at $55,220. Relative to other schools listed, RISD is one of the most expensive schools. RISD ranks moderately high in terms of diversity. According to data from the 2019/2020 school year, the student population is 33 percent domestic students of color and 37 percent international students. With 1,736 students, RISD is the third smallest school of this top ten.

An important factor to consider alongside diversity is the school's decision to be and remain test-optional (i.e. SAT and ACT results are not required) for any applicants. Though many schools adopted this policy over the last year or so to accommodate for COVID restrictions, it has been RISD’s policy since 2019. This shows a unique dedication to and belief in students from a range of socioeconomic, educational, and neurodivergent backgrounds.

The RISD Museum—which houses around 100,000 works of art and boasts seven curatorial departments—is the only comprehensive art museum in southeastern New England. Providence, known to many as the state’s “Creative Capital,” is home to seven colleges and is conveniently located between buzzing metropoles and the more peacefully rural coastal and inland landscapes.

RISD prioritizes career readiness and hosts an annual Design and Fine Arts Portfolio Review which gives students the opportunity to make connections that may lead to internships or future jobs. Students also have access to RISD Portfolios, an online showcase of creative work. Notable alumni include Kara Walker and Shepard Fairey.

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Courtesy of SCAD
SCAD's Historic Savannah Campus
1. Savannah College of Art and Design

 

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) offers more programs and specializations than any other art and design university in the U.S., with forty undergraduate, and sixty-one graduate degree programs. In the words of current student Shan W., Painting BFA, Class of 2022: “I love the resources that are available to students. I am able to explore mediums and concepts I did not even consider before. SCAD has made so many opportunities available to me. A main reason I learned about and was prepared for my current internship (Smithsonian Institute) is the connections I am able to make with faculty and visiting mentors. The time I’ve spent at SCAD has really reinforced my value of community!”

Programs offered by the school are constantly evolving to keep up with the natural progression that occurs in the working world. SCAD’s Animation program has been consistently awarded and highly ranked by various outlets over the years.

With undergraduate tuition at $37,575 and graduate tuition around $38,475, SCAD is moderately priced compared to the other schools listed. SCAD is also moderately sized for this list—and large compared to other arts-focused schools—with a student body of more than 14,000 individuals. According to the school, 99 percent of Spring 2020 alumni were employed, pursuing higher education, or both within ten months of graduation. This statistic is remarkably high—the highest of this top ten—and even more impressive given the year in which it was recorded and its accompanying time frame. SCAD has also shared that its approved budget for FY22 includes $292 million in operating expenses. The scope of the budget is just as remarkable as the range of courses offered by the school. And, of course, SCAD’s candor on the matter shows a unique degree of openness.

Every year the school hosts a wide range of SCAD Signature Events that offer opportunities for students in every program, from gaming to fashion and beyond. The art-fair style events SCAD deFINE ART and SCAD AT MIAMI spotlight established and emerging artists while showcasing contemporary art, design innovation, and performance. And the SCAD Savannah Film Festival—the largest university-run film festival in the world—has screened over 100 Oscar-nominated films.