Welcome to (Not) University

I am a professional photographer. I’ve been shooting for more than half my life.

I was even fortunate enough to get a college degree in fine art photography.

But it turned out that college was actually one of the least helpful things in my path towards a career.

For years I chalked up my lack of photographic knowledge to a poor choice in schools. I thought that maybe if I’d gone to a different school then maybe I’d have been taught how to bid on a job or build a website or assist on a commercial shoot—the list goes on. However, over the years I’ve heard a number of stories nearly identical to mine, from students with a range of degrees from a number of colleges. These are people who, like myself, went to school in order to make a career out of a creative trade that they were passionate about, who all graduated with a glaring lack of the knowledge and technical skills needed to compete in the industry.

This was not the only trait we shared.

The other was debt.

Whether a student was riding on a full scholarship or they were paying for everything with federal loans, every graduate I’ve talked to has come out of school in moderate to extreme debt. Even if the student was lucky enough to get a full ride, they often still accrue significant debt by taking loans to cover their art supplies and living costs since the workload was often too heavy to allow time for student to work their way through college.

Let’s break down what exactly a college degree does for someone in a creative field—a place that is portfolio-based. It provides the student with art history, which is certainly important. Some basic techniques are also taught. However, unless an internship is required, the student learns no real field experience. Their portfolio is also next to empty at the time of graduation. This is a massive problem if you think about it: guess how many potential employers have asked to see my diploma? In the 12 years since I’ve graduated, the only employer that cared to see my degree was the university where I briefly served as an adjunct professor.

Portfolio > Diploma.

After having attending a four-year program at a distinguished university and graduating with almost no preparedness for working as a professional, I was left with some burning questions: Why, for example, in a four-year degree, did less than half of the classes I took pertain to actually learning the creative trade I went to school for, or why were the courses predominantly taught by student teachers or professors that aren’t active industry professionals?

One reason universities may have a hard time attracting industry professionals is because they don’t offer competitive wages—competitive for their trade, that is.

In my time as an adjunct, I was paid $45/hour, which sounded great at first. The catch is that they only paid me for the time I was actually in class with students, which was three hours a week.

So let’s do the math: I was making $135 per week, before taxes. In that time I was expected to read a chapter from the textbook I was teaching from, prepare a 2.5 hour lesson for class, answer emails, create quizzes and tests, input quiz and test answers into the computer, create study guides, and provide supplemental video links the pertained to the weekly content. I was clocking about 10 hours of work, on average, per week, making my pay around $13.50/hour, which, after taxes, was more like $10/hour. Try paying off your student loans with that.

Why would a working, professional photographer walk away from a livable wage in order to teach? Hint: they don’t.

All the technical and industry knowledge that I now have (and need in order to be competitive in this industry) I’ve learned on my own, after graduating. I’ve learned by reading blogs, emailing photographers to ask questions, assisting working photographers, and experimenting on my own. These are all things that a self-disciplined person could learn, outside of a university setting.

My question then is whether higher education is actually the best plan for a person entering a creative field. I offer that an apprenticeship or trade school environment is much more effective.

This ideal environment would cover everything—from first learning the craft, to how to work for an employer, start a business, build a website, pay taxes … essentially every facet of the field. In this ideal scenario, local industry professionals would teach classes, so that students are building a network as they learn. Most importantly, classes would be affordable as well as part-time so that students can work their way through schooling and graduate debt-free.

Which is why I’m forming my own (Not) University.

No, that’s not an acronym, like MIT, RISD or SCAD. “Not” just means that it’s not a university. It’s something different—an alternative; a place where the money goes where it’s supposed to: the teachers. I envision Not U existing in a number of cities around the world—any city with a creative industry. Though the school is still in the planning phase, I have announced the first course: a commercial photography class, taught by Yours Truly. It will cover everything from camera basics up through launching a business—all with the use of minimal, affordable gear.

If you’re a student interested in learning more about Not University’s course offerings, an industry pro interested in teaching, or you’re a business/investor that’s interested in sponsoring a student, drop us a line. The syllabus can be viewed on the website at notuniversity.org.