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  • Identifying a Good Game School

    [03.30.10]
    - Ian Schreiber and Lewis Pulsipher
  •  "Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don't." Pete Seeger

    If you've decided to attend a college specifically to study for a game degree, how do you know which schools are good (the few), and which aren't (the many, unfortunately)? Here are some suggestions about what you should look for. Which of these are the most important? That will vary from person to person. As you read, think about your personal priorities.

    Why Question At All?

    Students choose schools for all kinds of reasons. At the community college level, it's often based on cost and proximity to home more than anything else. With four-year schools, it could be anything from geographic location to campus size to how pretty the campus looks to which school one's boyfriend/girlfriend is attending. It's easy to ignore the quality of the school.

    Complicating things further, schools have a process set up where you have to apply to attend there, which immediately puts the prospective student in a position of perceived weakness. After all, you can't attend at all unless they say you can. If you are accepted, you should thank your lucky stars (because there's a line out the door and around the block of people waiting to take your place) and not ask any questions. Incidentally, interviews for game industry jobs can feel similar to first-timers.

    If you're a student looking at game schools, it's worth remembering a few things:

    • You're paying an extreme cost in time (several years) and money (more than a new car, unless you have really expensive taste in cars). It's one of the largest expenses you'll have in your lifetime.
    • You wouldn't buy a new car without at least kicking the tires and taking a test drive. You wouldn't buy a house without taking a tour and getting it professionally inspected. Do your due diligence the same way you would for any other big-ticket item.
    • Screw this up and you'll graduate with a degree that makes you unemployable. Or you'll drop out and owe tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for no degree. Think about your next steps after you're done with school, and realize that your options may change based on your school experience. It's worth taking the time up front to make sure you'll get what you're looking for.

    Cost of the School

    Question to ask: What is the total cost?

    What to look for: In general, state-supported community colleges are the least expensive, and in many cases their classes transfer to universities in the same state (though the ability of credits to transfer is something you should check on ahead of time). The down side is that most community colleges will only offer a two-year degree at best, while most entry-level positions in the game industry will have you competing against others with Bachelor's degrees. The reality is that if you start at a two-year school you should plan to transfer in order to finish a four-year degree, and the community college should be up-front with you about this. Have an idea of what four-year school(s) you intend to transfer to, and check with those schools to make sure they accept credit transfer from the community college you are considering.

    State-supported four-year schools are generally the next least expensive, especially if you are a legal resident of that state (out-of-state tuition is usually much higher). Even more expensive are private four-year schools, including for-profit privately-owned schools that are dedicated specifically to games. While the latter may seem like the most direct way to get a job in the game industry, they are expensive enough that it is important for you to be sure of what you're getting ahead of time.

    What to do: Unfortunately, cost is a difficult thing to estimate. You can usually find current tuition costs by visiting a school's website, but tuition is often increased (sometimes substantially) while you are attending, so simply multiplying the yearly tuition by four may be less than the final cost. There are usually additional costs above tuition: books, lab fees, student recreation fees, library fees and other incidentals are not uncommon, and they may vary depending on what classes you take, making the exact cost difficult to estimate. Additionally, there are costs of living that have nothing to do with classes ("room and board") that you will have to pay, either to the school (if you live in dorms and have a campus meal plan) or elsewhere (if you have an off-campus apartment and cook your own food). Living off campus is usually cheaper but has a higher time cost, as you'll have a longer commute to your classes and you'll spend more time procuring and preparing meals.

    Many colleges offer financial aid. Check with the financial aid or admissions office to get an idea of what loans, grants and scholarships you may be eligible for. Unfortunately, most of these involve filling out applications and you may or may not be accepted; some scholarships only cover your first year or two, while others are renewable each year but require that you maintain a minimum GPA, and still others must be re-applied for each year. The bottom line is that you will not know exactly how much financial aid you will get, but you can at least ask what is typical for the average attending student.

    What to watch out for: If a school is not forthcoming with information about expected costs in one or more categories, that may be a signal that you'll be paying more than you expect.

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