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  • Industry Hopefuls: Prepare Intelligently!

    [07.07.09]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • School Reputation and Quality

    As Jill Duffy pointed out in "Does my School Suck?", the reputation of your school is unlikely to matter to potential employers in the game industry. Game companies want to know what you can DO, not what school you went to.

    However, in the long run the reputation of your school may matter to you. That long run comes if you decide to leave the game industry and go into older, more established fields. A college-accredited degree from a well-known school is going to get much more respect than, say, an online degree from one of the new schools that specialize in such things. And a game-specialized trade school degree may not count for anything at all (see below).

    Remember also that school "ranking", the kind of thing you see in magazines and journals, is probably based on either the opinion of the writer (which may be quite accurate, of course) or on the quantity of research done by the school's faculty. That's research, not teaching results or success of graduates. Research is easy to measure.

    School quality is very important, but even harder to determine. Two schools can offer classes with identical descriptions, but provide two very different experiences. This depends on intent, on the skill of the instructors, on the administration, on the students, and so forth. This is such a large subject that it will have to be covered in a separate article.

    Many people like to say, "college is what you make of it". To some extent that's true, but if you choose an unsuitable college, it will be as though you have one arm (and maybe one leg) tied behind your back.

    Accreditation. You can buy "degrees" from European schools with prestigious-sounding names, but what are they worth? Accreditation is what determines whether a degree is taken seriously by others.

    A degree is useful only insofar as it is properly accredited. This is an obscure subject to the average student, but very important in the long run. I recall talking about accreditation with a game design and art student at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), which is accredited as a college, unlike many art schools. Had she been concerned about it? No, but fortunately her mother was, and so she'll earn a "college" degree rather than a "trade school" degree.

    So what is college accreditation? Regional accreditation looks at the educational institution (college or K12) as a whole, not at the game-related curriculum specifically. A school must meet standards in finance, health, faculty credentials, facilities, administrative processes, and more to achieve accreditation. There are six regional accrediting agencies responsible for accrediting institutions of higher education within their regional boundaries -- look for one of these when you visit a college's Web site:

    • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools - MSA
    • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
    • Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges - NASC
    • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools - NCA
    • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools -SACS
    • Western Association of Schools and Colleges

    These are private groups in this country that "accredit" schools, both K12 schools and colleges. Accreditation is voluntary, but the accrediting bodies wield a great deal of influence. See https://www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/index.html for the US government's financial-aid-related take on accreditation. Chea (https://www.chea.org/) provides a private umbrella view of accreditation.

    It's important to understand that there are different kinds of accreditation. Not every school that offers a degree is accredited, and a trade school accreditation is very different from a college accreditation. Accreditation matters when you see a job that "requires bachelor's degree", because this usually means "bachelor's degree from a college accredited school", not from a school like "Coastal California University". The latter is "approved" by the state of California, but has no accreditation worth speaking of. Consequently, you can get a Ph.D. there, but to knowledgeable people it isn't worth a thing (see https://chea.org/degreemills/default.htm and https://www.ed.gov/students/prep/college/diplomamills/diploma-mills.html. ) The name of the school means nothing. Any school can call itself a "university" with state approval, if that. Coastal California "University" is, once again, an example.

    Specialized trade schools such as DigiPen and Full Sail are trade-school accredited. A degree from a trade school only counts in the trade it covers: it is not a "real" degree for many other purposes. (This depends on the potential employer's standards, of course.)

    A trade school degree definitely limits you in pursuing further education. Examples: SCAD offers a master's degree in game design, and NC State has a masters in fine arts. In the world of colleges and universities, you cannot work on a master's degree until you have a recognized (college accredited) bachelor's degree, just as you cannot work on a bachelor's degree until you have a recognized high school diploma or GED. Not surprisingly, then, I'm told by Professors Brenda Brathwaite and Tim Buie from the respective schools that students with degrees from trade schools cannot be accepted to those masters degree programs because they do not have properly accredited bachelors degrees. Period.

    Is this "fair"? I'm not going to address the question, because reality is what counts, and those with a trade school degree cannot attain a college-accredited master's degree -- unless they go back to college first. You can't say "but, but". That's the way it is. (Some trade schools now offer master's degrees -- but they're not college-accredited, of course.)

    Notice, I don't say you'll get a better education from a college-accredited school than from a trade school. Insofar as trade schools specialize, and prefer practitioners, they may offer more than most broad-based institutions. If you're sure you're going to work in the game field all your life, why not a trade school? But are you sure?

     Make sure you get the facts. Predatory, fraudulent practices in education are not unusual, especially from private for-profit schools. The ridiculous ads suggesting that you can get a job in the game industry and play games all day are examples. See https://www.videosift.com/video/Tighten-up-those-Graphics for one.

    See https://www.videosift.com/video/Westwood-College-Sued-For-Fraud for a news report about a for-profit college being sued for fraud. (This school does have a game-related department, though it was not mentioned in this newscast.) Every experienced educator has encountered at least one student who thinks everything will be handed to him on a platter, and that student will be a failure regardless of what school he or she attends. You never know, in lawsuits such as this, how much is student self-delusion and how much deception by the school. The point is not about this particular school, it is about the predatory and deceptive practices that most definitely occur in 21st century education, and your duty to yourself to be wary.

    Costs of school. We might also note that trade schools are rarely state-supported; hence, as with all private schools, they are much more expensive than state schools. For-profit schools are yet more expensive. Further, community/junior colleges are vastly less expensive than four-year schools. Roughly speaking, one year at a state school for a resident of the state, including room and board, runs around $11,000-$15,000 not counting books and incidental fees. (State-supported schools are usually much more expensive to students from out-of-state, than to state residents.)

    My advice is to never consider attending a for-profit college.

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