Heavy Debt for Design Careers

Hello Everyone,

I’ve been researching the high cost of private industrial design school for a while now compared to the earning potential for many in these careers and would be interested in what your stories and perspectives are. For those of you who have borrowed large amounts of money for an ID Degree (let’s say 100k or more) what were the factors that led you to making that decision and how has it played out for you after you left school? Money can be a very touchy subject so please only share what you feel comfortable with.


Yikes. 100k+… the price of college has just gone up so much. I feel for you guys. I just don’t understand what justifies the costs going up so much given that instructors are typically paid so little.

I know this doesn’t help your predicament and I’m sure I’m not pointing out anything you don’t already know. It is just a frustrating thing. There has to be a better way to train designers that is just as effective (if not more) and doesn’t saddle graduates with 10-20 years of debt.

It was 15+ years ago already, but when I was applying to colleges I had my pick between some private schools (Syracuse, which was a 5 year program @ $35K/yr back then) and public schools (Georgia Tech/Va Tech) which were 4 year programs @ $20k.

Didn’t qualify for any real financial aid so my parents made it pretty clear that they couldn’t justify a $100K cost delta for that education. I went to the cheaper state school, got money from my parents, and worked summers + freelance jobs to help cover costs. I can say with certainty knowing where my career path went (especially since I worked with a large handful of Syracuse alum) that the more expensive education would not have had any bearing on my starting salary, career growth, or hindered me in any way.

My wife borrowed for her schooling and just finished paying off her school loans for her masters only 2 years ago - getting out from underneath that debt finally let us buy a house.

It’s a shame that students are getting the shaft in the bubble that Michael points out. My only advice to you as an old guy would be: Consider applying to schools that have more reasonable tuition and see if there are any which end up offering any type of aid or scholarships you could qualify for. There is a section here with lots of great feedback from students on their schools. VaTech where I ended up going had a young program at the time, but they matured greatly even over a short period of time and started producing great graduates.

+1 to that, and also the whole “school is what you make of it” adage is true. You could spend $100K plus on tuition at a top tier school, and come away jobless if your work stinks, or you didn’t put in the effort it won’t matter. On the other side of the coin, you could go to a “lower ranked” state school (which I feel rankings are BS anyway), and come away with an amazing job because you put forth a ton of effort, and did stellar work. There are many more places to work than Nike, or Pininfarina or, IDEO.

I went to Iowa State… there wasn’t an ID department there at the time like there is now. And still, graduates from there work all over the world. One guy I know works for Lego, there are fashion designers working for Michael Kors, etc. It doesn’t REALLY matter where you go, it’s what you do with it. Sadly, it took me a long time to figure that out.

So, go where you can afford, work hard, make connections outside of school, join industry groups as a student. You’ll do fine.

On that note, some more cost effective schools to think about.

West Coast:
San Jose State
Cal State Long Beach

Mid West:
University of Cincinnati (pretty much gold standard)
Cleveland Institute of Art (private art school but used to be pretty inexpensive)
Columbus College of Art and Design (same as above)

East Coast:
Virginia Tech
Gorgia Tech

I think the ideal design education might be getting a 2 year liberal arts associates and then apprenticing for a designer for a few years. I’m not sure how possible that is to pull off. I defiantly respect that higher education can help make someone more well rounded, so a couple of years of academics are a good thing. Beyond that I think most of it is skill building, networking, and getting some basic design philosophy and methodologies to underpin your thinking. That is why I think things like Pensole Academy are so interesting.

This is a problem across probably all fields I think. You need the degree to get a job so they can charge whatever they want regardless of the quality they actually deliver. This might just be an Australian thing but what annoys me A LOT is how often the teachers at an academic level often are just lifelong academics who have never left the institution and have no practical experience actually shipping product.

Universities globally have turned into money processing degree machines. I don’t think this problem is specific to design at all, and is much wider spread

I don’t believe academic pedigree carries much weight in ID, and you could be just as well off going to a school you can afford, and then working your butt off practicing.

Also Australian, and completely agree about the teachers being lifelong academics with minimal professional experience.

The unfortunate reality, in Australia at least, is that the average ID earns 60-80k plus 9.5% super (our 401k), even in crazy expensive cities like Sydney and Melbourne, and we don’t have the volume of design-centric companies to easily scale to higher pay positions.

Comparatively, the average university offers a cushy job, a 90-100k first year base with 17% super (our 401k) and linear pay scaling above inflation for every year that you work there, even without promotion.

It’s no wonder they choose to teach instead.

$100K is a shocker! You’re supposed to be paying 15% of your income into your pension by 30 just to survive in later life…

I spent quite a bit of the early part of my career teaching in Design schools in the UK, (and some recently in the US) and a consistent pattern emerged: In any school you have a bell curve of ability- At one end you have raw talent, committed, enthusiastic students who make the most of their opportunity. At the other end there are the slackers, the non-passionates who are basically doomed, and in the middle there’s a large swathe of worthy, competent but unexceptional types who drift off into some tangential career. Decades ago I taught at an unremarkable UK school where a sub-group of talent thrived despite the environment, and some of those bell-curve extremists went on to become heroes in US corporate design…

So, choose a school, any school, that a) supports good internships b) supports learning of basic tools and skills and c) has the basic resources found in any professional studio. If the staff are dead-head academics, go outside to find professional mentors, or go to forums like Core for feedback from professionals.

The rest is up to you. Your commitment. Your talent. Your passion.

The big delta is between private universities and state school programs. It’s close to a 2x difference to go to a private program. Right now, getting a 4-year design education at either state or private for $100k is a pipe dream. Cost of out-of-state tuition, books, materials, housing, etc. It’s more likely that you are looking at up to $40k per year for some pretty basic (still ‘good’ - out of) state school programs, compared to $50k-$70k+ (hello Carnegie Mellon and RISD) for private.

If you can find a program (state school) in the state you live in (Ohio, NC, California have some good options) that will realllllllly help!

I have a daughter looking at animation and has 5 preferred schools she’d like to attend - most are north of $40k. We’ve got a lot of work to do to see if we can get some Federal funding and if she can get some school aid. Otherwise, we need her to look at some of her less preferred choices.

Stressful to say the least!

Yikes I just googled what Tuition & Room and Board at VT are, they say even $42k/yr now. Tuition was $18k out of state when I graduated compared to $32k out of state…nearly 2X 12 years later.

If you live in a state with an in-state ID program, that would certainly be the most affordable way to go.

So glad to see all of these responses! Yeah its definitely a difficult situation where I’m looking for a graduate school I can actually afford to pay off but where I live in PA I’m not seeing any state schools that offer what I need and any universities where I would have to pay out of state tuition would create a huge amount of debt. I’m still researching but it’s an intimidating process to be sure.


The Baumol Effect and Rising Education Costs Perhaps costs are going up because education is naturally low productivity.

Revisionist History Perhaps private school costs are so high because people are trying to keep them elite.

Design education: I think there are only 3 schools worth paying more for (CCS, Art Center and Royal College of Arts). Having said that, I’ve met a couple grads of these schools who had crappy jobs, so it’s not a given.

As previously said, the students motivation is the biggest factor in success. I went to ASU and I know people that worked at Ideo and other top jobs. They had the same professors as me and entered with more-or-less the same skill level. The difference was that they worked 80 hours a week on getting better and I worked 40-ish. Work hard and you will have a much better chance to meet your goals, no matter the school.

I’ve also met people from those schools who were not very skilled. So going to a great school doesn’t mean that it will gift you amazing abilities!

This is a very touchy subject for me.

My experience:

Go to private school, costs $23k/year, get part scholarship when I start, push myself hard, honors GPA, multiple internships, graduate during the worst recession since the 1930s (2009).

My loans were $65,000 at the time of my graduation.

It’s now 10 years later. I have been paying ~$500 a month for 10 years. I have paid back $60,000.


This is beyond ridiculous, this is beyond moral, this is just regod damn diculous and I want to riot and burn down government buildings.

Meanwhile, the banks that caused the recession all got bailouts, nobody really went to jail, and these rich fucks are doing stuff like this with our student loan interest money (aka modern slavery):

Now… do I think it was worth it?

That’s going to be a big NO from me, dawg. I’ve worked for a lot of companies, and one thing I learned is that designers aren’t the decision makers. It’s always someone higher up on the food chain that gets to make the shots, and generally they have no design education. These people are paid 2-5x higher than what designers/engineers get paid, and frankly, I really don’t understand what is difficult about their jobs.

Example: To be a good designer, I need the following hard skills: Sketching (hand), Adobe Creative Suite (ps, il, id minimum), CAD modeling (solid/surfacing), rendering, animation, video editing for stitching animations together (premiere!), completely comfortable in a shop environment with all power tools, and you also need the knowledge of manufacturing, materials, sourcing, draft, textures, assembly, service, ergonomics, the list goes on and on and on. And we get paid $60-80k.

Meanwhile, the executives, who don’t ACTUALLY create anything, just get to sit around and listen to presentations of work created by others and make calls. They don’t have knowledge of materials, manufacturing, assembly, design, etc. They absorb that knowledge from the people under them. They sit in their offices, check email, go to meetings, and get paid 2-5x more than us.

I don’t get it. What skills do they actually need, compared to the mountain of technical knowledge, talent, and skill that we have? Why are they paid more, for doing less?

Take that as you will.

I’m sorry about that. What a crap story. I listened to the Michael Lewis ‘Against The Rules’ podcast about Navient (‘The Seven Minute Rule’) and it made me really mad - which is about .0001% as mad as you.

“These people are paid 2-5x higher than what designers/engineers get paid, and frankly, I really don’t understand what is difficult about their jobs.”

Its not that the jobs are HARDER…its just that they are closer to the source of the money. Straight-up R&D doesn’t pay well, and is first to get downsized. Hearing ‘blue-sky, new ideas, pure R&D, no product delivery schedules’ should make a designer run in the other direction.

From your post, you are clearly smarter and more qualified than the executives you work for - why aren’t you doing that job instead of being a poorly paid designer?

I’m old, I feel your pain BUT, do something about it. No one is required to do what they do if they feel cheated or minimized.

Fixed. But I have no idea. How the hell does one apply to be an executive/decision maker? I did rebrand my entire resume as product development.

fwiw, I’m that guy, Also fwiw, I do have the design skills you described.

I am responsible for finding the problems of the customer. I am responsible for writing a clear brief for the designer. I am responsible for determining if a designer’s solution rings the customer’s bell. I am responsible for iterating that process with multiple personalities/needs/wants from multiple departments and multiple customer types.

I am responsible for the growth of my associates. I am responsible for balancing the needs of the company with the needs of the associate.

I am responsible for deciding if we buy/make. I am responsible for determining if a vendor is capable of making millions of parts under our quality system.
I am responsible for determining if a $10 million investment in capital goods is worth doing. I am responsible for determining costing. I am responsible for determining market potential. I am responsible for determine pricing. I am responsible for making a business case that follows company standards.

I am responsible for commercialization of the product including but not limited to packaging, claims verification, marketing strategy, sales strategy in all platforms.

On average, per launch, I am responsible for the actions of 100+ people. So yes, I sit in my office. I check email. I go to meetings. I get paid more than you. Everything I do now I did not learn in design school. You like my job? It is my responsibility to develop a replacement for me as no one should plan to stay in the same place for more than 5 years. Come knock on my door if you want to be me or just stfu.

Sorry to hear you feel this way. But I think there’s another side to consider.

Firstly, Design CAN sit at the table and be in the decision making process, as an executive. Most companies have a VP of product or maybe even CDO. The skills to take you to that position are in the realm of a designer. But it will be more than sketching, some CAD and knowing how to use a sander on Bondo to get you there. Yo, here is a perfect example as was CDO of Sound United.

Designers have a lot of skills, as do executives. Instead of focusing on the skills you have and think are important, why not look at what skills you can gain to be a decision maker and make that money? Analysis skills, business skills, presentation skills, negotiation skills, knowledge of people and markets. Do you actually bring in money to a company? Are the skills you mention actually of value? You can maybe juggle too, but nobody would probably pay you for it.

Designers, like every other role in an organization are but one position that relies on the positions below and provides info for the positions above it. I’d bet somewhere there is a tool maker complaining that “designers make more money than us, but don’t actually make anything with their hands at all”… and maybe an injection mold operator saying “designers just make drawings of stuff all day, they don’t actually inproduce anything…”

What role in the process do you WANT to do? What value do you bring to the table? If you could be an executive and be in those meetings and send those emails and make 2x more, would you?

The debt situation and cost of schools in the US is crazy, no doubt. But better to look at the opportunity of a situation and find how you can make more, doing what you want to do, or figure out something new to do than complaining about it.


Please tell me more about how people in crushing debt with low paying jobs should shut up and take it.