Getting to Know: Columbia-Chicago
Columbia College-Chicago was the next stop on my Chicago college tour. I took advantage of an opportunity to learn about Columbia-Chicago by listening to a program on The College Tour before I set foot on campus, and watched the program again after I came home. You should listen, too. My friend, Linda Jang, took some pictures that I’ve dropped in this article. I also invite you to check out my Columbia-Chicago Pinterest page. Columbia-Chicago has been labeled as an “art school,” much like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). However, I worked with several art and design schools in my past work life. I believe that Columbia-Chicago is, in some ways, something more.
For one thing, this school is bigger than most art and design schools.
Columbia-Chicago has nearly 6,500 undergrads, with ambitions to grow to as many as 8,000. Most art and design schools have considerably smaller student bodies. SAIC has just under 2,800 undergrads. Parsons, the New School for Design has just over 4,600. Two public schools, Massachusetts College of Art (1,800) and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (920) are much smaller. All of these schools have academic overlap with Columbia-Chicago. But they place more emphasis on the visual arts and grant Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees.
Ninety percent of Columbia-Chicago’s undergraduates pursue a BA. BFA programs usually require a portfolio for admission along with transcripts, recommendations, and artist statements. The BA programs at Columbia-Chicago do not. There are some pluses, such as opportunities for students to:
- Try to succeed in a creative field that they have had little to no previous experience before college.
- Double major or carry one or more minors that complement a creative interest. For example, an advertising student may want to take courses in marketing or public relations.
- With respect to student exhibitions and productions Columbia-Chicago appears to treat BA students equally with BFA students. Talent trumps the intended degree.
- Learn to balance an independent city life while learning a new curriculum.
The BFA is meant to be a smaller, more intensive program of study where students work individually or in small groups with faculty. While Columbia-Chicago does not have the large-lecture courses like larger, more traditional public colleges, the BA students are likely to have less personal instruction than BFA candidates.
Columbia-Chicago is more similar to Emerson College, which I previously visited in Boston, than it is to an art and design school.
Columbia-Chicago offers majors in marketing, communications (journalism/film/TV), visual and performing arts. Like Emerson, Columbia-Chicago has a downtown campus, impressive equipment and facilities, upscale apartment-style housing close by, and an option to study in Los Angeles. Boston is considered by some to be “America’s College Town.” However, the South Loop in downtown Chicago has become a college town unto itself. Columbia-Chicago, DePaul University, the University of Illinois-Chicago, Roosevelt University and SAIC maintain a presence in the neighborhood. Columbia-Chicago students share University Center, an apartment building, with DePaul and Roosevelt; each school’s students enter/leave through separate entrances/exits.
However, Columbia-Chicago is far less selective and considerably less expensive than Emerson.
Almost everyone who applies (95 percent) to a BA program at Columbia-Chicago gets in. The estimated total cost of attendance at Columbia-Chicago for a student living on-campus is just under $60,000. Just over a fifth of the incoming freshmen receive talent-based merit scholarships, which can be as much as full tuition. Emerson charges over $54,000 for tuition and fees alone.
I would also argue that the student housing at Columbia-Chicago is nicer and more available than the housing at Emerson. In fact, the residences are among the nicest urban apartments that I have seen at any college. I doubt that graduates of any school in the South Loop would be able to afford private apartments with similar amenities on entry-level salaries. However, one downside that I read in reviews: most of the local businesses, including coffee shops and student-priced dining, close at 8:00 PM.
Aside from the apartments, what else did I like about Columbia-Chicago?
This school is about opportunity as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion. The acceptance rate alone shows that Columbia-Chicago is more serious about offering opportunity than about turning applicants away. So are the costs and aid. The equipment and facilities are there, and so are spaces to relax (dropped photos up top and below). So are the faculty and staff to help a motivated student to develop and discover the professional opportunities they want. The key is to stay motivated, find your friends and not be discouraged. Having worked with art and design schools in my past life I learned that these schools have students with very strong personalities and viewpoints. It is very easy for incoming students to feel discouraged, even disgusted, with “highly dramatic” classmates.
- Events such as Manifest are very much about trying to “meet the students where they’re at.” The same appears to true for general education courses.
- A majority of Columbia-Chicago’s undergraduates are students of color.
- The community is more accepting of LGBTQIA+ students than practically any other college I have visited.
- Columbia-Chicago tries to be flexible to accommodate non-traditional and working students. Given the school’s location and offerings, I felt this was a perfect place for someone who was already working in Chicago to take advantage of the education towards a career change or advancement within a creative field.
What are some things that prospective students and their families should consider?
When a school admits towards an eye on opportunity, retention is likely to be lower because a greater percentage of students are likely to become discouraged.
Columbia-Chicago typically loses a third of a freshman class. I had to believe that it was hard for arts instructors to teach to students who might have extremely varied levels of experience. There might be temptations to “water down” a class that would leave better prepared students dissatisfied with course content. Given the size of the undergraduate student body as well as the reviews I read, I had to wonder if the academic and support resources were spread thinner than they might be at a smaller art and design school or Emerson.
I also had to wonder if those who stay needed more time to finish their degree. Only 40 percent of the students who entered Columbia-Chicago in 2016 finished on time; it was 43 percent for the class that entered the year before. But time also costs money. 2021 graduates who had to take out loans owed, on average, over $33,000. Entry-level jobs in these creative fields do not pay well, so this has to be a concern.
Over two-thirds of the Columbia-Chicago faculty are adjuncts.
The school calls this a plus. You learn from people who work in the field who can also be part of your network. But there are downsides. Adjuncts might know their work world, but they are less likely to be trained to teach, nor receive the training to do it. In addition, adjunct faculty are more likely to leave or be replaced. It might be more difficult to track them down when you need references. As of the date of this post adjunct faculty are on strike.
Chicago is an extremely competitive market for creative students seeking to freelance.
DePaul and Loyola-Chicago also have a strong downtown presence as well as excellent programs in film and communications. These universities also have accredited business programs. Columbia-Chicago appears more watered-down in business courses in Marketing, though stronger offerings in Marketing Communications. Northwestern and SAIC students will also be serious competition for work in theatre, music, and the visual arts, respectively.
Columbia-Chicago might be a great school for motivated, creatively inclined students who smile when they look at the equipment facilities, forget about “rankings,” find their friends and press forward towards their goals. From taking my visit and watching The College Tour. I believed that there were many such students at this school. But I also believe that the school must do better at attracting more of them.
Report Card: Columbia College-Chicago
- Four-Year/Six-Year Graduation Rates: C/C
- Freshman Retention: C
- Costs: B
- Curriculum: A
- Community: A
- Comforts: A
- Connections: A (Chicago area)/C (elsewhere)
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