The cost of becoming an artist

The University of Northern Colorado Digital Fabrication Lab. Photo courtesy of Renee Ortiz.

Students studying art and design pay more in fees than other students

The University of Northern Colorado art departments offer many branches of learning experiences; but, those experiences come with a hefty price… literally. 

Over the last 20 years, UNC has seen a decrease in funding from the state. In the 1980s, the ratio of state money to student payment was 70:30. As of last year, state funding has decreased to 30 percent. 

The decrease has negatively affected the students attending UNC, especially students in the School of Art and Design. Students who take courses for their major, minor or electives are charged program, course and instructor fees. Those fees are then used to run, maintain and add new equipment to the school.

Program fees are applied to the student’s tuition bill and are used to run and maintain the art areas and equipment. Over the last four years, the director of the School of Art and Design, Andrew Liccardo, has used student program fees to build a new digital fabrication lab on central campus. 

“The lab has over $150,000 worth of equipment, and without program fees we would not have been able to make the lab an addition to the school,” Liccardo said. 


The school charges higher fees than any other program on campus. According to the UNC website, “Differential tuition is one element in a university strategic pricing plan designed to enhance UNC academic program quality and student support services. Sciences, Art, Business, Nursing, Music, Theatre and Dance programs all share three traits; they are high quality programs that also face higher demand and higher costs than many UNC programs.”

According to the UNC website, nursing majors pay $17 per credit hour in program fees, theatre arts and dance majors pay $32 per credit hour, music majors pay $35 per credit hour and art and design majors pay $38 per credit hour.

UNC junior Aleea Campbell, a graphic design major, explained how all of it can add up.

  “Here [is] what people don’t understand, yes, program fees are not too expensive, but if you’re having to take five studio classes for four or five years, you end up paying hundreds of dollars,” Campbell said. “The other part that racks up the bills are the course fees and equipment we have to buy for classes.”

Course fees are fees students pay for each specific class. Fees are determined by the professor and cover the consumables of the class. Consumables can be described as materials and supplies unique to the class. 

Several aspects determine the amount of the fees, including the type of class the student is taking. Studio and independent study classes are more expensive while lecture classes are usually cheaper. 

“The reason why studio classes are more expensive to take is the required one-on-one attention,” Liccardo said. “The professor has to monitor and teach all the students in the class, which means smaller classes are needed. But lecture classes are relatively easy to take, a professor can have 20 or 100 students and the delivery of content will stay the same.” 

Another aspect that determines the amount of the fee is the materials used in the class. For a photography class as an example, lots of chemicals and equipment are used for prints. Subscriptions to Lightroom and InDesign are a requirement, as well as the materials needed to develop the prints. Also, of course, a camera, tripod and camera equipment.

“Since graphic design is my major, I must take photography,” Campbell said. “So, on top of the course and program fees for the class, I had to drop another $200 to rent the camera and the equipment.”

The purpose of having the course fee, as well as a fee to rent the camera, is convenience for the students in the class.

“The hope would be that students buy equipment they can reuse throughout their college art career,” said John Tonai, the photography professor at UNC. “Instead of having them buy all the complicated and hazardous chemicals, they pay a course fee and I’ll buy and store them.”

This process is used by most of the art professors. Materials that are hard to find or expensive are put under the course fee budget. But materials like brushes, drawing materials, clay supplies and cameras are up to the students to provide.

“We are preparing students for when they graduate. Making art is not cheap; the materials needed can range up into the thousands of dollars,” Liccardo said. “But the smaller things like cameras, easels, canvas or brushes can be built over time and then when students graduate, they can save for the bigger equipment.”

Another part of the undergraduate art program is allowing students time to practice art.

Students get four years to decide which track fits them best as well as time to refine their skills. The hope would be that by the time students graduate, they can start using their skills to make a profit. But a large majority of beginning artists have trouble taking off in the business.

“This is exactly why there’s the saying of the starving artist. Think of the last time you were at an art gallery.” Licaado said. “You see paintings going for thousands of dollars. Why? The paint cost around $120 and the canvas $50. What you’re paying for is the artist’s time. Think about it. He or she had to make 50 paintings before this one sold, so the price compensates for the expense of the artist.”

While the fees can stack up, the hope is the student will receive a well-rounded education. The art department has taken many strides to become more contemporary, the biggest example being the digital fabrication lab.

“We are constantly innovating our program to keep up with modern tech. Being an artist is expensive, you might not realize this, but there is so much equipment, time and energy that goes into creating pieces,” Liccardo said. “Which is why we offer so many classes in our program. We want to shape you to be the most educated contemporary student when you graduate.”


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