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Although technically you don’t need a formal degree to work in graphic design, some 86 percent of job postings seek candidates with at least an Associate’s degree, especially for entry-level jobs.

The reality is that graphic design is a highly competitive field with projected job growth of just 3 percent from 2021 to 2031. With 68 percent of graphic designers possessing a bachelor’s degree, it can be difficult to compete with recent grads for prime job opportunities unless you get a college diploma.

If you’re still on the fence as to whether or not you should invest the time and money to get a college degree, here’s a look at types of degrees and program components that can help you prepare for a long and successful career in graphic design.

The Business Case for Getting a Degree

When it comes to careers in creative fields, the quality of a candidate’s portfolio and the way they present their ideas ultimately determines who gets hired and rejected.

However, Christina Nguyen, a creative career coach and design recruiter, has observed that candidates with a formal education seem to have a better understanding of design fundamentals and produce higher-quality work than those who attempt to teach themselves. Those factors give newly minted degree holders a competitive advantage.

Also, according to Salary.com, the base salary for an entry-level graphic designer ranges from $51,101 to $65,501 depending on education, certifications, additional skills and years of experience. The pay differential alone could make a college degree worth the cost.

There are options if you decide not to earn a formal degree, explained career coach and creative recruiter Kristina Cappuccilli. For instance, you can enroll in a portfolio school or bootcamp and devote considerable time to marketing your services on a freelance basis to build up your skillset and portfolio. Of course, you may earn less initially than those with a formal degree. Plus, the lack of a degree may prevent you from transitioning into related fields or management positions down the line.

One of the best ways to figure out if a degree is worth the money is to use online tools to compare the lifetime earnings, graduation and placement rates for graduates with the cost of tuition. You can also look for schools accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design to find the program and major that offers the best return on your investment.

What Type of Degree Should You Get?

Human resource managers want to verify that you have a formal education, while creative directors and senior leaders want to ensure you have the design chops and soft skills to accomplish the tasks and responsibilities associated with the job.

Which degree program will help you pass the resume screening process and impress creative managers?

The most common way is to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or a BA with a concentration in graphic design. Another option is to earn a degree in technology and programming, advertising and marketing or business, then learn one of the most popular creative suites and earn relevant certifications in areas such UI/UX design, Adobe Certified Associate and SEO.

Given that graphic designers can specialize in different niche areas, deciding which role and specialty you want to pursue can help you select the degree path, curriculum and program that prepares you to enter the graphic design work force.

For instance, while most BAs and BFAs in graphic design typically include courses in art, design principles, commercial graphics production, computerized design and so forth, some programs offer a concentration in industrial and product design, communications design, motion design, web design, environmental design and more.

In fact, some colleges let students major in both graphic design and marketing or advertising or digital applications such as 2D and 3D design. Completing a double major or two specialty programs can make you a more competitive candidate and, ultimately, a more highly paid professional.

“I’ve never seen a creative get placed without a portfolio,” Cappucilli said. That’s why the most useful degree programs have a strong hands-on component that aligns with your area of focus and provides the opportunity to experience real world situations and collect examples of your work through labs, student projects and internships.

The Importance of Networking

While networking is helpful in almost any role or industry, it's absolutely essential in creative fields like design, not only for meeting hiring managers, mentors and potential clients, but to teach you how to present your portfolio.

Gone are the days when great designs alone convinced hiring managers and clients to give you the job. Today, the difference between getting the job or not has everything to do with how you present your ideas and work. And with freelance graphic designers accounting for about 90 percent of industry participation, talent and marketing go hand-in-hand.

The best programs provide opportunities to network with alumni and creative directors and teach techniques for nailing a design interview (and even how to write an introductory email to prospective employers and hiring managers).

No matter what the data says, given the rising cost of tuition, choosing the right degree program is vital. Cappuccilli suggests conducting your own research by reaching out to designers who are working in the industry before committing to a specific college or degree program. Find out if their agency or clients require a degree, and if so, which one. Most graphic designers will be more than willing to offer you career advice, direction and tips for breaking into the field.