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Interview

Voices from the Academy: Graphics Educators Speak Out

While an elite printing college in California turns away most of its applicants,

By Patrick Henry
Published: November 10, 2006

While an elite printing college in California turns away most of its applicants, a school in Missouri can’t attract enough new printing students to fill the strong local demand for its graduates.

In New York City, the director of a postgraduate degree program for graphic communications recruits CEOs as adjunct professors. Meanwhile, in Grand Forks, ND, an educator wonders where the extra teaching help will come from if interest in her department’s new degree in graphic design technology takes off.

At a publicly funded college in Lancaster County, PA, they’re still trying to figure out how much a 15% school-wide budget cut is going to cost the institution’s printing program. The head of that department thinks that an industry fund from check-offs on sales of ink and equipment would help schools like his overcome some of the obstacles they’re facing.

The online survey invited responses from colleges and universities listed in PGSF’s 2005-2006 Directory of Schools. Invitations also were sent to a list of subscribers in education maintained by WhatTheyThink.

As these anecdotes suggest, respondents to WhatTheyThink’s online survey of graphic arts educators shared a wide range of experiences when asked to expand upon their answers in follow-up interviews. The survey, conducted as part of this week’s editorial focus on the Printing and Graphics Scholarship Foundation (PGSF) and other educational subjects, invited responses from colleges and universities listed in PGSF’s 2005-2006 Directory of Schools. Invitations also were sent to a list of subscribers in education maintained by WhatTheyThink.

As of this writing, the survey has drawn responses from 37 educators representing approximately the same number of schools offering degrees in print production, graphic design, and related fields. Twenty respondents offered additional comments online, and we conducted follow-up telephone interviews with seven of these sources. We present the findings not as a scientific or a cross-sectional poll but as a real-time window onto what printing educators are thinking about and contending with as the nature of their discipline changes as rapidly as the industry from which the discipline arises.

Solid and Stable

If the numbers can be said to hint at general trends in higher education for printing, the institutional ground underneath these schools appears to be solid. Better than half (57%) of WhatTheyThink’s respondents teach in graphic communications programs that enroll more than 100 students. The stability of the enrollment is noteworthy, with 87% reporting that their class lists have either increased (41%) or stayed the same (46%) compared with last year. By and large, the respondents have a sanguine outlook about the place of printing studies in academia. Fewer than half (43%) rated “justifying the continuation of our program at this college or university,” a concern, while the remainder said they were “confident in this area.”

Better than half (57%) of the respondents teach in graphic communications programs that enroll more than 100 students. The stability of the enrollment is noteworthy, with 87% reporting that their class lists have either increased (41%) or stayed the same (46%) compared with last year.

All told, these programs—staffed by a total of 544 full- and part-time faculty members—have awarded more than 2,000 two-year, four-year, and advanced degrees in 2006. Nearly eight in 10 (78%) offer bachelor’s degrees; associate degrees and certificates are available from more than half (53%). Master’s degrees can be pursued at 15 of the schools represented. Three of the institutions offer doctoral studies programs.

As for the kinds of subjects students that students tackle in pursuit of these graphic communications degrees, it’s necessary to point out that “graphic communications” includes programs that have a strong, multi-unit printing component and others in which the study of printing might be limited to a single course. Some programs are heavily oriented toward graphic design, while others emphasize print business management over print manufacturing. In the middle are more traditional programs that make production technologies their focal points.

Equivalents of the Three Rs

That said, the breakdown of responses by type of course offered shows that all of the schools stress the kinds of practical skills that employers expect holders of graphics degrees to possess. For instance, nearly all (94%) respondents said that their programs teach desktop publishing. Tied for second place in popularity are prepress and offset lithography, cited by 89% as course offerings. Training in multimedia/integrated media is a close third, with 82% of respondents saying their programs teach it. The broad availability of digital printing (75%) and wide format inkjet printing (64%) reflects the growth of those technologies.

The coursework doesn’t stop with putting ink and toner on paper: nearly three-quarters (72%) of the respondents said their schools also teach binding and postpress. Business management for printing was cited as a course topic by about two-thirds (62%); a smaller but still considerable percentage (45%) said that classes in MIS for printing can be found in their course catalogs.

The breakdown of responses by type of course offered shows that all of the schools stress the kinds of practical skills that employers expect holders of graphics degrees to possess.

The central place of student internships in graphic communications degree programs is seen in the fact that 86% of respondents say that their programs offer and in many cases require internships for credit. An equal percentage say that their graduating students can take advantage of employment referral programs that frequently land them jobs at the same companies where they did their internships.

Such are the numbers. Personal responses to survey’s open-ended questions shed more light on the challenges of teaching graphic communications in a university setting.

We wanted to know why, if present enrollment appeared stable, more than two-thirds (68%) of respondents said that continuing to attract students was something they were “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about. The explanations touch upon issues that should be of as much concern to the industry as they are to the educators.

According to Dennis Dougherty, one of two full-time instructors in the graphic communications and printing technology program at Thaddeus Stevens College (Lancaster, PA), some of the difficulty stems from a general shift in thinking about the need to teach subjects like printing. “When we turned away from the industrial arts, we lost the feeder programs that many of our students once came from,” he says.

The same point is made by Dr. Mark L. Rankin, professor of graphic arts technology management at the University of Central Missouri (Warrensburg, MO). “The high school programs that used to send us students no longer exist.” Dennis Smith, chair of the department of printing and imaging technology management at Ferris State University (Big Rapids, MI), thinks that federal “No Child Left Behind” requirements and other back-to-educational-basics initiatives will only increase the pressure to cut “extracurricular” high school programs in areas like music, art, and, unfortunately, printing.

Glitz, Glamour, and a Dime a Dozen

Smith also notes that some kinds of college-level graphic communications programs do better than others in terms of attracting applicants, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

“If you include graphic design, our enrollment is very healthy,” he says. “On the printing and imaging side, though, we face challenges.” According to Smith, students who treat computerized graphic design as the “fun part of the business” tend to pursue study tracks that promise “glitz and glamour” gratification without requiring too much attention to the matter of how the work will be produced.

“When we turned away from the industrial arts, we lost the feeder programs that many of our students once came from. The high school programs that used to send us students no longer exist.”

Dougherty, the immediate past president of the International Graphic Arts Education Association (IGAEA), claims that this educational fallacy has bad consequences for the industry’s talent pool. “Graphic designers are like bank vice presidents today: a dime a dozen,” he says. “I’ve spoken with many printers who’ve told me that they’ll never hire another graphic designer because they’re constantly designing things that are difficult if not impossible to print.”

Dr. Lynda Kenney is determined to keep this schism out of the degree program in graphic design technology that she administers at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, ND). “It’s very important that designers know printers,” she says. “I tell all of my students, ‘Go find a printer, and make him your best friend.’ Not enough designers know the print world.”

Printing’s unfair but enduring ink-under-the-fingernails reputation is something else that can work against enrollment. Philip Ruggles, who taught estimating and other subjects for 34 years in the graphic communications department at California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo, CA), says that “the word ‘printing’ doesn’t seem to drive much interest” among students looking for stimulating career paths. Rankin, who says he can’t graduate as many students as printers in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas want to hire, likewise blames “the public perception of the industry as not an attractive alternative for college students.”

“Graphic designers are like bank vice presidents today: a dime a dozen. I’ve spoken with many printers who’ve told me that they’ll never hire another graphic designer because they’re constantly designing things that are difficult if not impossible to print.”

Nevertheless, some campuses are doing a brisk business in sign-ups for their graphics studies programs. Kenney is happy to report that hers is “busting at the seams” despite the fact that the offering is only a year old. Bonnie Blake, acting director of the M.A. program at the Center for Graphic Communications Management and Technology, New York University (New York, NY), says that curriculum revisions and the close involvement of a high-level industry advisory board have helped the program to achieve a “sharp increase” in registrations.

And, negative perceptions about printing don’t seem to have done much damage at Cal Poly, which Dr. Harvey Levenson, the head of its graphic communications department, calls “an almost impossible university to get into.” He says that keeping to the department’s 300-student quota obliges him to reject three-quarters of the qualified applicants who come looking for places.

Relation of Location to Vocation

The survey identified “finding qualified instructors” as the second most frequently cited concern, with 71% of respondents saying they were somewhat or very concerned about keeping up both the numbers and the quality of their teaching staff. Here, geography clearly is a factor. Blake notes that the good fortune of being located in a global media center enables NYU to engage adjunct professors “who are at the top of their game” in terms of professional achievement. She says that for students in her degree programs, “there’s a good chance that the instructor is a CEO who happens to be a very good teacher as well.”

Smith, on the other hand, acknowledges that because his program is not based in a major metropolitan area, it does not have the option of building a large staff of adjuncts. The problem, he says, lies not so much in maintaining adequate numbers as in making sure that faculty members stay current with the technologies they are teaching, given their day-to-day class loads.

Schools that want donations of equipment must recognize the quid pro quo nature of industry support: “The vendors have to feel they’re going to get something back for it. They don’t ask for special favors, and they’re not trying to get a leg up on hiring your graduates, but they do want to be recognized.”

This is a challenge well understood by Kenney, who says that “higher education is notorious for lack of funding” in areas like professional development. “We don’t have any funding unless I go out and find it.” That can be hard on her pocketbook: she says that of the six industry conferences she has attended this year, only one of the trips was reimbursed, leaving her to pay her own way on the other five.

Some programs require all instructors to have postgraduate degrees, a stipulation that keeps otherwise qualified industry professionals out of classrooms. Professional educators may be deterred by the prospect of spending years at relatively low pay on the programs’ tenure tracks. That difficulty is compounded when the school is situated in an upscale locale like Cal Poly’s. The cost of living in and around San Luis Obispo, admits Levenson, makes some candidates “balk” when they discover how high it is.

Donations Walk a Two-Way Street

The number one area of concern, cited by 76% of respondents, was “obtaining graphics equipment and supplies for teaching purposes.” As a follow-up, we asked whether local printers and technology vendors were assisting the schools with adequate donations of these essentials. All of our sources said they were grateful for the level of support they were receiving, but some made pointed observations about what it takes to keep the material assistance flowing.

According to Ruggles, it’s all about relationships: school-donor partnerships that have to be cultivated and maintained by the recipient in a methodical way.

Schools that want donations of equipment, he says, “must do more than shake hands at Graph Expo.” Above all, they must recognize the quid pro quo nature of industry support: “The vendors have to feel they’re going to get something back for it. They don’t ask for special favors, and they’re not trying to get a leg up on hiring your graduates, but they do want to be recognized.” Installation ceremonies and similar gestures that generate favorable p.r. have helped Cal Poly build “long term friendships” with the vendors and can do the same for other schools, Ruggles says.

At the University of Central Missouri, says Rankin, the partnership goes beyond publicity in a reciprocal arrangement that repays the donor’s generosity in kind. He explains that the school’s printing technology management program acquired a flexographic press with the help of an ink manufacturer that supplied most of the funding. The press is a teaching platform, but it’s also used for material testing, employee training, and R&D on behalf of the ink maker: “a win-win for both parties,” says Rankin.

Printers do esteem academic training—but only to the extent that the schools align their graduates’ skills with the actual requirements of the industry.

Dougherty, who says that Thaddeus Stevens College lost many thousands of dollars worth of funding after a friendly state legislator was voted out, maintains that industry support is crucial to keeping college-level printing programs intact. What ought to be in place, he says, is a covenant for “a flowback of a percentage of each sale for self-support.” Money raised in this way could fund grants for the equipment that schools need. Dougherty says it could also pay for promotional efforts aimed at marketing the industry: say, 0.1% of revenue from ink sales earmarked for a “Got Ink?” campaign along the lines of “Got Milk?”.

Degrees of Respectability

Our final query was prompted by an anonymous comment:

“Commercial printers need to recognize the value of a degree, regardless of type, when offering a position to a new hire or recent college graduate. Local companies often offer a graduate of an associate degree program the same starting salary of someone walking in off the street. If they want to hire educated young men and women, they need to communicate that to the graduates and the schools they come from with meaningful starting salaries.”

The question was, do printing companies, as prospective employers, truly respect the value of degrees in graphic communications?

Ruggles says it’s conceivable that a printer seeking an entry-level employee who can hit the ground running might prefer someone with a year of experience and no degree to an applicant with a two-year degree and no related job history. Other than in cases like that, he and our other six sources believe that printers do esteem academic training—but only to the extent that the schools align their graduates’ skills with the actual requirements of the industry.

Blake says that NYU preserves the alignment by closely monitoring the progress of its students, “being attentive to their goals, watching where the industry is going, and matching its needs to their goals through careful individual advisement.” She adds that with the guidance of its advisory board, the NYU program continuously revises its curriculum to incorporate training in whatever new technology management skills will make its graduates more desirable to hire.

The need to retool the graphic communications coursework is also recognized at Ferris State University, which established a bachelor of science degree in new media printing and publishing four years ago. Smith says that the program combines elements of the school’s data management curriculum—programming, database design, software systems, and networking—with conventional and digital printing subjects. The structure of the degree probably would find favor with Levenson, who says that printing employers want to hire “management and service people” well versed not just in production technologies but also in the workflows that maximize their efficiency.

“In a university program,” says Ruggles, “curriculum is the house you live in.” Students who leave the house for the plants and offices of the industry need to be “educated, knowledgeable, and articulate individuals who aren’t afraid to look people in the eye” to work out problems and get things done.” Five years ago, in a curriculum planning survey he undertook for Cal Poly, Ruggles discovered that the area of study rated most important by industry professionals was “interpersonal communications skills.” Nothing in the responses to WhatTheyThink’s survey suggests that employers or educators place any less value on that fundamental skill set today.


Editor’s note: The writer of this article is a member of the adjunct faculty for NYCCT’s Department of Advertising and Graphic Design and currently teaches a section of its course in the foundations of graphic communications.

Patrick Henry, Executive Editor for WhatTheyThink.com is also the director of Liberty or Death Communications, a consultancy specializing in research, education, promotional, and editorial support services for the printing and publishing industries.

Patrick Henry is available for speaking engagements and consulting projects. To get more information contact us here.

Please offer your feedback to Patrick. He can be reached at patrick.henry@whattheythink.com.

 

 

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