This article by Noah Bradley is going to be going around the art parts of the internet a lot, I think. It's a good, quick read, and he does raise a lot of very valid points. I've heard him talk about this kind of thing before, in particular his super excellent interview with Chris Oatley. I don't at all disagree with his point that under no circumstances should a young artist put themselves into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in order to go to traditional art school. It's crippling, it's not worth that, and you will not pay it off on what you'll make as an artist. And I think he's put together a list of some really amazing resources for artists with a certain learning style who are interested in particular styles/markets. I will definitely be going through some of those resources myself!
Where we do disagree, I think, is on the value of going to art school if you can make it more financially feasible. So just to keep this simple, here are the reasons why I am still glad that I went to art school. Keep in mind, I did have a scholarship that reduced my cost from $100,000+ to $30,000. I've been out of school for 2 years, and I started freelancing full-time a few months ago. Only time will tell how feasible that decision was. ;) That $30,000 in loans still feels like a lot - and it will, for the next decade - but so far, I don't regret my decision.
I went to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. It's not a well-known, well-funded, or particularly renowned school. It was close to home, it's quite small (which is important to me), and they gave me a large scholarship. I did dream of going to RISD, but they gave me no financial aid, and the offers I got from other schools were paltry compared to what MIAD had to offer, so I went with the financially sound choice. This is important - I do recommend art school, but you have to make sure it's a financially sound choice.
Art school did a few really important things for me. The first is that it gave me 4 years during which it was my job to get better at art. Now I understand Noah's point that art school isn't strictly necessary to do this, but for me, at age 18? That's what I needed. I drew a lot, I am a very focused person, but having the structure to force me to focus on making for 4 years made a huge, huge difference to not just the quality of my work but also the way I think about it, the way I approach it, everything. I would argue that it helped shape me into a person who now can self-motivate to keep learning, because now I have the tools to do that learning. I don't think I would have been there right out of high school; I think I would have found a crappy day job and floundered around drawing WoW fanart in my spare time.
Art school also gave me a rich and inspiring community that is still instrumental to the quality of my work and my well-being. Noah mentions this and suggests forums, but I would argue that an online community is not really enough on its own. (And I say this as someone with lots of online friends - I met the man I've been with for the past 5 years online!) I think artists really thrive by being around other artists - there's a reason we love to go to cons, to workshops, to drink & draws. The illustration majors of my class became incredibly close, working in the studios together. We all took inspiration in and from each other, critiqued each other, and supported each other. Beyond that, because my school was so small, I was also often in contact with other majors and got to see their work. I was exposed to art I probably never would have known to seek out on my own, art that really got me thinking and trying new things. I would never have gotten to try printmaking without going to school, and it's now a discipline that I adore and am still trying to piece together into my current work, years later.
The other network I got to hook into was that of my professors. Because my school was small, we all got a lot of individual attention from the incredible illustration faculty, all of whom are active in the industry. Several professors taught me for a few years, and got to watch my work evolve over those years. They helped shape the work I'm creating now, they helped push me in new directions. I'm still realizing the truth of things they taught me, 2 years later. And I still have them as resources when I need advice or insight.
And lastly, of course, the classes. I'll be honest - for the most part, the actual assignments I did didn't particularly matter, for the most part. What mattered was that I: a) was being forced to make work, which is about the most important thing you can do to improve, b) got to learn and had to practice the workflow of going from thumbnails to finals, and c) through trial by fire learned to juggle multiple projects so I could hit deadlines. The latter is absolutely one of the most important skills you need to have in this industry.
So that is what art school did for me. Has my diploma gotten me jobs? Nope. Did earning it make me into a better artist and professional? Absolutely. Is it for everyone? Of course not. But I think it's right for some people, as long as you can get scholarships/aid to reduce the cost.
Maybe I could have much of what I described doing something similar to what Noah Bradley has suggested, I don't know. My gut feeling is that personally, I could not have. As a developing young person, I needed the structure during those years so I could handle myself in the years following - now, there is no structure. Now, it's all up to me. And I'm doing ok.
Anyway, there's my 2 cents.
Noelle Stevenson (aka Gingerhaze) also has a post about this subject and says many things I agree with. I'm excited that people are starting to all share their viewpoints. :) Will definitely link more as I see 'em.
What I've been able to take away from all this at this point is: everyone is different. Everyone needs different things. Don't let anyone else tell you what's right for you. Do research, ask questions, think about where you are with your art now, think about where you want to be, think about what makes sense to get you to that goal. Think about your intended markets and what resources are available in that discipline. Maybe it's any one of a number of traditional art schools (there are different kinds!). Maybe it's the art program at a university. Maybe it's a few classes at your local community college. Maybe it's a mentorship (I'm so excited these are becoming more of a thing) or a workshop, or several, or an entire period of self-guided study. There are many options! Only you know what is best for you.