c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
Camille Lapierre always wanted to be a fashion writer. As an undergraduate at the University of Nîmes in France, she majored in English and spent a year studying journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in England. She went on to receive a master’s degree in literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she wrote dissertations on the works of Zelda Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf.
There was one very important piece of text, however, that her academic training left her unprepared to scrutinize: a magazine masthead.
“It’s all a bit fuzzy when you look at that list of titles and you don’t really know what the jobs are and who is doing what,” said Lapierre, 25. “I wanted to understand what it meant to have a career in fashion in one broad sweep,” she said. “But I needed to learn in a short period of time.”
A Google search for “fashion colleges in London” led her to the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design, a new educational program in central London offering a 10-week course costing 6,600 pounds, or about $8,500, on what it takes to break into an industry known for, among other things, occasionally confusing professional titles. (“Fashion closet freelancer” or “social media architect,” anyone?)
Currently interning for a fashion public relations and consulting agency called In+Addition, Lapierre is one of many college graduates (and some dropouts) who are adding to their formal educations with vocational training offered by commercial brands.
In June 2012, 12 digital “beauty gurus,” online personalities who create makeup-tutorial style video clips that attract millions of eyeballs, descended upon the YouTube Space Los Angeles, a production facility, for a month of schooling about the popular video-sharing site. Google, which owns YouTube, last year began offering free four-week programs for would-be online media moguls to produce digital shorts, swap tips with fellow “content creators” and receive instruction from in-house experts on topics like subscriber retention tactics, lighting techniques and revenue opportunities. (There are also “campuses” in London and Tokyo, and one planned to open in New York in 2014.)
The Red Bull Music Academy, founded in 1998 by the caffeinated energy drink popular in late-night club culture as a low-key workshop operating out of a garage in Berlin, has over the past few years transformed into a nexus of learning for laptop-friendly musicians. (Alumni include the drum-and-bass DJ Om Unit and the experimental rapper Flying Lotus.) The academy now roams through cities that have included Barcelona, Spain, and Toronto, stopping at state-of-the-art, custom-built music production facilities that host star lecturers like Brian Eno, who dispense wisdom on what it means to be a working musician in the hazy climate of today’s recording industry.
As to be expected from a beverage that has nearly twice the kick as a can of Coke, the Red Bull Academy’s courses are speedy, at five weeks. Admission to them is also more selective than that to an Ivy League school. At the school’s most recent pit stop in a three-story space in New York last May, a symposium featuring lectures from Erykah Badu and Debbie Harry had 62 participants (divided into two terms), chosen from more than 4,000 applicants.
To some extent, such untraditional institutes of learning resemble places like UnCollege, a San Francisco-based, self-declared “hackademic” center that on its website touts tutorials on “the basic and advanced skills required to participate in today’s information economy” for approximately $15,000 per two-season semester. But as Dale J. Stephens, who started UnCollege in 2011 after he dropped out of Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., pointed out, his corporate-sponsored competition is not just teaching but potentially recruiting.
“I think what is most interesting about these educational programs is that it forces the education to be relevant to the market, because the education is being funded by the market,” Stephens said, adding that the programs allow both student and company to figure out “whether or not someone is a cultural fit for the employer.”
Certainly that was the case for Antonius and Vijay Nazareth, two brothers who run AVbyte, a YouTube channel that features mash-up showtune clips, and who both believe their experience at a YouTube program called NextUp better prepared them for the digital media job market than their undergraduate educations. Antonius, 20, dropped out of City College of New York because he didn’t feel as if he was getting the training required to be a digital content creator.
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“My professors didn’t quite believe what I was saying about my dreams of running my own YouTube channel as a viable profession,” he said.
Vijay, 24, who attended a music composition program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, said he too would have dropped out if he hadn’t already completed three years by the time his younger brother left school.
“I think it’s time that some of these universities wake up and realize what the online media space is offering,” he said.
The younger Nazareth chimed in: “Who do you trust: Google or a school like UCLA? I mean, right now it’s hard to say. I don’t think schools are providing skills for students to make it in the online space.”
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Members of traditional academia say the rise of these new vocational institutions is understandable, given the constantly touted can-do possibilities of the Web combined with the deluge of depressing news about college debt and high unemployment numbers.
“There is no question that there is anxiety and concern toward employability that I see freshmen enter with that is more intense that it would have been 10 years ago or so,” said Susanne Wofford, dean of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. “In addition to that, there is a great deal of excitement and interest in all of the things going on in the digital space and, in particular, social media.”
The question of who can “provide a space for students to develop something that will allow them to be employed” is a pressing one, Wofford said, for both schools and corporations. Indeed, increasingly the lines between the two are blurring. A foundation set up by the Guess clothing company recently donated $2.5 million to the Gallatin school to establish the Guess Distinguished Visiting Professorship in Fashion and Fashion Business. The position has been held by Christine Beauchamp, a former president at Victoria’s Secret, and Eugenia Ulasewicz, who has worked for Burberry, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.
Though there is some curriculum overlap with Condé Nast College, Wofford said, “I’m not sure what these courses run by companies have for students to gain is more valuable than the courses we are offering here at Gallatin.”
Susie Forbes, the Condé Nast College’s principal, didn’t disagree.
“There are elements of the traditional university that cannot be replaced by shorter and more bespoke courses. It’s just different,” she said. “But there is no doubt that there is a gap in the market.”
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So can attest August Rosenbaum, 26, an experimental jazz pianist and alumnus of both the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Denmark and the Red Bull Music Academy in New York, who acknowledged that the latter credit might draw snickers from some.
“The interaction between corporations and education is fairly young,” he said. “I don’t think in 10 years the debate will be the same. It will be much more of an accepted part of employment survival for young people. People are still getting used to the idea that this type of educational playground will come from, I don’t know, an energy drink.”