Like every type of educational institution, fashion schools and universities with fashion programs have been hard at work since last spring trying to find the best ways to set their students up for success without sacrificing their health and safety. Many have shifted their curriculums to be partially, if not entirely, digital. That's a tricky proposition for more hands-on concentrations like fashion and textile design, which typically require studio space and equipment that isn't found at home. On the other hand, the future of fashion as a whole is looking increasingly digital, so why not prepare students for that now?
As students return to school for their spring 2021 semesters nearly a year into the pandemic, it appears that most of them have solid systems and solutions in place, which of course vary based on their local restrictions and resources, to make the most of online learning.
At U.S. fashion schools at least, most if not all courses are being taught virtually, using proprietary technology as well as apps like Zoom, Teams and Discord. Some, like Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), have a limited number of courses where there's an option for students to attend in-person at limited capacity to account for social distancing. As for campus studios and labs, schools like Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and Parsons are permitting access by appointment only via online booking systems to ensure limited capacity. These schools also require on-campus students to comply with daily health screenings done via self-reporting technology, and regular testing. At FIT, all on-campus students and employees are required to be tested biweekly. As with most universities, on-campus housing capacity has been significantly reduced at these schools to transform all rooms into singles, meaning most students are not living on campus at all.
How do students feel about all this? Towards the end of the fall 2020 semester, we surveyed nearly 200 current fashion-school students on everything from safety, to the advantages and disadvantages of online learning, to the other aspects of college life they may be missing out on, to whether or not they'd advise someone to attend fashion school right now. Read on for the biggest takeaways.
First, a bit about our respondents: Most (47%) are in fashion design concentrations, while others are studying merchandising, fashion business, fashion journalism or marketing. Nearly 50% of them were taking all classes online at the time of response, while around 40% were taking a mixture of in-person and online classes; only 7% said all classes were in person. And for many respondents, things shifted throughout the semester: Over 50% said that there are now fewer in-person classes than there were when the fall semester began. The vast majority are also living off campus: 38% were staying near campus, while 48% were living at home with their parents or another remote location.
Most students seemed satisfied with the safety precautions their schools were taking. Nearly 90% said they feel either "very safe" or "somewhat safe" at school, while about 80% said their school is taking Covid-19 either "very seriously" or "seriously." They seemed slightly less confident in their classmates, however: Asked how seriously students were taking Covid-19, the largest cohort, about 37%, said only "somewhat seriously." Seventeen percent said "not seriously enough."
There may also be either a lack of effective communication on schools' part, or a lack of interest on students' part, because about 45% of respondents said they were "unsure" of whether or not there had been any Covid-19 outbreaks at their school. (Twenty-eight percent said there had been, while 27% said there hadn't.)
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Education and student life
Of course, appreciating the importance of safety precautions amid a global pandemic does not preclude these students (or any of us, really) from feeling that they're missing out on things. About 75% of respondents agreed that their education was suffering on some level due to Covid-19.
And asked which aspects of student life they're missing out on, many selected "making friends and socializing," "professional networking," "getting to know professors" and, well, "partying." Given the opportunity to write in their own answers to this question, students also mentioned not feeling as motivated as they would in person. One Stephens College student said they were missing out on "absolutely everything." Another mentioned internships. About 30% of respondents said they weren't able to intern, though they wanted to.
Students also lamented their lack of access to facilities and studio time. Asked whether they had enough, nearly 30% said they had some access, but less than they wanted, while 24% said they've had no access.
Other Grievances and Frustrations
Something else a lot of students seemed to wish their schools would provide? Adjustments to tuition and fees. While we don't know the tuition policies of every school, 80% of respondents said they received no tuition reduction to reflect less in-person learning. And asked what they wish their school would do better, one of the most common answers by far was to reduce tuition.
America's already-too-high college tuition costs have grown more controversial amid the pandemic: Across the country, students and parents have rebelled against paying the same amount for what they believe to be a less valuable experience, taking their grievances to social media and online petitions. Most schools have been pushing back, arguing that the shift to online learning has actually been quite costly. Some have offered other types of solutions. On its website, SCAD, for example, said that, "Any student completing a course this winter and who is not satisfied will be offered a free retake of the course." It also offers justification for its unchanging tuition: "As with all colleges and universities, SCAD tuition primarily funds the salaries of professors (and the staff members who support instruction)," it says. "Tuition is the same across all SCAD locations, including SCAD eLearning, which offers many SCAD degrees fully online. At other colleges and universities, online education often costs more than on-campus learning."
Respondents to our survey weren't only hung up on cost, though. Some other suggestions?
"Adjust to online learning better, plan ahead for what is about to come next or offer any solutions for various possible outcomes in the future, include the students more in what's going on concerning covid-19 matters and how they are addressing it so we wont feel left out," wrote a Shenkar College of Engineering and Design student.
"Not fire all the faculty," wrote a Stephens College Student.
"Assisting students getting remote internships," wrote a FIT student.
"Reporting our weekly cases, creating systems to allow for studio time," wrote a Michigan State University student.
"Get a handle on students who party and who do not take this seriously," wrote a West Virginia University student.
"Better communication with students," wrote a Studio Berçot student. "We know that regulations have been changing very fast at the moment in France, but nonetheless would like to be kept aware of developments faster."
"Forming course curriculum online that doesn't involve purchasing expensive machines and supplies despite being in a pandemic, expanding studio access (restricted far below NY State guidelines right now), developing a fair method of grading that reflects inequitable resources amongst students who aren't in New York, listening to student concerns before making decisions, making spring more hybrid instead of fully online, raised tuition instead of lowering it to reflect only online classes," shared a Parsons student. (It's unclear if she's suggesting that Parsons should raise tuition or stating that the school did raise tuition.)
For the most part though, students seemed more frustrated with the situation as a whole than with their individual schools.
"I love FIT so much. It's my dream school! Unfortunately COVID has changed the way we learn and I feel I am regressing because of it," said a FIT student.
I think overall Stephens is handling everything very well for the students," said a Stephens college student, "but really overworking the professors that are still there." Another said, "I wish that professors understood the struggle of balancing schoolwork and mental health. This pandemic makes it hard to concentrate on school."
"Everyone is trying their best, especially my professors, to make this the best educational experience possible," said a fashion student at West Virginia University.
Advice for prospective students
We also asked students what general advice they would give someone applying to fashion schools right now. If that's you, read on. The below quotes are pretty representative of all the responses we got.
"Start your education at a community college and transfer later."
"Talk to current students in the program when you go to visit. They will give you the truth."
"This could be a good opportunity to take time to travel or do something you've always wanted to do. Save school for when you can get the full in-person experience."
"Expect to have to teach many practical things to yourself."
"Prepare to be creative and mentally flexible more than usual, stay open minded, learn how to create with whatever is around you if you're in lockdown."
"Make a list of questions you have in compliance to Covid and schooling and make sure that when you ask about a school to bring up those questions. Get what you are paying for and make sure to stay safe."
"Wait until the pandemic has subsided."
"Keep in mind that the pandemic has and will continue to change the fashion industry. It might not be what you signed up for."
"The 'high status' universities aren't worth the money at the moment."
"Keep in mind that the education won't be the same as in person and will really deter your view on the subject."
"I might say wait, or see if your school is actively regulating precautions, or see what the student culture is like at a time like this."
"Based on your personal financial situation, if you can't afford to go to a prestigious fashion school right now...don't worry about it! Going to a local community college to get your general education courses done is always a viable good option, and you can always look online for fashion education courses (videos, trials, etc.)."
"I would wait. The hands on instruction is crucial for an apparel design major and that is somewhat missing due to COVID19."
"Take a gap year."
"I'd say not to let COVID restrictions stop you from applying. We're gonna be free to go out again one day, so this shouldn't halt your educational goals if you really want to study fashion."
"Take a year off, intern, or just take gen eds. Most of us that returned were far enough along already and knew enough to make it work by ourselves, but if you're learning fundamentals for the first time, wait until you're actually able to work with professors and collaborate with other students."