With the cost of attending public and private national universities rising tremendously over the past two decades, the families of students who want to become filmmakers are facing difficult choices in the pursuit of their children’s dreams. What many aspiring auteurs may not realize is that the option available to low-income and middle-class students earning degrees in other fields — community colleges — is also viable for them. Community colleges across the country, such as Santa Monica College in California, Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland and Michigan’s Delta College, offer associate’s degrees in filmmaking, digital and media studies, as well as professors and facilities that can rival those at major national film schools.
Most significantly, the cost of attending these institutions can be significantly lower than national private and public schools, offering what Matthew Moore, chair and associate professor of Arundel’s Visual Arts and Humanities department, calls “a four-year degree at half the cost without sacrificing the quality of the education.”
Film students at many of these colleges are exposed to a wide variety of disciplines within the program: at Santa Monica College, they take specialized courses in cinematography, editing, sound and screenwriting as part of a three-course track that, according to filmmaker and professor Salvador Carrasco, allows students to gain “skills to learn the craft of filmmaking, shoot scenes on a state-of-the-art soundstage and produce original content.”
Arundel offers two associates’ degrees — an associate of arts in film studies and an associate of arts and sciences in media production — and provides both technical and critical thinking courses and considerable hands-on production experience, as well as access to visiting artists. Others, such as Mesa Community College in Arizona, offer an expansive and diverse menu of classes, including contemporary cinema, women in film and foreign film, through several departments, including English and theater.
Students at these and other community college film programs have gone on to success in the industry: Carrasco notes that SMC students have been accepted at NYU and the American Film Institute, and work at companies like Village Roadshow Pictures. And he has high hopes for four shorts by SMC grads that are currently being developed into feature films.
“Not that these accolades should be the ‘yardstick’ of success, but they help give legitimacy to students’ creative work,” he says.
The legitimacy of such programs, especially when compared to more widely known film schools at USC, UCLA and NYU, can be an issue for students weighing their options. But Kimberly Wells, an Emmy-winning filmmaker and assistant professor of electronic media at Delta, maintains that starting your film career at a community college is “a smart choice. You will save thousands of dollars and yet still get a film school experience. Our class sizes are also much smaller than a university setting, so you’re getting more one-on-one attention from the professor.”
“Being a community college makes us accessible — anyone can come here — and affordable,” says Moore. “We provide all the tools, all the bells and whistles — a state of the art Mac lab, sound booth, and the photo program is sponsored by Nikon. We give them an in-depth, quality experience.”
For Carrasco, who has also taught at USC and Pomona College, among other institutions, the options available to film students at community colleges speaks directly to the yearning that brought them to study film in the first place.
“Our students will receive a high level of education for a symbolic tuition, and the experience will be so varied and intensive that by the end of the program, they will know whether this is what they want to do with the rest of their lives or not,” he notes. “To be able make this choice without having gone in debt is a blessing.”