First, congratulate yourself for discovering your passion for creativity at an early age. Second, prepare yourself for a multitude of decisions, for ultimately, it is you who have the most options, and also the most choices to make.
The road of higher education lay open before you. There are large public colleges and universities, smaller colleges, institutes and colleges of design, community colleges, and portfolio schools (to name a few). You can earn a certificate or an Associate, Bachelors, or Masters Degree in Arts, Applied Arts, Fine Arts, or Sciences. Depending on the school, the design curriculum may focus more on computer-aided design and software manipulation, or may offer more traditional, fine arts based instruction.
Although it may seem like most large universities often overlook their fine arts programs, some do contain some extremely good graphic design departments. Often, they do not promote themselves as rigorously as schools specializing in design alone, and you may have do research by calling or e-mailing faculty and students for the most accurate and complete information.
Generally, as is typical with most degrees, early coursework at large schools emphasizes the liberal arts outside of one's major field, typically in areas such as English, History, Humanities, and the Sciences. Some programs (such as at the University of Florida) require a rigorous 2-year fine-arts education, consisting of studio classes such as drawing, painting and sculpture. Upper-division classes then focus more on Design-related instruction, with classes such as typography and ____. Sometimes a student must reapply after two years in order to become a graphic design major, even at large schools.
Since large universities often have many resources, constant program improvements are commonplace. Tuition is also reasonable, especially for in-state students, and the cost of new technology is often taken care of or included in tuition.
To apply to any art school, a portfolio is usually required. Each school has different requirements, but it is normal for colleges to expect ten to twenty exhibits of a student's work. If you took art classes in high school, or have been involved with Photoshop and Web Design on your own, a portfolio isn't too difficult to put together. But if not, there is a lot of work involved and you should be well aware of the school's admission requirements.
Design-focused schools are a very appealing choice for students beginning their college search. These schools offer intensive, studio-centered graphic design instruction and theory, and advanced course offerings highly specific to particular markets. They often have ultra-modern facilities and are smaller, with a dozen or so students in each class. Hands-on instruction begins early, and unlike at large universities, general, liberal-arts education is offered after design courses, if at all.
In addition to studio graphic arts classes, coursework at design-focused schools is geared more towards the industry -- marketing, advertising, and business classes are offered with a distinct creative focus. Specialization is often suggested, as it leads to greater marketability upon graduation.
Like in design programs at large universities, design schools require submission of a portfolio of a student's past work.
The biggest downside, as with any private or specialized institution, is cost. Since education is more specialized and focused, and faculty usually comes directly from the industry, tuition is much greater than at larger universities. There are also fewer state and federal subsides that lessen the cost of technology at bigger colleges.
While most everyone advises that some sort of college degree is necessary for success, there are people who feel success in the design industry is not measured by any sort of degree, but rather, by what skills you can actually put to use.
Portfolio Schools, which are two-year graduate level programs designed to hone those skills, do not grant traditional college degrees. Rather, each course consists of numerous projects that eventually contribute to a student's final portfolio. In essence, a student's "book" is their ticket to their future -- rather than tacking a degree on a wall, students have a strong, diverse and professional portfolio, rather than a smattering of unrelated school assignments.
If you talk with admissions advisors at some portfolio schools, they will urge you to join their programs as soon as possible. While the majority of students come in lieu of graduate study -- they go to a 4-year college, get a degree, and attend a portfolio school thereafter -- a degree is not required for admission.
While jumping right is an exciting choice, going into the real world without a college degree is a very risky endeavor. If for some reason you don't impress design recruiters (which advisors say is very rare), you have no fallback plan when it comes to alternative work.