What a degree does is show an employer that you have the drive and dedication to follow through with something for 3 years of your life. It doesn't prove that you're actually any good as a practical artist, because marking art is subjective but it just proves you're not going to give up at the first sign of trouble.
A portfolio shows them artistically what you're actually capable of. This is the more important factor. In the end they're employing you to make pictures and designs for them and if you can't do that, whether you're going to quit or not is irrelevant.
My cousin is a graphics/web designer and he says that most employers will look at your portfolio before they even look at your qualifications, some employers won't even look at your resume if they don't like your portfolio. Don't take my word on it, but if I were hiring someone in design I would do the same.
Personally in every creative/artistic job the portfolio and what you do is usually more important, sorta like showing them what you can do instead of just telling them in "theory" Although I think through a college course you could get contacts and "official" qualifications like grades can't hurt.
Its the combination of both actually. Having both the education and the portfolio will get you any design job anywhere and you can work for any amount of money you wish. However, the majority of designers have more of one and less of the other. People with years experience tend to have very little if any college education and they are going to have a lot of samples and a little more knowhow about the outside world. Where as those with the education from art school or college will have a portfolio based off class projects and will lack the business skills one needs to find and hustle for work.
Portfolios are one of the biggest tickets. I did Costume Design/Stage Design/Lighting Design and my best friend did Digital Art/Costume Design/Photography/Gaming Design. To get your degree at my school you had to make a portfolio and then go into class dressed for a job interview and convince your teacher why you were the best person for job. And even though it was fake it was very stressful.
In your portfolio you should have a little of everything you covered to get your degree, but if any of it has a grade on the paper/document make the changes to so that it is ''perfect''. I know it a lot of students who have put graded work into a portfolio because its really all they had at the time; its not a huge problem its just something that is looked at and shows a level of un-professional-ness. (not saying youd do this but Ive just seen it done a lot no offense intended) When I say a little of everything have your story boards for the animation you did. Also for any images make sure they are larger then 8x11 paper the bigger the better so that details of the work can be seen. If you made a clay model of a character include photos of it at every angel in very good lighting to show of the details. Try not to include a lot of fan based work as well, for it is not seen as very professional. Original ideas are always the best to have. Also if there was a Staff event and your projects were picked or you had to make a special project for it, include this as a professional (almost job status) work in your resume. The Resume goes hand in hand with your Portfolio include all schooling and any jobs that you've done. Along with all this dont forget to try and get a letter of recommendation from professor/chair of the department this can help you as well because it is someone saying you're well great at what you do.
Looking for a job while is school is a very good idea at least to get something started for you. Also sadly it does have a lot to do with who you know in the biz and your references that can get you placed faster.This also reflects a bit of the letter of recommendation. Another good thing is if you get offered a Teacher's Aid position at your school where you help teach students always looks good as well. This also keeps everything fresh in your mind.
Hope this helps you out a little bit. Ive had to make about 4 portfolios for all the things I have studied and have done a few job interviews although Im more theater based I have watched over the digital and animation from my friend and know just how hard that area of art really is.
Well... this question actually has two sides. No, you don't need a qualification in order to get a job in art/animation, if your skill level can compete with professionals. However, a qualification would make your path to the good jobs a lot faster and easier, especially when just starting out.
For animation it's all about the qualifications AND portfolio. Check out most studio websites...they won't look at you unless you have a degree or diploma or some form of credentials in what you are applying for. Also, if you're wanting a job in the animation field, then drop the classes that are not needed to get into it. Focus only on animation and art. If you can't get excited about those classes in school, then how will you ever be excited in a studio where I can assure you, things are A LOT more stressful. Keep your chin up. This is NOT an easy industry to get into or survive in. There is no amount of wishing that will land you your dream job. Only hard work, constant dedication, and an unstoppable love for the art form.