Magic is not learned from a college. Like jazz, blues and any non-formalized style of music, it’s acquired by observation. You steal it from your betters.
Let’s look at how mages come to be. He or she might come from any walk of life, but most mages are born slaves, peasants or in wandering communities of traders, thieves or actors. As I mentioned yesterday, mages are reviled in most places. Their magic is considered blasphemy by clerics, uncontrollable by kings and dangerous by normal folk. They are often persecuted and must hide their talents.
So how does one get on this road?
It starts with the First Spell, which has many names, but in game mechanics, it most resembles Read Magic. It is a short spell that can be understood by anyone, regardless of their native language.
In its verses are every sound of spoken magic and a thorough and unsettling explanation of the chaotic worldview that underlies all non-divine magic . Anyone speaking the entire spell can thenceforth read their native tongue and any written magic (provided they have recited the spell enough to commit it to memory so it comes off the tongue as easily as any cast spell). He or she is also immediately of chaotic alignment (this is obviously taken from LotFP Weird Fantasy). The meaning of the verse is not kind knowledge and some who do memorize it and speak aloud its secret go mad, never to learn a second spell.
Anyone who hears the spell often enough is bound to learn it eventually. A mages’ lover, spouse, child or even close neighbor will hear it under her breath as she performs almost any activity (this is similar to the way Tibetans repeat mantras in everyday life). If you pester a mage as he sits in a pub, disturbing his peace, he might grab you by the collar and shout the words in your face until you piss off. You might pick up the entire spell by accident. Some mages will teach it to those they feel the petitioner would fit in well with the community or who have money, food or other service to offer. Many mages fall into magic because they have no other prospects, no land to farm and no skills.
Once one has said the spell, he or she is forever a mage and is overcome by a desperate need to learn more spells. This stage is most like an addiction. New spellcasters have been known to spend their last penny or sign into service for a year or more for a simple spell or two (an experienced mage would teach nothing dangerous to a novice). This is as close to a master/apprentice relationship as you are likely to find and it does not always end happily. After the first few levels, the mage is able to calm down and the need is more of an intense desire or life goal than a desperate need.
In the mage community, wealth has a tendency to travel quickly to the top, where mages with large spell books are able to charge fortunes from the less-skilled.
There are magic users who actually research, but they are very rare. It is difficult to conduct experiments from a mule-drawn wagon and there are many costs and dangers associated with settling down. The few labs there are can be found in remote towers or underground caves. Besides, most mages would tell you that researching magic is a waste of time. Magic’s secrets are long lost and the errant fools who would re-invent it would be better off searching the world for long lost spell books than blowing themselves up in labs. Spells are usually named after their discoverer, not the author (if even a name is known).
One dirty secret the elves don’t like to talk about: Many assume that arcane magic came from the elves. Some mages even hunt or extort elves to get more spells. A select few know that elven magic of old was far more powerful than anything any human mage has cast. The elves are actually very capable casters of human magic, magic they have learned from vagabonds and con-men.
I’m going to cook u a few backstories to serve as examples, but I think you are all bright enough to come up with your own scenarios.