As I write this, countless aspiring college and graduate students are mulling over financial aid offers from US schools. And a great many of those aid packages include sizable loans.
Given that I've counseling numerous musicians who took on too much debt and then regretted their decisions, I want to share with the Violinist.com community some key guidelines to help students pursue their educational dreams without taking on disproportionate debt.
If students abide by that benchmark, after graduating, they can pay off their loans over a decade and have ample money for necessities, mortgages and cars as well as to fund retirement.
When students incur disproportionate debt, they run the risk of being hamstrung for life. Here's an example:
“During college I made an enormous mistake: I accumulated $83,786 in student loan debt, getting a Master of Music in opera performance... In my current circumstances, I cannot pay $1,000 or more per month. I know that I got myself into this situation, but it distresses me that my horrible judgment during one period of my life is likely to impact my life negatively forever.” -Survey Respondent No. 3Given that music degrees come with ample intrinsic but modest monetary value (1st-year earnings of master's degree graduates average about $30,000*), it's unwise for financially needy music students to rack up nearly $84,000 in debt.
Even so, I regularly coach music graduates with almost double that amount of debt, and all of them could have obtained excellent educations without over-borrowing, if they had known how.
1. Just say "no" to big debt. If you don't get sufficient scholarship funds to attend a school without going heavily into debt, don't enroll. Work part time, study, and then reapply the following year. Your work experiences, professional recommendations, and ongoing study will make you more competitive for scholarship funds.
2. Attend a low-cost school, and then transfer. If you're a rising freshman and you're admitted to a low-cost school with a sizable scholarship but don't receive funding from top schools, attend the affordable school, earn stellar grades, and then apply to transfer as a sophomore. If you still don't receive much funding from your preferred schools, continue at the lower-cost school and apply to transfer again as a junior. You also might use your tuition savings to help fund summer study or to pursue a volunteer internship, whether in the music field or another area of interest.
3. Take advantage of in-state tuition. If there are high-quality, state-funded schools in your home state, apply to those - even a moderate amount of scholarship can cover much of your costs. Post-college students who lack satisfactory graduate programs in their home states can relocated to states with top-notch offerings and earn residency. Establishing residency may take 12 months, but students should check a state's current requirements. During the pre-residency period, individuals can work and build up additional qualifications for scholarship and assistantship awards. After becoming residents and gaining admission as in-state students, they save tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs.
4. Do research and get feedback. Before applying either to undergraduate or graduate programs, research the higher education marketplace in your field and have your performance level evaluated so that you can gauge your competitiveness for scholarships. You might also participate in summer music programs that enable you to study with faculty who teach at the schools you aspire to attend. If, after upgrading your skills, you still aren't competitive for scholarships, it's reasonable to conclude that you're unlikely to be competitive in the music performance profession after graduating, so you can change career directions, still enjoy music as a non-major, and you won't be encumbered by debt like the misguided opera singer quoted above.
5. Budget for the long term. Calculate your costs across both your undergraduate and graduate educations. Don't over-spend or over-borrow for undergraduate school.
6. Appeal low scholarship offers. If an initial scholarship offer doesn't suffice, respectfully request more funds. Keep appealing, if necessary.
7. Develop income-producing skills. While in school, gain diverse skills and access a school's career office so that you can earn income in multiple ways during and after school. You might explore income-earning avenues in both music and non-music fields.
8. Get impartial advice. If, despite what's written here, you find yourself considering hefty loans to enroll at a school, seek advice from impartial mentors before you commit. Don't lean on the advice of a music studio teacher with whom you might study because such teachers often can't be impartial (e.g., if your enrolling would help them meet their studio enrollment quotas, then they would profit from your borrowing).
9. Access family funds. Families that have the means usually save to pay for the educations of children and grandchildren. If your family can support you, graciously accept the help.
10. Be hopeful yet practical. The funds available for scholarships at a given school aren't necessarily constant from year to year - amounts may vary depending on how many funded students graduate. If funding is denied to a qualified applicant once, it doesn't mean that funding will be denied the following year. If you know that you're highly qualified for a scholarship, be hopeful but also practical, and, whatever you do, don't over-borrow.
* * *In sum, the U.S. is full of excellent colleges, universities and conservatories. By using these sorts of guidelines, students can graduate well-educated and also free of encumbering debt.
In addition, it's vital that students educate themselves regarding the employment outlooks in their fields of interest.
For instance, full-time orchestral jobs are very scarce, and music schools graduate vastly more qualified orchestral performers than can be employed. Yet jobs in education, software development and numerous other fields are plentiful.
So even when students receive full scholarships to study music, there is an opportunity cost involved in their choice of study.
Hence, it's wise for students to learn as much as they can about themselves and about the professions that appeal to them so that their educational choices will empower them to be both happy and financially secure.
The following links can help students learn more about the loan and job markets.
*For more information about music and arts graduates, see the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP).
© 2017 Gerald Klickstein
A version of this article first appeared on The Musician's Way Blog
Photo © Arena Creative, licensed from Shutterstock.com
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