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A Parent's Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 17: How Do You Pay For It?

Karen Rile

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Published: February 28, 2014 at 12:26 AM [UTC]

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

How do you pay for it?

That’s the $64,000 question.* 

In an economy characterized by stagnant wages, and pay cuts, and layoffs, most of us find it challenging just to keep up with monthly bills, let alone to save significantly for our kids' college education. Meanwhile, as family resources shrivel, tuitions soar—500%, since 1985. Unlike our parents' generation, we will end up shouldering a considerable burden on behalf of our children's higher education. Gone are the days when it was possible for college students to "work their way through" with a couple of jobs and a low-interest loan they could pay off before the dust settled on their diplomas.

Welcome to the new Fellowship of the Eternally Worried. It's a big club; you have a lot of company. Excluded are: one-percenters; parents of bona fide prodigies who will garner full rides wherever they land; and full professors at the few remaining universities that offer tuition remission at outside institutions. Everyone else, as they say, pays cash. Or 6.41%.**

If you've got a high school senior in the house, you are by now familiar with the alphabet soup that is EFC, COAFAFSA, CSS, and IDOC. And even if you suspect your income level places you above the threshold for receiving need-based financial aid, you are probably still required to complete these forms and other institutional surveys in order for your child to be considered for merit aid. (For those with younger kids, or who need a refresher, here's a concise, up-to-date, general discussion by Troy Onink in Forbes.)

First-time parents with students applying to multiple schools are often shocked by the volume and complexity of the invasive documentation demanded of them during this process. All this paperwork might be a practical, if not pleasant, distraction during the anxious wait-period between auditions and results. But unfortunately most of the deadlines are painfully early, coinciding with the heat of audition season, a frantic time when you are already trying to shoehorn multiple trips into your schedule. So you burn the midnight oil. And, if you weren't ready to file your tax return in early February (who is?), you'll need to revisit the process when you file your corrected forms in March.

When your kid's financial packages arrive, typically a week or so after admission offers, you may be startled to discover wide discrepancies in the amount and types of aid your student receives from various schools, despite the uniformity of the information you plugged into all the required forms. This is because each school has its own formula for calculating aid. And even within a school, aid offers for families of similar income may vary considerably from one student to the next, both in amount and in proportion of grant to loan.

Elite academic schools, such as the Ivies so-called Potted Ivies generally do not give merit or talent grants. Their aid, they say, is totally need-based. Elite schools with hefty endowments offer grant-only packages (i.e., no student loans to repay) and guarantee to meet 100% of  "demonstrated financial need", as determined by the FAFSA and CSS. Many parents are aghast to learn that their EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is tens of thousands of dollars higher than what they believe they can afford. FAFSA bases its EFC mainly on parent income and the number of students currently in college. If you have an older student in college, and have taken out Plus loans, you are already aware that these loan payments are due within 60 days of dispersal. You may be paying thousands a month for years against your older children's tuition, but FAFSA will not factor any of this debt into your "need". When that older child graduates, your EFC will double.

By contrast, conservatories tend not to have enormous endowments, so, for starters, you will not find very many of them pledging to meet 100% of demonstrated need—Oberlin and Rice are among the few who do.  But, unlike elite academic schools, most conservatories offer talent-based scholarships, ranging from 100% tuition, room, and board for all accepted students (Colburn), to full-tuition for all students (Curtis, the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings), to a combination package based on the institution's own formula. This is good news for parents who might not qualify for financial aid, but still need help with tuition.

Another sometimes-overlooked source of financial aid for conservatory students is the merit-based academic aid. If your student has excellent high school grades and standardized test scores, she will receive an automatic tuition discount at state-supported schools such as Temple or Indiana University, both of which happen to have high level conservatories. (The same grades and scores will buy you nothing at independent conservatories like Juilliard or NEC.)

It's important to realize that talent and academic merit grants from a university are generally applied  against the "need" portion of your financial aid award. In other words, if a school decides that your student's financial need is $25,000 and your student wins a $5,000 audition-based talent grant, the overall award will remain at $25,000, not $30,000. On the other hand, if your need is determined to be 0, and your student wins the same $5000 talent grant, his award will be $5000. Talent and merit awards are, essentially, tuition discounts that help pull in students who would not be eligible for need-based financial aid under the school's formula.

Here are a few tips to help you sort through your mail:

  • Figure out whether the award is need-based or talent-based, and, if both, in what proportion. Not every financial aid package makes it clear which is which, and it's worth a call to the financial aid office to ask if the grant portion of the award is guaranteed for four years. A need-based award could drop dramatically if your family's financial situation improves or if a sibling graduates from college. A merit-based grant will not increase, even when tuition inevitably increases, or if your financial situation suddenly worsens.

  • Most schools will calculate loans into your package. These can include Stafford Loans, both subsidized (3.86%, $23,000 max over 4 years) and unsubsidized (now 3.86%, % 31,000 over 4 years), Perkins Loans (up to $5500/year at 5%), and Parent Plus loans (6.41% up to the cost of attendance.) When my daughter auditioned for colleges a few years ago, I was surprised to read one statement that listed a $10,000 merit award, $3000 of work-study, and $40,000 of (yearly) loans for her and for us, and ended with the statement "Full need met."

  • Your student may also receive an offer for Federal Work Study or institutional-funded work study. This figure represents money that your student can, potentially, earn, but that is not guaranteed. Depending on the situation at the college, it can be difficult to secure a work-study job, and the relatively low wages can eat up a significant amount of your student's schedule. Work-study grants are nice, but they are not money "in your pocket" that can be used to pay upcoming bills.

*The estimated COA (Cost of Attendance) for the Cleveland Institute of Music was $61,399 for 2013-2014.
** The current interest rate on a Parent Plus loan. A bargain compared to 7.9% when my middle daughters started college.

Next week: More on money.


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Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

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