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A Parent’s Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 18: The Cost of Attendance

Karen Rile

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Published: March 6, 2014 at 3:48 PM [UTC]

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

Orange, pear, apple

Last week I wrote about the differences between need-based financial aid and merit aid, and about how to scrutinize a confusing jumble of financial aid packages that mix in grants, loans, and work-study in different proportions. Once you sort through that pile of apples and oranges, you'll want to study them against against the published COA ("Cost of Attendance") for each college, to try to get a grip on how much a conservatory education will actually cost your student and your family.

As you'll quickly discover, however, the one-size-fits-all COA figures published on college websites are just rough estimates. Expenses are not identical for all students; nor are they for individual students over a span of four years. Where your family happens to live relative to the college will effect costs in a dramatic way. Is your kid's dream school two hours away by car or two thousand miles by plane? Even little things, like ground transportation and luggage fees add up. Unless they can book on Southwest, violinists and violists will need to pay to check suitcases every time (so they can carry on their instruments.) Cellists and bass players will tell you that's nickel-and-dime stuff, compared to the cost of an extra seat or cabin freight.

Housing is the most expensive item on the COA sheet after tuition, and at many schools housing costs drop dramatically when students migrate from dormitories to cheap off-campus digs after the first year. At the Cleveland Institute of Music, for example, all freshmen and many sophomores live in the dorms and eat at the dining commons, at an average cost of about $13,000 (double room, ten meals per week.) But older students typically move off-campus, for which CIM budgets about $8100, or $900 per month, a substantial savings of almost $5000 a year. A savings like this could mean that your student would not need to take a Stafford loan.

But, wait: look closer. Let’s say your daughter finds an off-campus apartment to share with friends for $500 per month. That leaves her $400 per month to spend on food, heat, electricity, internet, and rent. So far, so good. However, off-campus apartments come with 12-month leases, and CIM’s budget reflects a 9-month academic year. That means your student will probably need to cover her rent out-of-pocket during those three months when she is away. In a city like New York or Boston she could probably find a sub-letter, but despite the famous 30 Rock propaganda, that's unlikely to happen in Cleveland. So figure that your $500 Cleveland apartment room will cost you and extra $1500 a year than budgeted in the school's COA estimate. This means either more out of pocket for your family, or less for heat and food for your kid. At least during those summer months the fuel costs will be low. One of my daughters had a drafty, spacious Cleveland apartment that seemed wonderfully thrifty until winter hit and the cost of keeping the thermometer at 60 shot up higher than her rent. In other words, beware hidden costs.

Off-campus students also need to consider the variable prices of food and local transportation. Once classes start, busy college roommates rarely find it practical to shop and cook together, so off-campus students tend to rely on convenience food and take-out, which is pricier than the kind of bulk food shopping you do for your family. Will your student walk to campus, bike, take public transportation, or drive? CIM students receive free transit passes—contrast that with the $1000 price tag for 9 months of New York MTA cards. No sane person would bring a car to school in Manhattan, but in many places off-campus life is far better if you have a car for grocery shopping, socializing, and general horrible-weather commuting. In many locations, a car may be necessary to drive to lucrative off-campus gigs. Add in, then, the price of insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking fees. But subtract the cost of airfare, if your student can use that car to travel home for holidays and summer—a whopping savings, if a cello is involved.

Your student’s personal standard of living will have an immediately impact on their cost of living at college. Does she know how to budget money? Will he be treating himself to Starbucks on his way to class every morning? (Those caramel macchiatos add up—figure about $1000 a year for the Starbucks habit.) Other costs, such as sheet music and accompanist fees can vary widely from student to student. Will there be extra tuition charges if your kid decides to double major in French? What if he wants to study viola on the side—is there a fee for secondary lessons? (At some schools there's no charge. At Juilliard, it’s $10,000 per year.) Do you plan to give your kid an allowance, or will she be left to her own devices for pocket money? Do you expect her to contribute to her tuition and rent?

Here's good news: unlike most college students, music conservatory kids have marketable skills that can earn them more for their time than a typical $7-$10/hour student work-study desk job. Many conservatories have concert offices that coordinate off-campus gigs for student groups. There may also be in-house work: check to see if there's a "lab orchestra" that pays instrumentalists to labor under the baton of student conductors. There may be teaching and outreach fellowships for qualified upperclassmen—not income you can count on as an incoming freshman, but something to aspire to. Ambitious students have always found work gigging at private events, subbing in orchestras, and teaching private students. My daughter has juggled up to three simultaneous fellowships, along with gigging, baby-sitting, private teaching, and miscellaneous other jobs: enough to earn a 5-figure W2 income while still an undergrad. As a musician, she has used her skill set to much earn more in college than any of her sisters, who were stuck with the typical student work-study and retail jobs. Her earnings have gone a long way to help offset her expensive education.

When it comes to earning money while in school, location matters. The larger and denser the city, the more potential teaching opportunities and gigs. It helps if your city has a good transit system (that $112 monthly New York subway pass quickly pays for itself.) If you attend a conservatory in a more isolated part of the country, you may be still able to find relatively well-compensated work subbing in a regional orchestra, but you'll need car to get (see above.)

Of course, not every 19- or 20-year-old is ready to handle many hours of responsible work in addition to classes, lessons, practicing, and rehearsals. But if your student is able to contribute meaningfully to the cost of her education, don't hold her back. The life of a working musician is busy and fragmented, and it's not a bad idea to get used to splitting time among many different arenas. Conservatories understand this, which is why they generally make paid employment opportunities available for their students. After all, a 21st century musician needs to be fluent and flexible, as much as she needs multiple income streams.

Cost of Attendance is more than a balance sheet of charges and receipts. For some students, the best decision is immediately clear, but for many, the real price of a conservatory education can difficult to pinpoint with so many variables involved. More so than in the case of future doctors, lawyers, and engineers, the conservatory or college your music performance major attends will create a network of connections, both collegial and regional, that will jumpstart his career. In that sense, it can be short-sighted to make a decision based on tuition prices only.

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

Posted on March 7, 2014 at 1:11 PM
As someone who's lived in Cleveland for five years, finding a subletter for the summer is relatively easy; finding a subletter you trust to adequately clean the place up afterward is hard.

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