College Decisions

April 15, 2020, 1:45 PM · Hello everyone!

I'm in need of some advice in regards to choosing a school to attend for next year.

I've been accepted to pursue a BM in performance at 3 schools for the next school year: Oberlin Conservatory, the Eastman School of Music, and St. Olaf College, and I'm trying to choose between the three of them. If I had my way, I'd go to Oberlin, with my second choice being Eastman. But their yearly cost of attendance is extremely expensive (~$75k a year), and I haven't received enough scholarship yet from either institution to lower the cost to the point that my parents are able to pay for. I've appealed for more financial aid from both schools, but it seems like there's not a particularly high chance for me to get much more aid, and I'm trying to avoid taking out student loans if possible. That's why St. Olaf is still in the running because I can actually afford to go there with the aid I've received.

Granted, I think St. Olaf has a very strong program, and I really enjoy working with their faculty about as much as I enjoy working with the faculty at Oberlin and Eastman. But in a discussion I had with my private teacher recently, she said that while teachers are very important, it's also crucial that I make connections with my musical peers because it could be what helps find me work in the future, and the students that I meet at Oberlin and Eastman would certainly be much stronger musicians than the ones at St. Olaf. She suggested that I wait until the very last opportunity to commit, in the event that Oberlin or Eastman might offer me more money at the last second. I know it's possible because it's worked out that way for a few of my friends, but I don't think I can really count on that actually happening.

I'll continue to try and push for more scholarship, but for now, my question is this: is it smarter to go to a less-known music program and make sure I go to summer festivals and a solid grad school to make connections and avoid student debt until I do my graduate studies, or is it worth it to go into debt now so I can go to the more well-renowned schools and make more connections?

Thanks for your help!

Replies (13)

April 15, 2020, 1:48 PM · It isn't the connections with your peers that matter, it's being pushed by being surrounded by students who are better than you. You don't want to be the best violinist there when you're a freshman.

Connections with peers matter very little on the audition circuit or for grad school auditions but connections with teachers can matter a lot. Going to strong summer programs and a strong grad school is a good idea for those attending a less well-known undergraduate program.

You might also look into the possibility of doing your first year or two at the less expensive program and then transferring to a higher-octane school.

I would never advise anyone to take on debt for a performance degree.

Edited: April 15, 2020, 2:07 PM · It's hard to add anything to Mary Ellen's characteristically rock-solid advice.

As you go along in your program -- from undergrad to grad school, for example -- what you will find is that in the beginning your connections to your professors (and access to their networks) are the most important, and it's toward the end when you're more of a "finished product" that your own networking comes more to the fore. I studied chemistry, which is quite a different field, but I think the basic trend is quite general.

I think it also depends what kind of music you're going to end up doing. We've all heard about how kids go to Berklee and left after three semesters because they formed some kind of electrified rock band with a clarinetist, an organist, and a didgeridoo player, all of whom, miraculously, were in their same cohort. But I don't think that's really the typical model for classical musical education.

April 15, 2020, 3:31 PM · I thought Oberlin would meet 100% of each student's need? In any case, I definitely agree with Mary Ellen. Taking loans for a performance degree, specially an undergraduate one, is not a very good deal. Use this time to grow and get better funding for a graduate degree at a conservatory later. Francesca Anderegg is outstanding in every aspect! I would not say no to her.
April 15, 2020, 3:43 PM · Oberlin meets “perceived” need, I assume as determined by the FAFSA.

I can tell you from personal experience, whoever designed the rubric used by the FAFSA is living on a different planet from most of us. My husband and I live modestly and frugally, but the FAFSA says that we should be able to contribute a very, very, very large amount to our daughter’s education—approximately double what we could easily pay, and about 50% more than what we are in fact paying with sacrificial effort.

April 15, 2020, 4:13 PM · Thank you all for the advice, I really appreciate it!

I will definitely discuss these points with my parents and teacher if I'm not able to get more aid from the more high-power schools that I got into.

Ms. Goree is also correct about Oberlin's financial aid. They determine "perceived" need based on the FAFSA, and my FAFSA expected my parents to contribute an absurd amount towards my education, so I didn't qualify for much. While my family isn't in a state of financial distress, we also can't possibly pay $60-70k in tuition every year (but honestly who could actually do that).

April 15, 2020, 4:42 PM · I'm curious... is UC Boulder's undergrad program a viable alternative here, given where you live?
Edited: April 15, 2020, 4:47 PM · I don't think UC-Boulder is rated as highly as St. Olaf.

April 15, 2020, 5:10 PM · Although Takács is still in residence there?
April 15, 2020, 5:54 PM · If you are getting a better financial aid package at St. Olaf I would let the other places know that a different school is making a better financial offer as a negotiating tactic, if you haven't already.
April 15, 2020, 7:15 PM · Stan makes a good point
Edited: April 15, 2020, 8:16 PM · "My husband and I live modestly and frugally, but the FAFSA says that we should be able to contribute a very, very, very large amount to our daughter’s education—approximately double what we could easily pay."

Didn't you know you were supposed to take out a mortgage well beyond your means and expensive vacations every year so that you would have only debt and no savings to report on your FAFSA? My wife and I made the same mistake. Unfortunately we (and likely you) had parents that grew up during the Great Depression and we foolishly cleaved to their advice about the virtue of frugal living.

April 15, 2020, 9:43 PM · "Didn't you know you were supposed to take out a mortgage well beyond your means and expensive vacations every year so that you would have only debt and no savings to report on your FAFSA? My wife and I made the same mistake."

I guess that was our error. Too late to go back and reinvent ourselves as spendthrifts now.

"Unfortunately we (and likely you) had parents that grew up during the Great Depression and we foolishly cleaved to their advice about the virtue of frugal living."

Yes, exactly. Well, my parents were Depression children (born in the mid-1920s); my husband's parents were slightly younger but they had their own memories of financially stressful childhoods so we grew up with the same message.

The FAFSA rewards irresponsibility and punishes thrift IMO. And I'm guessing the OP's parents are in a very similar situation to my husband and me.

April 16, 2020, 5:20 AM · Stan's advice worked very well for a young musician friend of mine -- she was accepted into both New England Conservatory and Juilliard.
NEC offered a full scholarship while Juilliard offered only a half-scholarship. The horn teacher at Juilliard called her to see if she had made her decision yet and she told him she needed to accept NEC since they were offering a free ride. He told her not to call NEC with her acceptance yet and to wait until he called her back. In an hour he called her with a full scholarship to Juilliard. That's where she went.

So playing the financial aid card as a negotiating technique can pay off. Or not - Juilliard could just as easily have said, sorry but we can't offer you any more money. In which case my friend would have attended NEC and graduated as a superb horn player anyway.

St. Olaf's is a fine school -- where you attend as an undergraduate is less important than how you study and how you practice and how you can learn from your applied teacher. So my advice is to take a private lesson with the violin teacher at St. Olaf's to be sure you'll be a good fit. And if the other schools don't offer you more money, then go to St. Olaf's, work your butt off (carefully) in the practice room and in the ensembles and you'll be in a good position to audition for graduate school, where it's more likely you'll be offered a free ride somewhere.

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