Financial Aid For Voice Students

In the face of what recent indicators have shown to be a slowing American economy, another host of music students vying for college or university training will face the cost of higher education this year. Some will find the funds and resources necessary to pursue an ideal learning path, while others will make compromises at every turn if they want an education at all.

“Losing Ground,” a report released earlier this year by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, showed that the gap between the cost of education and what students can afford to pay has widened and continues to do so at an alarming rate. College tuition has grown at more than twice the rate of inflation in the last decade. Costs have steadily increased at five percent each year over the last five years. Today the average total cost for four years at a public university is $41,000. The average cost for four years at a private university is $104,000. If the trend continues at a five percent increase every year for the next 18 years, the cost of four years at a public university could be $95,000, and the cost at a four-year private university, $240,000.

Though government aid to college students has remained consistent, skyrocketing costs have placed a greater burden on students to finance their own educations. A federal Pell grant that would have covered 98 percent of tuition at a public four-year college in 1986 only covered 57 percent in 1998.

For the nation’s poorest families, the percentage of overall income it takes to fund a year of college has risen from 13 to almost 26 percent, according to the study. Ten years ago 16 percent of the highest income families borrowed money for college. That number had grown to 45 percent by 2000.

Increasingly, a college education, now a staple of middle-class life, leaves students in debt for years after obtaining a degree. Today 64 percent of college seniors graduate in debt, and the average amount of that debt has doubled in the last eight years. These trends only show signs of continuing, as many states face enormous deficits and contemplate educational budget cuts. What this means is that it now takes much more than a well-polished audition repertoire to find and keep a spot at the conservatory of your dreams. But there is good news. You have one very powerful ally in defraying these seemingly
insurmountable costs: knowledge.

Many resources that are available to college-bound students go unclaimed every year, because they are overlooked. Through tools such as the Internet, telephone, and reference books, students who start asking questions early can find aid where others thought there was none. Moreover, in being thorough and punctual in the preparation of admission applications, financial aid forms, and audition repertoire, applicants can avoid common mistakes that result in loss of or ineligibility for funding.

Preparation—the High School Years

Preparation for musical life after high school starts years before graduation. “The best advice I can give is to take piano lessons in high school,” said Robert Bracey, chairman of the voice department at Michigan State University (MSU). Students with good piano skills stand a chance of testing out of the two years of study on the instrument required by the music school. Students can even advance place in theory based on their knowledge of the piano.

“The most important thing is to put energy into preparing audition repertoire,” said Bradley Blunt, Associate Director of Music Admissions at The Shepherd School of Music, Rice University. “Find a good teacher. Also, get involved in choral groups and summer programs. Show a commitment to singing.”

A private teacher can point a student towards a good conservatory and even recommend teachers at the school. A teacher should also help the student build audition repertoire. While studying, students should seek opportunities to perform the repertoire that will one day be audition material.

“Participate in district and state solo and ensemble competitions,” said Bracey. “Get experience singing standard repertoire before a panel of judges.” “Make sure your [college] audition is not the first performance of your repertoire,” advised Blunt.

The Application Process

The application process for a music school will generally include both application forms and an audition. Some schools will require admission first to the university (based on academic achievement), then to the music school (based on musical ability). Most schools will require separate applications for financial aid, which is awarded based on need, merit, or a combination of the two.

Rice University’s Shepherd School asks for two audition songs. Though there is no requirement for one to be in a foreign language, Blunt recommends preparing a foreign language song nevertheless, to demonstrate versatility and depth of repertoire. “Be able to perform music of medium difficulty very well,” said Bracey, who believes this better than to struggle with music beyond one’s ability level.

Acceptance to the Shepherd School is based, first, on acceptance to the University. Auditions are then used to determine admission to the music school and in the awarding of merit scholarships.

“Students should pay a lot of attention to their grades and academic work,” said Blunt. “They should maintain a high academic standard.” Rice offers two types of scholarships, one based on merit, the other on financial need. Students with excellent grades and a record of community service and leadership stand a better chance of being awarded scholarships.

Sometimes, students of specific instruments and certain voice types stand a better chance of being awarded merit scholarships at the Shepherd School, should the school need to fill that particular classification. Because of the need to achieve balance in its vocal groups, the school may be more inclined to award a tenor, bass, or mezzo scholarship money. This is not to say that sopranos don’t get aid, said Blunt, but the school needs to balance its ensembles.

The Shepherd School accepts cassettes for auditions, but Blunt strongly encourages auditioning in person to underscore one’s commitment to attending Rice. Still, those who audition with a tape are not penalized.
Unlike the Shepherd School, the Julliard School in New York requires an audition for admission to the university itself. “Most who audition don’t get admitted into our school,” said Joan D. Warren, Associate Dean of Admissions. Julliard asks for one Italian song from the 17th or 18th century, an optional operatic aria or oratorio, an English song, a song by a 20th century composer, and a piece in any language, should an applicant fulfill the English and 20th century song requirement with one selection. Applicants to Julliard submit audition tapes for pre-screening. After a screening of all entrants, finalists for admission are invited to audition in person.

Scholarships at Julliard are awarded solely on financial need. “Students don’t apply for individual scholarships. A committee reviews each student,” said Warren. Awards are then given based on individual need. Criteria for assessing need include parents’ occupations, value of the family’s home, income, and other figures used to determine financial stability and net worth. Julliard tries each year to apply a standard formula to all students needing aid. The school also deals with a large international population of incoming students requesting assistance.

Warren tries to forward special interest scholarship announcements to eligible students at Juilliard. Certain ethnic organizations, for instance, occasionally offer special scholarships. These can go unclaimed if no one expresses interest in them.
The Michigan State University School of Music goes so far as to offer scholarships exclusively for voice students, as well as students of different instruments, said an MSU source. Students applying to MSU must first apply to the university, then, upon acceptance, to the music school. A third application must be submitted for any desired scholarships.

Freshmen applicants are asked to audition in person before a faculty panel. The audition determines acceptance as a music major and whether the student should be awarded an applied-for scholarship. If a student is unable to audition in person, he or she may send an audition tape, though Bracey strongly advised against this. “If you actually come to the university to audition, it says a lot more about your level of commitment,” he said. If you must submit a tape, he said, videotapes are best.

Aid Sources

Schools draw funds for scholarships from a variety of sources, but most frequently the money comes from wealthy donors, often in the form of annual gifts. Patron organizations are another source. Scholarship funds can also be set up in the name of deceased patrons.

Scholarships at Michigan State University are commonly given in the name of teachers who have taught there. Some go to students engaged in the same discipline taught by the eponymous instructor; others go to music students displaying general merit. Criteria for eligibility vary: money can be given based on merit, need, or a combination of both. Bracey recommended that students who fail to get scholarships apply again in subsequent years. Through hard work and practice, it is possible to be eligible
for scholarships later.

Scholarships are not the only available aid. Help can come from a multitude of sources. Some are obvious, some not so. “Too many students don’t apply [for aid], because they think they won’t qualify,” said Blunt of a common misconception. Careful planning should go not only into locating aid sources, but also into the steps necessary to obtain assistance.

Common Mistakes

The most common mistakes made by students in applying for financial aid once they have found it are: turning in incomplete forms, failure to submit necessary forms with an application, and missed submission deadlines. “Follow the admission process very carefully,” said Warren. “Meet all deadlines, and turn in all forms.” Applicants sometimes turn in federal aid forms to Julliard but fail to include the school’s own aid request form.

“The biggest mistake I see is when students submit applications late,” said Bracey. “We have students who come audition for us who don’t know if yet they have been accepted by the university, because they applied late.”

Dr. Herm Davis, co-author of the superb resource College Financial Aid for Dummies, suggests setting up a financial aid calendar as early as the sophomore year of high school. At that time, a student should start a scholarship resource file, saving information on organizations, civic groups, government agencies, corporations, and individuals that sponsor scholarships. Davis also encourages joining groups (such as service clubs, Boy and Girl Scouts, etc.) that participate in activities associated with scholarships. One should take part in high school career studies and explore areas of musical interest, such as private teaching, that might later lead to employment.

Blunt encourages students to approach community, special interest, and religious organizations that might be willing to lend financial support, should a student’s education somehow further their own missions. Involvement with ROTC or other branches of the military can also be a source of aid, as they will cover tuition costs.

During a student’s junior year, Davis advises registering for and taking the PSAT, National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and the ACT. Apply for advanced placement college credit and look into banks and other institutions that offer education loans, going so far as to open an account if it is required when requesting a loan. Attend financial aid workshops, college fairs, and visit the high school career guidance center. Contact your home state’s scholarship administration to find state aid opportunities and how to apply for them. Request applications from private scholarship sponsors.

In the summer before senior year, visit colleges of interest and prepare the early decision applications offered by some institutions. Continue to purse scholarship sources through the senior year of high school. Request applications. Prepare the College Scholarship Service’s Profile for institutions requiring this document. Mail it to the CSS office in November.

Federal Aid and the FAFSA

Obtain a Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from your school’s guidance counselor or career center. Mail this form between January 1 and February 1. The student’s assessed need will arrive weeks later in the form of a Student Aid Report (SAR). Keep this in a safe place until it can be updated in April with the family’s tax returns.

FAFSA is a requirement of any student seeking federal need-based aid. Applicants answer questions pertaining to family financial status and send it to the U.S. Department of Education. The SAR shows the Expected Family Contribution figure (EFC), which colleges use to determine what the student’s family is able to pay.

The FAFSA form is the only application form required for federal student financial programs and most state scholarship programs. The majority of state schools, two-year colleges, and technical schools use only the FAFSA to assess financial need. The form can be picked up at most college financial aid offices, public libraries, and high school guidance offices.

In most cases, the FAFSA form should be sent to schools in March, though many schools have their own deadlines. Timely receipt of the form ensures that maximum aid is awarded to the student. A FAFSA renewal must be applied for each additional year that aid is needed.

At this time, students should request a Federal Pell Grant, a federal program that awards undergraduate students millions of dollars in gift money every year. One need only fill out the FAFSA form to apply.

At the time an applicant submits FAFSA, determination should also be made as to whether the desired colleges have their own supplemental financial aid forms. Request these, if they are not included with application materials, and submit them in timely manner.

Students demonstrating exceptional financial need may ask the institution’s financial aid counselor to request a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG). Applicants must be enrolled at least half-time in undergraduate study at an accredited school to be eligible.

These demonstrated need students may also ask to be put in line for Federal Work-Study Programs (FWS), which provide federal money for students engaged in on-campus part-time jobs.

State and University Aid

Students desiring state aid should investigate possibilities – which vary from state to state – online at state government websites. Warren encourages applying to a variety of schools, with at least one being in the student’s home state, as this often qualifies the person to receive grants.

In addition, applicants should make sure to take advantage of all possible aid provided by the university itself. For example, Rice University enforces a self-help cap so students graduate with as few debts as possible. The present cap stands at $4,075. This number represents the maximum allowed work-study load per year of $1,600 plus the maximum loan allowance per year of $2,475. The rest of funds needed by the student are considered financial need. “Rice will meet 100 percent of a student’s financial need,” Blunt said of need scholarships the school offers.


At the time an applicant submits FAFSA, determination should also be made as to whether the desired colleges have their own supplemental financial aid forms. Request these, if they are not included with application materials, and submit them in timely manner.

In the spring of the senior year, applicants should receive acceptance letters and financial aid award letters. These should be filed and kept until all replies and award notifications have been received. Compare them before making a final choice. It may be necessary to pay deposits to numerous schools, in order to hold your acceptance status until you have formulated a financial aid plan and can make a final decision.

If one cannot afford tuition, even after factoring in financial aid, it is possible to make an appeal to the school for additional assistance.


The final step is to apply for loans. Submit forms for unsubsidized Federal Stafford or Subsidized Federal PLUS loans in the spring of 12th grade. Which form a student submits depends on eligibility for one or the other; applicants cannot qualify for both. These are the two largest federal loan programs, but not the only ones, so dig to find more. These forms or the information on where to acquire them can be obtained at your local bank, credit union, or financial institution

Some students make mistakes at this stage, said Warren. Families afraid to request loans can wait too long to apply. When the tuition bill arrives in the middle of the summer, they realize they don’t have enough money to pay or enough time to get a loan. “Many people don’t take time to consider the [total] cost,” said Warren. Returning students sometimes fail to reapply for loans they have received in the past.

The information contained above only skims the surface of this complex subject. Extensive research is extremely important in acquiring financial aid. For additional information, a wealth of sources is available. Warren recommends the websites and Blunt suggests publications such as the NATS Journal, Classical Singer magazine, and Musical America magazine. In these can be found complete listings of schools, scholarships, and organizations that can offer assistance.

John E. Thomas

John Thomas is a performer as well as teacher of drums/percussion at the 92nd St. YMHA and Turtle Bay Music School in Manhattan and a teacher of voice and percussion at the Long Island Conservatory. He is also a staff-writer for New York Newsday’s FutureCorps division, the Forum Courier of South Queens and works as a free-lance writer in and out of New York.