Paying that Chunk of Change 

Paying that Chunk of Change 

It is no secret that the cost of college tuition has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the College Board (, the average cost of a bachelor’s degree in 2019 is a whopping $35,830 per year for private colleges. The average cost for state residents at public colleges is $10,230 a year, and $26,290 for out-of-state residents. A master’s degree can cost up to $120,000 depending on the institution and its location! 

Let’s Talk Loans 

Most people today have no choice but to take out student loans. There are two types of loans, subsidized and unsubsidized. With a subsidized loan, your interest does not grow while you are in school, but after graduation the interest becomes your responsibility. An unsubsidized loan accrues interest from the get-go—so if you do not make payments during school, you will end up with a balance that is higher than you started with. 

The most important thing to consider with any loan is the interest rate. The longer it takes to pay back a loan, the more interest it accrues (this is called compound interest). It is essential that you understand how it works and calculate the actual amount you will pay back after interest. There are plenty of great resources online to help you calculate what you will pay over the life of a loan. A popular one is

Using this calculator, you will see that if you take out a $50,000 loan for graduate school with a 6 percent interest rate and a 30-year term, your minimum monthly payment will only be $300—but if you pay only that minimum each month and take the entire 30 years to pay off the loan, the total interest paid will be a whopping $57,919 on top of the $50,000 you already took out. Basically, you are paying more than double the amount of the original loan you took out, for a total of $107,919. 

It would be better to pay the loan off in 15 years. In this case, your monthly payment would be higher at $422, but the total interest paid would be $25,947 (or about half the amount of the original loan). 

Armed with this information, set your student loan debt cap. This is the maximum amount of money you are willing and able to spend per year and should include additional funds needed for living expenses. While you are a student, it is always better to take on additional student loans for living expenses than to carry a balance on a credit card with a high annual percentage rate. 

Credit cards can be useful for building your credit score, but only if you pay off the balance in full every month. Be realistic about the debt cap number and stick to it. This may mean you have to make some hard choices, but I promise you will be much better off without having to carry the heavier load of credit card debt after school. 


Voice Program Scholarships 

I spoke with admissions counselors and professors from a variety of academic music programs in order to gain some clarity on the process of awarding scholarships to prospective students. 

The answers varied considerably depending on the institution. Several schools told me that the audition is the number one determining factor. They are simply looking for the best musicians with the best artistry for their schools. Others stated that they really look at the whole person/musician, seeking students who are right for their unique community and mission. These institutions value phone conversations and interviews with the candidates and do a deep dive into the personal statement and other materials to determine what drives the student’s passion for music. 

For music schools within a larger university, the university itself can give substantial money for past academic achievement. Sometimes the voice faculty is already aware of what the university has awarded, which can affect the amount they offer the student. For example, if a music department wants a student and knows that the student has already been awarded a 50 percent scholarship by the university, they may offer less in music scholarship than they would have otherwise. 

Almost everywhere, voice part plays a huge role in scholarship. Voice programs want to ensure they have enough male singers for their choruses, operas, opera scenes, special events, etc. Therefore, sopranos typically will receive the least amount of scholarship, while tenors and basses will receive the most. 

Ultimately, your goal is to give the best possible audition. Be sure you have selected repertoire that truly shows off your voice and is extremely polished musically, vocally, and dramatically with impeccable diction in each language. With the help of your voice teacher and other trusted mentors, have mock auditions prior to the actual auditions so you can practice doing your best when nervous. Know your translations inside and out and show the panel that you can truly express the words you are singing. 

An important word of warning: if you have been admitted somewhere but do not yet know the scholarship and funding details, do not tell the school that you are committing to them yet. I was disappointed in my research for this article to learn that many schools will grant you significantly less scholarship if they know they’re your first choice and that you are planning to attend. You may be moved far down the list for scholarship awards. 


Appealing a Scholarship Award 

Typically, a formal appeals process involves contacting admissions and filling out a detailed appeals form. Many schools ask the student to specify the exact amount of the increase in scholarship they are appealing for. The most important part of an appeals form is where the student describes their financial situation and why they are asking for more money. Once submitted, the scholarship committee will then reevaluate the application with the new information and may take a deeper look into the student’s financial history to see what kind of need they have. 

One state university I spoke with budgets a certain amount of “incentive money” for students who wish to come but did not get enough money. This usually amounts to about a one-year bonus sum (the cost of one year of tuition), which is often enough to sway a student’s decision. Universities typically have a much lower cost for in-state students as it is, often making them a more affordable option than private schools even before a scholarship is awarded. In some schools, the student’s desired future private voice teacher serves as a middleman between the student and the administration when the student needs more scholarship money in order to attend. This might happen in addition to, or instead of, a formal appeals process. 

When submitting appeals, the following things are important to keep in mind: 

Be Kind. Several admissions officers shared with me that many calls and emails they receive are demanding and disrespectful. It is always a good idea to be respectful and gracious to those who are admitting you to their program.

Be Direct. Clearly state the exact amount of scholarship increase you are asking for and how/why you came to that number. Attaching scholarship offers from other schools to your appeal is acceptable and helpful. 

Be Honest. In the appeal essay, first explain what makes you unique and what you can bring to their program. Then be as open as you can about why you are asking for more money. Do you have an expensive medical condition? Do you already have a significant amount of debt? Are you putting yourself through college? Do you have children? Honesty helps the committee gain clarity and can drastically affect the amount you are rewarded. 

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Getting a Full Ride

It is rare for vocal performance majors to be granted a full ride, but it does happen. Top music schools, as well as schools in desirable cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, tend to award less scholarship and fewer full rides than less competitive schools and schools in less desirable locations. When looking into schools, ask admissions officers, voice teachers, and current students whether full funding is a possibility and how to increase your chances. 

Some schools have artist diploma or artist certificate programs that are very selective but fully funded for those admitted. Many programs will grant you a working fellowship or assistantship in exchange for free tuition. It is always worth doing your research and due diligence. You just might end up with a full ride. 


Other Ways to Get Free Money 

If you are motivated and organized, with the help of the internet you can find hundreds of outside scholarships, awards, and grants. A former student of mine received a total of nine outside awards, totaling $6,500, thanks to her tireless efforts researching, applying, and performing. Vocal competitions usually offer cash prizes and are a great way to stash away some money for college if you place. 


When researching, keep track of what awards you are eligible for. Some independent scholarships are specifically for music students, some are offered to a specific minority group, others simply require that you be from a specific state—and there are also sports-related and grade-related awards. 

Here are some examples of the music-related outside funding opportunities that exist: 

National Association of Teachers of Singing regional and national competition prizes 

State music educators’ association scholarships 

National Federation of Music Clubs scholarships (awards from $500 to $3,000) 

The Eloise Klersey Basler Vocal Music Scholarship (awards up to $5,000 annually) 

The Glenn Miller Birthplace Society scholarship competition 

The Associated Male Choruses of America scholarships 

The John Lennon Scholarships for contemporary musicians  

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Performing Arts Scholarship (awards $3,000) 


You can also get creative about fundraising for your own education. After all, you are a performer . . . so perform! Organize a benefit recital for your education. Invite friends, family, and members of your community to attend and ask for donations. You may be surprised at how much money you can raise from an event like this. 

Patrons are becoming a thing of the past, but now would be a good time to reach out if you have someone like a family friend or great aunt who has taken an interest in your career! It is best to ask a patron to fund something specific, such as your music scores and textbooks or one year of room and board. People are typically more willing to give when they know exactly what their money is going toward. 

Some people even create online crowd-funding campaigns (such as GoFundMe) for their college educations. While this can be a great way to create your own scholarship, be thoughtful in setting up the campaign, ensuring that you are giving compelling reasons for potential donors to contribute. 


Working While in School 

Find out if there are assistantships or TA-ships available at the college/university that can help offset the cost of your tuition. It is usually a good idea to accept these positions when offered, as they will be more convenient than having an off-campus job. There are plenty of other on-campus jobs that can help offset tuition, including working in the library, at security stations, as a tour guide for the school, in food service, and more. Some of these jobs enable you to get your schoolwork done while working, which is a huge bonus. 

While having a job during school is a great way to cover a portion of your tuition costs and have some spending money, it is important to determine how much time you can realistically commit to a job, especially if you have to factor in commute time. You don’t want to lose half of your available practice hours to a minimum-wage job if you can help it (though for some, this is the reality and unavoidable). 


Taking the Plunge 

When you have thoroughly investigated all your options, set your debt cap, and successfully completed your auditions, all that is left is to wait for the results to roll in. From there, you will be well equipped to make an informed decision about where to go and how to pay for it. If none of the options available to you meets your criteria, seriously consider waiting another year to try again. It is certainly better to wait for the right fit than to be saddled with excessive debt for most of your adult life. Remember, you are the consumer, and at the end of the day, you make the calls. 

Dana Lynne Varga

Dr. Dana Lynne Varga is a sought-after soprano, voice teacher and career coach, as well as the Founder and Artistic Director of MassOpera. She was the 2016 first place winner of the CS Competition; Emerging Professional division. Dana is currently on the Voice and Opera faculty of the Longy School of Music at Bard College in Cambridge, MA. She regularly presents vocal master classes as well as classes on business and entrepreneurship for singers all over the east coast. Please visit and