Show Me the Money

Being an artist is a lot like being a small business owner. And, like any start-up, you need time, a great team, and support to grow. The focused environment of a graduate-level program may be the best next step for you—this is an investment of time and money in launching your small business.

Top 10 Questions to Ask Yourself before Applying to Graduate School

1. Are you passionate about advocating for music and the arts?
I hope you are and always will be.
2. Do you know how you want to work in music and the arts?
It is OK if you aren’t sure; graduate school can be a time of exploration.
3. Do you want to receive advanced training in your area of study?
Be a master.
4. Is it important that you are able to network and build your team?
Real connections matter.
5. Will you take the time to understand the finances?
Ask questions.
6. Are you thinking creatively about how you will explore/research graduate programs?
Utilize your summers and go right to the source.
7. Are you able to be objective about your own talent?
Who are your trusted advisors?
8. What type of institution fits your goals and timeline?
Where did you come from and what are your weak spots?
9. Where on Earth do you want to be?
Location, location, location.
10. Will you show up?
Be present, open minded, vulnerable, and willing to learn. Fall hard and get back up.

Now that you are applying to graduate school, how are you going to pay for it?

While the sticker price of graduate school can be scary, there are lots of resources for funding to help you invest in your talent and future. Don’t assume that a full-tuition scholarship is the only way you can enroll in a graduate program. You want to go to the right program to reach your goals, and this may mean looking at financial aid in a new way.

Start Early and Make Sure You Understand Your Current Situation
It is important to start thinking about your graduate school search early, especially when it comes to financial aid. The right time to go to graduate school is different for everyone, but momentum can be important, so don’t let the finances deter you.

At the undergraduate level, parents and families are often very involved in the financial aid process. Typically, at the graduate level, however, every applicant who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident has the same access to resources regardless of family need. Why? Graduate students are seen as self-sufficient individuals applying for the unique opportunity to study their craft in a focused environment.

As you complete your current, undergrad program, take the time to understand what loans you are going to be responsible for and if any family sponsorship is possible for your graduate study.

Have you checked your credit score? It is not a bad idea to gather this information before you begin the process because it often takes 30–60 days to make corrections or improvements and see the results in your scores.

Check Available Resources and Learn What Graduate School Actually Costs
Every institution has different costs for tuition, fee structures, health insurance offerings, and estimates of living expenses in the area, which make up the total cost of attendance.

In order to cover this cost of attendance, start with institutional, or free, money that may be available to you: scholarships (often tuition remission), fellowships, assistantships, stipends.

Ask the institutions you are applying to these specific and direct questions:
-What is the average merit scholarship award for my voice type and program?
-Does this scholarship renew each year by percentage of tuition or dollar amount?
-What other opportunities for “free money” funding is available, and how do I apply?
-Do you have a graduate assistantship program, and how does it work?

Federal Aid and the Loan Conundrum
Once you have a sense of the “free money,” you can explore federal aid opportunities. Every graduate-level student who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and in good standing is eligible for federal unsubsidized Stafford loans (direct loans) up to $20,500 per year through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Beginning this fall, the FAFSA will be available October 1 and allow students to use taxes from 2015 to complete the process—this is called Prior-Prior Year (taxes from two years prior to enrollment). Because this is a significant change, it is important to connect with each of the financial aid offices you are working with to find out about deadlines and expectations.

If your scholarship money plus the federal Stafford loans do not cover the complete cost of attendance, you can explore Graduate PLUS loans. This loan is credit based. A few examples of red flags in the approval process are if you are in default on past student loans, are 90 days past due on any consumer loans, or have a government tax lien. The total aid amount (free money plus loans) cannot exceed the annual cost of attendance.

Students have different comfort levels with loans. But remember, there are four options for repayment in the current income-driven repayment plans: REPAYE, PAYE, IBR, and ICR. If a student chooses the REPAYE plan, for example, this means they pay only 10 percent of their discretionary income (after taxes and necessary expenses). A variety of loan forgiveness programs are also out there. Music students most frequently utilize the Teacher Loan Forgiveness or Public Service Loan Forgiveness options.

Lastly, there are a number of private educational loans available to students. If you explore these opportunities, make sure you understand the parameters clearly.

When it comes to any type of loan, research your options carefully as regulations can change.

The Decision and Asking for Help
Once you receive your admission decision, make sure you understand the bottom line dollar amount you will owe annually. Don’t be afraid to reach out to admission and financial aid professionals to discuss your situation and outline your options. Institutions want to help make it possible for you to enroll, so keep the conversation going. It is an investment for both the student and the institution.

You will also want to think ahead about your living expenses. Are you moving? Do you need roommates? Create a budget well in advance and ask when you will receive your loan disbursement so you can plan ahead.

Take the plunge and enjoy the adventure!

Katherine Drago

Katherine Drago is Assistant Dean of Admission & Student Services at Longy School of Music of Bard College and previously held positions at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Puget Sound. She has performed professionally for 15 years including The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Santa Fe, and Pittsburgh Operas. She is a member of the New England MONC audition committee and has served as a guest lecturer at over a dozen universities and admission conferences. She holds a BM from Northwestern University and an MM from University of Cincinnati (CCM).