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Finding the Money

Mike Lawson • Commentary • November 11, 2016

Resources and strategies for paying for music school.

Financial aid plays a crucial component in many students’ education, especially during times of economic turmoil and with an ever-changing job market. The most important thing for budding musician students to realize is that there are financial options out there, but they need to seek them out, and the sooner they do this, the better off they’ll be.

Learn About the Process

“There is a standard financial aid process that even students in the arts shouldn’t ignore,” says John Chopka, vice president for enrollment management at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “It’s good to see what you’re going to qualify for, and that could be anything from state and federal forms of financial aid to generous institutional aid. If you’re a talented musician, often times that discipline translates into high achieving academics and academic scholarships. First and foremost, don’t ignore the standard financial aid programs and processes, even though many of them are going to go for the big talent scholarships [worth a lot of money]. They may have to patch together some other forms of financial aid to make it possible.”

Matthew Ardizzone, associate dean of admissions for the Eastman School Of Music at the University of Rochester, notes that some school scholarships and funds are merit-based (academics and talent), others are need-based (financial), but most offer a combination of the two. He stresses that whether or not a school meets need is an important question to ask.

He further explains that merit is defined and perceived differently from school to school. It may not be simply about the talent one displays at an audition along with how good one’s grades are; institutions have their own enrollment needs to meet as well. “If the school graduates 10 bass players in one year because of an unusually big class, they may be really needing bass players in order to meet all of their ensemble demands,” illustrates Ardizzone.

Seek Out Scholarships

Do not assume because of an institution’s size that financial aid options are limited. Messiah College has about 2,800 undergraduate students, according to Chopka, and about 10 percent of those are in the school of the arts. A few select recipients of their Daniel Vollmer Scholarship, which requires an audition, receive $20,000 per year. Other Messiah scholarships include the $2,500 Dean’s Scholarship In the Arts and similar endowed scholarships ranging from $1,000-$3,000.

Naturally the renewal of scholarships in consecutive years requires staying in a chosen major and maintaining a certain GPA. “Every year the students are reminded of what it is that they have to do,” says Dr. Lawrence Van Oyen, director of bands for North Central College in Illinois. “We use the scholarships to attract music majors, but it’s also part of a well-rounded body of students.The students that are really good at science tend to be good at music and other things too, so if I give them a music scholarship it helps them come to North Central along with the other academic scholarships.”

Dr. Van Oyen says that North Central offers scholarships for their instrumental ensembles, jazz ensembles, and vocal ensembles. Other possibilities include a piano scholarship and a music

education scholarship. “You can also stack them, but they’re more about work,” he says. “So if you get an instrumental scholarship, you don’t have to be a music major, but you [have to] play in one of the bands and take private lessons. If you stack it with the vocal scholarship, you have to sing in one of the choirs and take vocal lessons too. It accumulates how much you have to do for the scholarship.”

Chopka notes that in addition to consulting the institutional admissions sites, students should spend time in the financial aid sections of school websites that might offer more information.

When it comes to obtaining music scholarships, all the interviewees concurred that the audition process is important. It is not the be all end all considering that academic merit also applies in other instances, but it should be seriously considered, even though the prospect can be daunting.

“Never assume that it’s not going to work out,” states Dr. Van Oyen.

“What’s most important in the [audition] process is for music students to play or perform what they perform best, not choosing the hardest piece of repertoire and believing that if they get through that piece that everyone will think they’re amazing,” says Frederick A. Peterbark, assistant dean for recruitment and diversity, Louisiana State University. “What actually ends up occurring is that the faculty will say they’re glad they got through that piece, but they really had to stretch to make that work.” And in that act of stretching, the student raise potential red flags over techniques and concepts that might need to be relearned in college.

Other Options on Campus and Beyond

All students and parents need to be aware of FAFSA, which is an important government form. Federal Student Aid is part of the U.S. Department of Education and the largest provider of student financial aid in America. They give more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds annually, and such money can make a difference in trying to determine if certain schools are within one’s reach.

A non-scholarship possibility for students living on campus after freshman year is the position of residential hall or resident advisor, essentially the go-to student for each floor of a dorm that can help fellow students out with their various day-to-day needs. By taking on the position, a student’s room and board charges are covered by the school.

Peterbark points out that room and board fees are often not factored into costs as some students and their families might assume that a full tuition scholarship covers the cost of everything, when in fact it does not cover room and board. “That is sometimes where kids can get a little confused and end up in bad situations,” he re marks. “I did have a colleague who, back when I was going to undergrad, ended up in that situation where they thought they had a full ride. It was in terms of tuition, but it was not in terms of room and board, which was about $12,000. That very much put them in a bind.”

A post-college financial aid option that Peterbark brings up in reference to student loan debt is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. “After you have graduated, as long as you have federal loans and you work for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, or a federal or state organization, for 10 years full-time, which could include two parttime jobs together, and pay the minimum on your student loans each month, the federal government will forgive the rest of your student loans,” he says.

Give Yourself Options

Many students have a school that they really want to get into, but it is also good to have different options in safety schools to make sure that one can still receive the level of education they seek.

“There’s nothing wrong with shopping around for affordable institutions, to have a pecking order of colleges,” advises Chopka. “I would tell students that, as much I hate to admit this, it’s a buyer’s market right now, so don’t let sticker price keep you from checking out the institution that may be best for you. Colleges are really competitive now and trying to make it affordable. ”

“Keep all options on the table,” states Ardizzone. He adds when considering whether or not to fill out FAFSA, “if the family is on the bubble as to whether or not they’ll qualify for need, keep in mind that the school looks at that in their own way. We’re not held to the federal criteria for demonstrating need. We can make our own judgment about that too. By completing FAFSA, you’re keeping all options on the table, and that will be true at a lot of schools.”

Ardizzone emphasizes that financial aid offices are there to help students, and one needs to start interfacing with them once they have been accepted. Even making inquiries during the fall application process helps students to understand their options and perhaps even look at outside scholarships. “There might be money out there that’s not available at the school, like from a local Rotary Club,” he offers. “It might be $500, but it’s going to be a piece of the whole puzzle. If you wait until you’ve got your offer and then start trying to research those things, often it’s a little bit late. Getting the conversation started as early as possible is important.”

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