A Contrabass Conversations listener who is starting college this fall wrote in recently with a question that most people are likely to wrestle with when going to music school: when deciding between two schools, should you go with the cheaper but less prestigious college, or the more expensive but more prestigious option?
Now, this is certainly not a decision faced solely by music students, but there are certain musician-specific factors that might influence your decision in different ways than if you were considering a business, engineering, or traditional liberal arts degree.
In my post titled Top Ten Ways That College Debt Screws Up Your Life (June 2008), I wrote the following:
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune (May 28, 2008) reignited some long-standing concerns that I’ve had for a longtime about the massive amount of educational debt many musicians accrue during their years of training. This trend is affecting all college students (not only musicians), but since our earnings tend to be rather meager compared to other professions requiring high-dollar degrees, this trend is especially alarming for future music performers.
Achieving success in the classical music world (I’m defining success rather narrowly here) often requires a musician to audition for a select handful of schools that have a specific teacher on faculty with a reputation for turning out “successful” students. Unlike disciplines like engineering, business, or computer science, there are frequently only a few schools that have a consistent track record of placement for a specific instrument. Want a job? You’d better think seriously about fighting for a spot at one of those schools… even if that school costs $40,000 (or more) plus room and board each year.
After spending $200,000 (or $300,000, or more!) on that undergraduate education, you may very well find yourself in the orchestral trenches battling for that job with a meager $20,000 to $30,000 salary, spending another $1000-2000 a pop on dozens of auditions (several of my older colleagues have taken 80, 90, or even 100 auditions before landing a position, and some still never landed a job).
The complete post offers more reflections on some of the drawbacks to being saddled with massive college debt, but let’s take a look at this particular student’s specific situation and see what option might be most advisable in this case:
Good versus Really Good
This student was deciding between a school that would cost around $20,000 a year and a school that would cost around $50,000 a year (including room and board in both cases). Both of these school have established track records at turning out bass students that are competitive on the audition scene, and both have teachers that are considered among the best in the business.
The more expensive school was the student’s preferred choice discounting cost for a number of reasons: the teacher he’d be studying with was his number one choice for bass teacher, hands-down; it is in a more exciting city with a bustling and vibrant music scene; the reputation of the music school as a whole is stronger. On the other hand, both schools have excellent bass programs and quality music programs, even if the more expensive option is a little more attractive overall.
If we discount cost, then, the more expensive school is a more attractive option. But look at the difference in cost! For the cheaper school, a four-year program would saddle the student (and his parents) with $80,000 in college debt, while the more expensive school would end up costing $200,000 for the same amount of time. That’s a tremendous difference.
Take a moment and think about the difference between being $80,000 in the whole and $200,000 in the whole. Granted, both values make me want to jump off a cliff, but we’re talking about a truly massive difference in price. Then factor in the interest on these two values, and this student would be looking a a student loan payment that may well prove completely unmanageable on his likely earnings.
While the desire to study with your number one choice is a powerful factor in this decision, I’m not sure if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in this case. Is there another option to work with this teacher outside the school structure? Does this teacher serve on the faculty of any summer institutes, like Aspen or the Music Academy of the West? Could you arrange to take some private lessons with them? It’s not the same as actually studying with them for a degree, of course, but it may be a good compromise.
In many cases like this (and I am advising students about these tough decisions constantly), I tend, if the two options are both good but substantially different in cost, to advise that the student go with the cheaper option and then augment their college music study experience with summer festivals and additional lessons from teachers with varying viewpoints. Why not go with the cheaper option and then study at Aspen in the summer? Many of my colleagues credit Aspen with some of their most valuable learning experiences, even though they were also studying at Eastman, Juilliard, or the Cleveland Institute. With college costs where they are today and the earning potential of music school graduates shaky at best, this course of action seems ever wiser.