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Financial Advice

Financing Your Dream

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When it comes to financing your college acting training, perhaps the two most useful rules of thumb are "Ask questions" and "Think ahead."

Unless you were born into wealth and your parents can afford to send you to whatever school you choose, you'll need to explore all your options for paying tuition, room and board, and incidental expenses. Once you're enrolled in an actor-training program, you should be concentrating on your growth as an artist, not worrying about how to pay for it. Communicating with your parents and the school's financial advisers is essential. If you don't know how your bills will be paid—or how much you'll owe post-graduation—keep asking questions until you do.

As you evaluate potential schools, be aware of their relative costs. If you're talented enough to be accepted by a prestigious but expensive program, you don't necessarily have to opt for something cheaper. But know that you could face many years of debt if you choose more-expensive training. Only you can decide whether decades of monthly student-loan payments is a burden you can live with.

Before entering college, students who want financial aid must fill out a form called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Don't let its length and complexity scare you—the FAFSA is your friend. It determines how much money you're eligible to receive, based on your income and that of your family. The types of assistance you may qualify for include Pell Grants, governmental and institutional loans, private loans, and work-study money.

Mary Venezia, financial aid director at Five Towns College in New York, tries to steer students away from private loans, as their interest rates are subject to greater fluctuation than government-sponsored loans. She notes that the student-aid reform package passed by Congress earlier this year as part of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act increases Pell Grant support for lower-income students, which should relieve their loan burden to some extent. The legislation also makes loan repayment terms easier on borrowers. Some of the provisions, however, will only be available to new students beginning in 2014, according to a Christian Science Monitor article.

"I think it's a little cumbersome yet," says Venezia of the overall package, "but I think it's good." She adds that, generally, the government is helpful when it comes to student loan repayment. Deferments and forbearances are easy to get, she says, and "there's no reason anyone should have to default on a loan."

Some student actors may be able to earn work-study money from jobs in their school's theater department or elsewhere on campus. But Venezia cautions that off-campus jobs may prove difficult for them, as rehearsing for scene classes, student productions, and other projects—in addition to academic studies, of course—involves long hours.

Some institutions will provide theater students with scholarship money based on their talent and academic achievement. And there are a few private scholarships for actors, such as the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships and the Donna Reed Foundation Scholarships. They may seem like long shots, but it may be worth it to apply.

Venezia suggests that you envision your life after graduating. What are the terms of your loan and how will those monthly payments fit into your budget as a young—but preferably not starving—artist? Remember that actors' lives are full of uncertainty. Your income can fluctuate wildly from month to month. Very few actors manage to earn the big bucks necessary to pay off their loans within a year or two of graduation.

Then again, in these economically volatile times, graduates with degrees in business, marketing, or engineering are facing many of the same uncertainties as those who studied drama or dance. Which may be one more reason to follow your heart's desire.   

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