Is a Master’s Degree Worth the Debt?

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For some reason, people really like the idea of the starving artist. It is spoken about with great enthusiasm both by theater boosters and detractors. Those who love theater often associate poverty with a purity of purpose. True artists sacrifice material comfort for their craft. They refuse to sell out. Theater naysayers point to the financial struggles of working artists as reasons why students should pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The stereotype of the broke aspiring artist is so pervasive that it is commonplace in both television and film. We watch successful actors portraying struggling actors who cannot (or can barely) pay their bills despite their harried labors as waiters, hostesses, and baristas. Celebrity-themed magazines and websites regularly feature articles about the less than glamorous jobs held by now A-listers. Can you name the Oscar winner who cleaned chicken coops or the one who worked at Hooters? Generally speaking, we expect artists to “pay their dues” by working in jobs far afield from their professional ambitions.

Unfortunately, the image of the struggling artist often fails to account for the underlying reason for that person’s financial struggles. The root cause is not always the pay of a service industry job. In fact, professional waitstaff can make a very good living. Increasingly, the cause is student loan debt, especially graduate school debt. The same degree that allegedly gives a professional artist credentials can be the source of financial ruin.

A conversation needs to be had about the cost of graduate study and the debt carried by students. In MFA programs across the country, it is not uncommon for theater students to graduate with a debt burden comparable to students graduating with JDs (future lawyers) or MDs (future physicians) while still facing the prospect of having to hustle for employment.

Here are a few things to be consider:

Graduate School Is an Investment
Even if a magic wand were waived to make MFA training free for all students, graduate school would mandate an investment from degree aspirants. Time, generally two-to-three years of dedicated full-time study, is required. Noting this, folks interested in pursuing an MFA should ask themselves whether an investment of their time is necessary to help them realize their career ambitions. For example, is graduate school training better than the life lessons gained from several years auditioning, interning, understudying and, more generally, grinding it out as an actor in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago? The out-of-pocket cost is the same. If you determine that graduate school is needed, then be clear about the time (and money) you’re sacrificing and what’re you’re trying to achieve. Is it to gain access to a professional network, develop a more sophisticated skill set, or obtain a required teaching credential? Let these factors determine the places where you will apply.

Debt Is Real
Applicants who require financial assistance should think seriously about debt. How much debt do you feel comfortable assuming? Since the total cost of graduate study—including housing and living expenses—can be in the ballpark (in many markets) of a housing loan, imagine that a student loan is like a mortgage that will require decades to pay off. Be sure to ask specific questions about how financial aid works at the places that most interest you. Aid varies from school to school. Even places that tout minimal annual student loans can be opaque about what their financial assistance will and will not cover (such as living expenses).

Interrogate Your Teachers
In order to justify your investment of time and money, you need to make sure that the schools you are considering will invest in you. If your chief concern is developing professional networks, inquire about how the school will help you to cultivate those networks. Does it regularly offer mixers with well-placed alumni? Does it host master classes in which professionals visit the campus and interact with students? If your primary concern is developing your skill set, then take the time to ask faculty about their approaches to teaching and the types of instructional facilities available at the university? For example, if your interest relates to screen acting, check to make sure that the school has (and will make available to you) requisite spaces and equipment to do this work. If you are interested in an MFA as a teaching credential (perhaps to obtain a university-level teaching position), then inquire about how the university prepares a person to teach. Is there an emphasis on pedagogy? Are there opportunities to work with and mentor younger aspiring artists?

Trust Your Gut, Not Rankings
“Best Graduate Schools” tend to emphasize a variety of factors that may or may not matter to you. The best option is to independently research schools and trust your informed gut opinion. Search for those programs with structures that demonstrate an attention to your needs. Closely consider programs that offer generous financial aid and, perhaps, think twice about the ones that comparatively will saddle you with a high debt.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Harvey Young
Harvey Young is the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University.