Applying to colleges is beyond exciting. But it can also be beyond stressful, especially once you and your family start looking at tuition and room-and-board costs.

Many factors affect how much you and your parents will ultimately contribute to your education—and what your financial aid packages might look like. To help you understand your options, Dance Spirit asked a couple of experts to weigh in.

(Photo by ZimmyTWS/Thinkstock; Michael Quirk/Thinkstock)

Pre-College Prep

Setting aside money for college should be a cumulative effort made over many years. Talk to your family about what they’re willing to contribute. When you begin high school, start saving for all the fees associated with college applications. “Travel, auditions, head shots, dance photos, school and financial aid applications themselves—those things add up,” says Heather McCowen, PhD, the post-secondary counselor at The Chicago High School for the Arts. Application fees vary by school. And McCowen notes that conservatories tend to charge higher fees than colleges and universities—often between $70 and $100.

Early in your junior year, start seeking private scholarships—merit- or need-based awards that are offered through businesses or nonprofit organizations. McCowen suggests looking in your hometown and into organizations related to the arts. Service clubs, like Rotary or Kiwanis, are great places to start. Investigate dance-related options, too, like the scholarships provided by the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation.

Figuring Out FAFSA

As your senior year approaches, make sure your parents have their tax returns in order, so they’re prepared to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The application becomes available January 1. Roberta Daskin, from the financial aid office at Sarah Lawrence College, advises high school students to fill out FAFSA as soon as

possible, since, for those who qualify, funds for college may be limited.

Colleges (especially liberal arts schools) might also ask you to fill out the College Scholarship Service CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. The PROFILE requires your parents to specify what type of tax return they file, along with information on whether the family receives certain forms of government assistance, their housing status and whether they’re self-employed. “The CSS PROFILE allows the college, rather than the federal government, to determine the student’s financial need,” McCowen says. “And schools are a lot more flexible than the government.”

Adding Up Your Aid

There are three major types of aid: grants, work-study jobs and loans.

Grants are basically free money—they’re gifts you don’t have to pay back. Some grants, like the need-based federal Pell Grant, are offered through the government and are determined by the FAFSA. Colleges and universities can also award other need-based and merit-based grants at their own discretion.

A work-study job means that you work a certain number of hours (about 10) and the school pays you a wage. “It’s a great way to get work experience while you’re in school,” Daskin says.

You are required to pay back loans, which can either be federal or private. There are two types of federal student loans: subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized loans don’t start accruing interest until six months after you graduate and are based on financial need. Unsubsidized loans accumulate interest right away and aren’t based on need. The school and your FAFSA determine how much of each (or either) loan you’re offered. There are also federal loans your parents can take out, called PLUS Loans. For all loans, you and your parents only have to borrow the loan money you need, no matter how much is offered to you.

Private loans are another option, though McCowen strongly discourages taking them out. “Students rarely qualify without a co-signer, meaning your parent takes partial responsibility for paying back the loan,” she says. If your aid package is only a few thousand dollars short of letting you attend your dream school, a private loan should be your last option to make up the difference—but know that they come with high interest rates and no option to defer payment.

Make It Work for You

What if your aid package isn’t quite enough? Once you’ve reviewed it, don’t be afraid to ask your dream school(s) for more money. It might feel uncomfortable, but, McCowen says, the amount of money available for aid can change dramatically between March and May. She recommends asking for a hard number and making sure the school knows you need non-loan aid.

“If your aid package at a specific school isn’t enough, and the trade-off is that you’ll have to stop dancing to pay off a mountain of debt, it’s not worth it,” McCowen says. “You’ll find the right place.”

From her very first time in the studio, Anne Souder dreamed of being a professional dancer. But there was one big obstacle standing in her way: money. “I have five siblings,” says Anne, who’s now a rising senior in NYC’s Ailey/Fordham BFA Program. “Our parents always supported our interests, but finances were tight.”

So Anne took matters into her own hands, approaching Amy Morton Vaughn, director of Van Metre School of Dance in Maryville, TN, about doing work-study to cover the cost of training. From eighth grade through high school, Anne helped out at the studio, doing everything from cleaning to filing to assisting in children’s classes. “I’m so grateful I had work-study opportunities, because I wouldn’t be where I am now without that dance training,” she says.

There are many reasons your family might have trouble affording dance classes. Maybe you also come from a big clan with a tight budget, or your mom just lost her job. Whatever the case, if you’re serious about dance, there are ways to tackle the tuition problem and get the training you need.

Seek financial aid. If your studio has a scholarship program, apply. You don’t always have to be the best dancer in class to receive tuition assistance. “Our financial aid committee tries to be generous,” says Mary Roth, business manager of Delaware Dance Company in Newark, DE. In addition to awarding one merit scholarship, DDC offers need-based financial aid; applicants are asked to submit a financial statement along with a letter explaining why they love dance and what they hope to accomplish at DDC. You can also look outside your studio for financial aid. Harlequin Floors, for example, has a monthly scholarship video contest.

Try work-study. Work-study programs allow you to provide services to your studio—teaching, cleaning, etc.—in exchange for dance classes. Fourteen-year-old Julia Kepple started helping out at her studio, Encore Dance Center in Lancaster, PA, when she was 11. Julia had already received tuition coverage when her parents were both being treated for cancer, and when she was old enough to start work-study, she began assisting in children’s classes. “I love working with little kids, and I love dancing, so it’s great that I can do both at the same time and help pay for my classes,” she says. Julia and the studio’s other assistants also help out with studio cleaning needs.

See if your studio has a work-study program, which will allow you to provide services—like cleaning—in exchange for classes.

When applying for work-study, be realistic about your skill set. “I’m a stickler for quality when choosing assistant teachers,” says Melissa Hoffman, director of Melissa Hoffman Dance Center in Hudson, NH. “However, I might need help sorting costumes, and those hours could also go toward tuition.” Even if your studio doesn’t have a formal work-study program, Anne recommends looking for a need and offering to fill it, whether that means organizing the costume closet, answering the phone or cleaning dressing rooms.

Involve your parents. At DDC, parents are encouraged to volunteer at the studio in exchange for tuition credit. “We have parents at the reception desk, taking payments and filling out forms,” Roth says. If your parents have time and are willing to help, get them involved—and that doesn’t have to mean cleaning or doing office work. Does your mom sew? Maybe she can construct costumes. Does your dad do carpentry? Maybe he can build sets.

Make cutbacks. Unfortunately, studios can’t always meet every financial need brought to them. You might have to cut costs on your end. If you compete, that could mean attending fewer competitions, or doing fewer numbers. At a non-competitive studio, you could cut costs by doing fewer numbers in the recital. Competing or performing less isn’t fun, but it might be the way to keep your training on track.

Look elsewhere. It’s possible to find free or inexpensive classes outside of the typical studio setting. For example, you could take hip hop at a local community center or YMCA, instead of paying tuition for a similar class at a dance studio. You could also watch videos online to learn new techniques and stay in shape. Just remember that recreational classes will only take you so far, and videos can’t improve your placement or musicality, so these options should only act as supplements to your more intensive training.

Chances are, your studio doesn’t want you to leave because of money issues. “We want to keep our students, and we want them to improve, so we do everything we can to help if classes are outside a family’s budget,” Roth says. Hoffman agrees. “When a kid’s family is going through a rough time, such as a job loss or a sick loved one, I say, ‘This is your family, too. You need to be here.’ ”

Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Anne says: “Asking for assistance when you really need it shows your teacher or studio owner that you’re willing to work hard for something you love.”

Illustrations by Lealand Eve

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