A DailyFinance reader sent this question to me recently: "I believe that any college with a good dance program (I am a dance major) will be expensive. I want to get a good dance education, but I really don't want to be broke either. Do you have any suggestions or ideas of what I should do?"
Answer: You're right to be concerned about the combination of a career in dance and student loan debt. As you probably know, dancers, on average, earn very little money. You don't say what kind of dancer you are, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage of a professional dancer was just $12.22 an hour as of May 2008.
And even figure that is misleadingly high, because there are far more people who want to be professional dancers than there are people who actually are able to earn a living dancing. Even a gig as a back-up dancer in a music video for a major pop star only pays about $3,000, according to TMZ, and that's the absolute top of the field. Regarding the dance field, the Bureau of Labor Statistics warns: "Employment is expected to grow more slowly than the average. Dancers and choreographers face keen competition for jobs. Only the most talented find regular employment."
The operative phrase here is "most talented." Dancers are hired based on ability (as demonstrated through auditions), not pedigree. Jennifer Lopez attended college for just one semester, but continued taking dance classes to build her ability to the point where she became a back-up dancer for major acts including the New Kids on the Block. It's also a field where you will likely need to continue learning (by taking classes) long after you've graduated from college.
Borrowing a bunch of money to pay for a prestigious degree could easily render you unable to pay for dance classes after you graduate. Dancing is also not generally a full-time job with a set annual salary. Most dancers, even successful ones, are paid by the week or by the show, and move from company to company. This is not a lifestyle that lends itself to handling high fixed costs like student loan obligations.
The problem with borrowing a bunch of money for a great degree in dance is that it could, ironically, leave you with the education you desired but monthly payments so high that you can't possibly afford to pursue dance as a career. I have a friend who majored in theater at New York University. He learned a ton and had a great experience. But he borrowed so much that he ended up having to take a desk job in an unrelated field in order to make his loan payments after graduation. The theater degree ended up preventing him from pursuing a career in theater. That's sad.
Also, Consider a Double Major
My advice to you would be this: Look at dance programs at your in-state public institutions. Attend the best from among them that you can, and use some of the money you'll save by going to an affordable school to take dance classes on the side with a very good instructor. You may well end up learning more that way -- for less money -- than you would by attending on the best degree program possible. If you have the ability and work hard at it, you can become a great dancer without shelling out big bucks for an undergrad degree.
You also may want to consider double majoring to boost your employment prospects outside of dance. Remember: $12.88 an hour -- if you're lucky. You should really give yourself a fallback position.
Finally, regardless of where you do end up enrolling, you should definitely check out FastWeb's list of dance scholarships.
If you have your own college financing question, please email it to ZBissonnette@gmail.com. If I answer it in a future post, I will send you a free copy of my book.
Zac Bissonnette'sDebt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parentswas called the "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process" by The Washington Post.