How to Pay for College: Where I Triumphed and Failed

Sashaying down the aisles of Target, tossing dorm room accessories into a cart seems like the most important aspect of college preparations, but one mustn’t forget the slightly more important topic: how to pay for college. The mindset that college debt is a land-far-far-away problem in the unforeseeable future can be an invitation to a stressful start of a post-grad dance career. The average working artists’ salary is not known for paying off loans quickly, which means extra financial planning can make a world of a difference.

I have zero regrets receiving my BFA in dance: I needed the daily technique classes, made lifelong friends and professional connections, and booked dance-related jobs that asked specifically for a dance or arts degree. My regrets begin when I recall the effort (or lack thereof) I put into finances and research towards how to avoid debt. I did make many fiscally responsible choices but am ashamed in areas where I could have improved the debt situation I carry today. Everyone’s situation differs and not all advice will apply to all dance colleges, but I hope avoiding my mistakes will save you a few dollars that will be better spent on your next pair of LaDucas.

Higher education is one of the largest investments one will make in their life, but can be worth every penny spent.

Know Your Price-Tags

This may sound ridiculous, because obviously the price of tuition is a huge factor when considering how to pay for college! But how often does one purchase an item without looking at its price? Not to mention, an item that involves years of payments. Honestly, I knew many students who could not simply tell me the price for one credit hour at their university. The numbers are daunting, but one should at least know what they are working with and how different schools compare. One of my potential schools threw me tons of academic and talent scholarships, which seemed like the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me! Thank goodness I noticed that those $10,000+ scholarships were measly deductions from how much more expensive that school was in the first place. A net calculator is an easy place to start.

State vs. Out-of-State vs. Private

Schools have varying price tags depending on their funding, and where you comparatively reside, along with many other factors. The general rule is attending a state school within the state you live in is marginally cheaper, an average of $15,000 cheaper.

One rule does not apply everywhere: some state schools give aid to out-of-state attendees, and some private schools offer enough scholarship to help level the difference. For me, attending a state school in my state was the number one way I saved. Not an option for everyone, but I was very lucky Ohio state schools seem to breed fabulous dance departments. If you are forking most of the tuition bill, this could make a huge impact on the rest of your life, as it did mine. My close friend yearned to “get out of Ohio” and attended an out-of-state school. We did a comparison and, based almost solely on our schools’ price tags (and her addition of private loans), my current monthly payment is $700 less. We have similar performing careers, make a similar income, and live within similar means; yet I’m able to travel, take career risks, and can afford to take off-days to attend auditions. This is just one example, and if your heart is set on a higher-priced school you just may need to consider additional money-saving tactics.

stacked money with mortarboard

Begin in High School

Some high schools offer programs to enroll in college courses, typically at a local community college, and earn usable college credits while also completing high school requirements. Research these options in your high school, but also investigate if the credits will transfer to universities you have the most interest in attending. Because I knocked-out general education courses that are typically required of any degree (psychology, math 101, English 101), I did not have to take maximum credit hours every semester. While my BFA program still required I attend the full four years, I never paid for extra credits, had more time for dance rehearsals, and was able to further supplement my finances with a part-time job.

Apply and Audition Early

Due to serious distractions from the amount of fun I was having my senior year of high school, I missed out on every early-admission additional-scholarship deadline to my prospective schools. I am most likely spending thousands of dollars more than if I had applied promptly for these cut-offs. Don’t worry, I am reminded of my procrastination whenever I want something that would cost thousands of dollars. I continued to procrastinate and attend the last dance audition slot of most schools, limiting my acceptance letters because dance programs typically fill their allotted spots early. Apply and audition as early in the year as possible, even if there’s only an inkling you may attend that school, because you will have the first grab at admission and money! Some schools even let you apply at the end of junior year if you are impressively ahead of the game. But don’t go too crazy, as schools have application fees that add up.

Living expenses can be estimated to be more than 50% of your college bill

Search for Scholarships

A surprising amount of scholarships exist that you may not even consider, unless you do your research. A friend received one for her obsessive crocheting habit! Research online for scholarships through key fields including your location, ethnicity, hobbies, medical history, lifestyle -- basically anything that makes you unique. You don’t always have to be a freshman, some scholarships can be awarded at any point in your college career. Perfect your writing, because most applications require an essay submission. My distracted high-school self gave up pretty quickly on finding scholarships, only to later be envious of the amount of money others were able to save.

Avoid High Living Expenses

Living expenses can be estimated to be more than 50% of your college bill, and situations are vastly different with each school’s location. For me, living off-campus in a town-house, split between roommates, was marginally less expensive than paying dorm room prices. However, in a high cost-of-living city, like New York, dorms can be cheaper than finding an apartment. Rules exist at some universities that do not allow freshmen (and sometimes sophomores) to live off-campus. My point being, research each school’s accommodation rules. If an inexpensive school requires all freshmen and sophomores to live on-campus and pay high prices for it, they have quickly become less inexpensive. Commuting from home is almost always the cheapest, if you have that as an option. Dance department life typically introduces you to plenty of people immediately, but consider if missing on-campus culture is important to you.

A surprising amount of scholarships exist that you may not even consider.

Grocery Shop

My campus offered various expensive meal plans that I saw right through. One was an infamous buffet that was conveniently located and had plenty of food options. As a petite human, buffets are always a waste of money because I never can eat my money’s worth, though I try! Another was an “all-inclusive” meal plan that included three meals a day at any cafeteria, but many rarely had time between dance classes for three sit-down meals each day, while still paying for them. Try supplementing a cheaper meal plan with groceries, such as, replacing a sit-down breakfast with some fruit or cereal in your dorm room. My friends and I took a group grocery trip once a weekend because not everyone had an accessible car on campus or the time during the school week.

Hold a Part-Time Job

Keeping a job may seem impossible when picturing your class schedule, homework, rehearsals, and extracurriculars, but may be necessary when considering each person’s situation. Certainly, I was jealous of my roommates’ free weekends to bourrée around as they chose, while I was stuck selling shoes. For my situation I needed to afford rent and groceries to avoid adding those expenses to my loans. I was a bit of an overachiever, but even having a small source of income made a huge difference. However, remember to get accustomed to your class load first before adding another responsibility.

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Do Not Fail Classes

Universities have clear rules involving failing or dropping a class past a certain date in the semester. You may be stuck paying full price and if the class is a degree requirement, you may still have to pay to take it again! I mentioned knowing the price of your credit hours earlier, and once you know this number, it puts into clear perspective the cost of failing a class. One credit hour at my university was around $400, therefore when I was cutting it close, I asked myself if giving up was worth $400. Guess what? It never was!

Luckily my decent college finance choices stack higher than my terrible ones, and I can proudly say my monthly loan payments are manageable. I can somewhat forgive myself because understanding university costs is outlandishly daunting and nobody should expect to be an immediate expert on how to avoid debt. Higher education is one of the largest investments one will make in their life, but can be worth every penny spent as it can add immeasurable value to your life and career. If your heart is set on a school, a living situation, or a program that immediately seems too expensive, know the areas where extra effort can be added to decrease costs. The more effort one puts into the financial planning for college, the more the benefits will read on your bill and in your ultimate financial freedom within your dance career.

About the author

Cleveland mid-westerner Chelsea Hupalowsky spent most of her youth in pointe shoes, then earned her BFA in dance performance from The University of Akron and came out a contemporary dancer. Alongside performing she has taught dance in public schools, rehearsal directed for universities, and has produced shows across the nation. She currently resides in Orlando, performing and playing dance captain at Universal Orlando Resort and Cirque Magique/Cirque by Night. With her leftover spare time, she manages a bar and runs her apparel brand, Concept Hissyfit. Chelsea has been a freelance writer and blogger for over eight years and is ecstatic to be sharing her obsessive passion for dance with anyone who will listen.