“There are over 7 million borrowers in default on a federal or private student loan.”
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (August 2013)

Student loan debt has reached crisis proportions in the US.

Not only are millions of borrowers unable to make their loan payments but the total amount of outstanding federal student loans has ballooned to more than $1 trillion.

What’s a Reasonable Amount of Student Debt?

As a general rule, students should not borrow more than they can expect to earn during their first year of post-graduation employment. Ideally, students would borrow less. (See the resources below to estimate salaries.)

If students abide by that benchmark, after graduating, they can pay off their loans over a decade and have ample money for mortgages, cars, and retirement.

When students incur disproportionate debt, they run the risk of being hamstrung for life. For example:

“During college I made an enormous mistake: I accumulated $83,786 in student loan debt, getting a Master of Music in opera performance… In my current circumstances, I cannot pay $1,000 or more per month. I know that I got myself into this situation, but it distresses me that my horrible judgment during one period of my life is likely to impact my life negatively forever.” –Survey Respondent No. 3

Given that music degrees come with great intrinsic but not monetary value (1st-year earnings of master’s degree graduates average about $30,000*), it’s unwise for music students to rack up nearly $84,000 in debt.

Even so, I regularly counsel music students with almost double that amount of debt, and all of them could have gotten excellent educations without over-borrowing, if they had known how.

How to Avoid Excessive Student Debt

The following 10 strategies help students steer clear of crippling debt. I’m gearing them toward music students, but the concepts apply broadly.

1. Just say “no” to big debt. If you don’t get sufficient scholarship funds to attend a school without going heavily into debt, don’t enroll. Work part time, study, and then reapply the following year. Your work experiences, professional recommendations, and ongoing study will make you more competitive for funds.

2. Attend a low-cost school, and then transfer. If you’re a rising freshman and you’re admitted to a low-cost school with scholarship but don’t receive funding from top schools, attend the affordable school, earn stellar grades, and then apply to transfer as a sophomore. If you still don’t receive much funding from your preferred schools, continue at the lower-cost school and apply to transfer again as a junior. You might use your tuition savings to help fund summer study.

3. Take advantage of in-state tuition. If there are high-quality state-funded schools in your home state, apply to those – even a moderate amount of scholarship can cover much of your costs. Graduate students who lack satisfactory programs in their home states can relocated to states with top-notch offerings and establish residency; it commonly takes 12 months, but check a state’s requirements. After earning residency, they can apply as in-state students.

4. Do research and get feedback. Before applying, research the higher education marketplace in your field and have your performance level evaluated by experts so that you can gauge your competitiveness for scholarships. Participate in summer programs that enable you to study with faculty who teach at the schools you aspire to attend. If after upgrading your skills you still aren’t competitive for scholarships, you’re unlikely to be competitive in the music profession, so you can change career directions and you won’t be encumbered by debt like the misguided opera singer above.

5. Budget for the long term. Calculate your costs across both your undergraduate and graduate educations; don’t over-spend or over-borrow for undergraduate school.

6. Appeal low scholarship offers. If an initial scholarship offer doesn’t suffice, respectfully request more funds. Keep appealing if necessary.

7. Develop income-producing skills. While in school, gain diverse skills and access a school’s career office so that you can earn money in multiple ways during and after school.

8. Get impartial advice. If, despite what’s written here, you find yourself considering hefty loans to enroll at a school, seek advice from impartial experts before you commit. Don’t lean on the advice of a studio teacher with whom you might study – that person would profit from your borrowing.

9. Access family funds. Families that have the means usually save to pay for the educations of children and grandchildren. If your family can support you, graciously accept the help.

10. Be hopeful yet practical. The funds available for music scholarships aren’t necessarily constant from year to year – amounts may vary depending on how many funded students graduate. When funding is denied to a qualified applicant once, it doesn’t mean that funding will be denied the following year. If you know you’re highly qualified for a scholarship, be hopeful but also practical. The US is full of excellent institutions of higher education, and students do well to attend those that enable them to graduate well-educated and also free of encumbering debt.

Scholarship & Loan Resources for Students

Find scholarship funds and grants:

•  Scholarship Search Tools
•  Resources for Grantseekers

Determine entry-level salaries (essential for setting a debt limit):

•  Strategic National Arts Alumni Project
•  CareerOneStop.org
•  National Association of Colleges and Employers

Tuition and fees at more than 3100 colleges and Universities

Resources from the US Department of Education:

•  Federal student loan repayment plans
•  Studentaid.ed.gov  |  Collegecost.ed.gov  |  Studentloans.gov
•  Financial Aid Shopping Sheet
•  Public Service Loan Forgiveness

See The Musician’s Way for guidelines to building the inclusive skills needed for success in the music world.

Related posts
8 Ways to Build Sustainable Music Careers
The Art-Career Tango
Preparing for Portfolio Careers
Resources for Grantseekers

*For more information about music and arts graduates, see the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP).

© 2013 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © Arena Creative, licensed from Shutterstock.com

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