How to afford art school is more than the money you already have, it's also financial aid resources

How To Afford Art School: The Complete Guide

The cost of attendance for art school is pretty high. While the average cost of attendance for a public college is $25,615 per year, the average cost of art school attendance is around $60,000. 

Cost of attendance isn’t just tuition. It also includes:

  • Fees
  • Housing and meals, also called Room and Board
  • Art supplies and books
  • Transportation

This article will cover everything you need to know about how to afford art school.

How expensive is art school?

The average state school student receives $7,500 in grants and scholarships. The average art school offers over $16,000 to students, a much higher amount. 

Most art school students and their parents suffer from sticker shock at news headlines full of high tuition prices. The cost of art school tuition varies by school. As of this writing, the cost of attendance for four years at the Rhode Island School of Design is $309,120, while the cost of attendance at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design is $115,920.

Another reason art school is a lot more expensive than other college experiences is that art schools are mostly in cities with a higher cost of living than the national average. 

Since many artists move to these cities for employment anyway, going to school in your dream city is an affordable way to get settled and a smart way to build a new community quickly.

If you know that art school is the best next step for you, it’s time to figure out how you can pay for it.

How To Afford Art School

Note: This article covers the general principles of funding for art schools and financial aid for undergraduate students. Get in touch if you’re looking for graduate financial aid information. 

Art School Financial Aid

The phrase financial aid has a strange power over people. Somehow these two words combined feel like a wish-granting genie and a ball and chain all at once. Even when reading the terms and details in black and white, financial aid is confusing, complicated, and scary for most students and parents.

Why financial aid can be confusing

One of the reasons financial aid is hard to understand is because, like any industry, it has its own vocabulary and language. If you’re in construction there are words and phrases like moling, box crib, and diagrid. You use these terms every day, so they’re easy for you to understand. 

Most people don’t learn financial aid vocabulary until they’re going through the financial aid process. This means that most art students are trying to learn a new language at the same time they are making a life-changing decision. That combination can be stressful for anyone.

Another reason that art school financial aid is a challenge for most people is that each program has different amounts, requirements, and deadlines that depend on the school and your personal situation.

For example, if you’re a transfer student you might have completed two years of credits at your community college and you think of yourself as a junior. The junior amount for a subsidized Stafford loan is $5,500. But schools base junior status on the number of credits you’re transferring to your new school, not the number of credits you completed at your CC. So, if only 50 credits transfer, you’ll be eligible for $4,500, not $5,500.

Financial aid is often used as a verb because a lot of different things can fall under the umbrella of financial aid. The way each school uses the phrase “financial aid” is unique, and each school also organizes its financial aid award letters in a slightly different way.

When some say financial aid they’re talking about the overall financial award. Others use the term to talk about federal financial aid exclusively. Many people use the word the term to describe both, sometimes interchangeably. This only adds to the confusion.

Let’s review the basics of art school financial aid.

The FAFSA

The first step for financial aid is the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. 

If you’re still a dependent, you’ll need to include your parents’ information on the FAFSA. Most high school students are dependents in the eyes of the federal government. To be independent on your FAFSA, one of the following needs to apply:

  • 24 years old or older
  • Married
  • A veteran or member of the armed forces
  • An orphan or ward of the court
  • Someone with legal dependents other than a spouse
  • An emancipated minor 
  • Homeless or at risk of becoming homeless

Graduate students are also considered independent. If your parents don’t support your decision to go to art school and you’re looking for help with paying for art school, X might help.

Make it simple for your parents to complete the FAFSA

Your parents will need to have finished their taxes for the academic year you plan to begin your studies. So if you graduate from high school in 2022 and plan to start in Fall 2022, your parents will need to fill out the 2022 FAFSA as soon as it is available, October 1st, 2021. 

It is possible to fill out a FAFSA with your previous year’s income. You can update your FAFSA with your new federal tax return later. This can sometimes help you and your family get a sense of your award before they’ve submitted their taxes. This form is always free to complete and is relatively quick. You’ll need the following on hand to complete your FAFSA:

  • Federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned
  • Bank statements and records of investments or untaxed income
  • Your Social Security Number or your Alien Registration Number if you’re not a U.S. citizen
  • An FSA ID to sign your FAFSA electronically 

While this is an easy and quick form to complete, there are sometimes issues with the school receiving the FAFSA or the data included in the form. These issues can delay your financial aid award letter from your school, so fill out your FAFSA as early as possible.

Federal financial aid

Federal financial aid is mostly loans that you will need to pay back after you finish school. Let’s talk about the basic Federal Loan types. If you are paying for art college these are the loans you’re most likely to encounter:

  • Subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans
  • Parent Plus loans
  • Private loans

All loans add interest and the interest rates vary. Subsidized Stafford loans tend to be the most attractive loans because they don’t gain interest while you’re in art school. Unsubsidized Stafford loans have a higher max amount, and they accumulate interest while you complete your degree.

Parent Plus and private loans are only necessary if the cost of tuition fees and living expenses is more than what you can cover with your Stafford loans.

Plus and Parent Plus Loans also accrue interest while you’re in school. Parents borrowing Plus loans begin making payments on the loan a couple of months after the school receives loan funds.

The last loans you’ll want to learn about are private loans. These loans tend to have higher interest rates and interest begins accumulating as soon as the school receives the money. There are also fewer options for private loan repayment.

When you borrow a loan, all your loan funds go directly to your school. The school keeps the part of your loan that covers tuition, fees, and if you live on campus, room and board. 

The rest is usually given to you through a refund check. You’ll use that money to cover outside expenses including art supplies and books. This check is usually disbursed during the first few weeks of school

The timing and process are unique at each school. You may need some extra cash on hand to cover expenses until you can deposit your financial aid refund check.

Federal work-study

Another confusing item that shows up on financial aid letters from the federal government is work-study. Work-study generally means that you are eligible to work on your campus. 

Your school receives federal aid to pay the wages for your position, which is why there can be work-study and nonwork-study positions in the same department at a school. It’s also why some students aren’t eligible for work-study jobs.

Work-study isn’t a grant or scholarship. It just means that you are eligible to earn that amount of money with a work-study job during that term or academic year on campus. 

It’s also not a guarantee that you’ll get a work-study job. You also won’t know whether your work-study position will give you enough hours to meet the amount listed on your financial aid award letter.

Again, federal financial aid is mostly loans that you will need to repay.

Grants for art students

Grants are awards based on financial need. This is money that you won’t have to pay back and is what most people are looking for when they ask how to afford art school.

The most common type of grant for undergraduate students is Federal Pell Grants. The maximum award is $6495. To be eligible for this grant the government will look at:

  • Your Expected Family Contribution based on the FAFSA
  • School cost of attendance 
  • Whether you plan to attend a full-time or part-time student

This site is your best resource to learn more about federal grants

Schools will sometimes award grants to students based on the information on the FAFSA as well. These are art school grants you’ll receive from your school that you don’t have to repay.

How To Get an Art Scholarship

Scholarships are merit-based awards that don’t need to be repaid. This means that you can receive an award that’s usually based on your GPA, your portfolio, or some other combination of factors decided by the organization awarding the scholarship. 

School scholarships

The largest scholarships most art school students receive come from the school they plan to attend. Scholarships awarded from a school are often called inside scholarships or school scholarships. There are also named scholarships that help schools honor donors. These names can make this process harder for you to understand. You will usually hear about inside scholarships at the same time or shortly after you receive an admission decision.

While some schools offer more scholarships for continuing students, the highest awards tend to go to students about to start their first term. Most of these awards cover the full degree program. 

If you apply to a school and don’t get offered the scholarship you were hoping for, you have a few options.

Try again

You might want to wait a semester and apply to the school again while making improvements to your portfolio. Many schools offer competitive scholarships each term and can only award a handful of scholarships per term. You can use this time to get feedback on your portfolio. Then, make improvements to increase your chances of getting a higher award.

Reach out to your school

Speak to someone at your art school of choice about your options. If you share your situation and ask for extra funds, some schools can increase your award. 

It’s important to maintain realistic expectations with this option. For example, if you’re initially awarded a $6,000 per year scholarship, that number will probably not jump to $20,000, but it could go as high as $8,000. 

Different schools will have different budgets and processes for these additional awards, and you’ll never know if you don’t ask. It’s also important to be kind to your connections at the college. They are usually the people advocating for you during this process.

Outside scholarships 

Another option to fund your education is outside scholarships. For some students, an outside scholarship is an incredible opportunity that enables them to attend their dream school. That said, the outside scholarship application process can be a source of angst and frustration for many.

I am not in any way saying that outside scholarships aren’t a valuable opportunity. I just want to be realistic about these opportunities for most students.

Small awards

The vast majority of outside scholarships are smaller financial awards, usually between $1,000-$3,000 per year. These awards often have lengthy applications and specific eligibility requirements. Art school scholarships are also very competitive. In many cases, you have a better chance of getting the money you need with a part-time job than you do by applying to outside scholarships.

Small amounts can add up, but you’ll need to invest a lot of time applying, writing essays, and finding new awards to apply for.

Early deadlines

There are some larger awards for students. Many of these have very early deadlines. So, if you want to get a great outside scholarship, start researching during your sophomore year of high school. 

This will give you the time you need to research the awards you’re eligible to apply for. It will also give you time to prepare the application and ask for references. With early scholarship applications, you’ll also know whether you’ve received the award you want in time to make your college decision.

Some large outside scholarships also mandate attendance at a specific type of school. If you’re relying on this type of award you don’t want to apply to a school where you’re not eligible to use your scholarship.

The awards below are some of the more substantial art and design scholarships to offset the cost of art school:

Bodie McDowell Scholarship
Terry Crews “Creative Courage” Scholarship
AIAS Foundation Scholarship
YoungArts grants and awards
Adobe Design Circle Scholarships
AIGA Worldstudio Scholarships 

There is a lot to consider when you’re figuring out how to afford art school that I’m not able to cover in this article. If you’re wondering about financial aid for veterans, PLUS loan eligibility, or changes in employment after completing the FAFSA, spend some time on the Federal Student Aid website. 

Art school debt

More people are talking about student loan debt now than ever before. This is probably because 42.9 million college graduates are in debt. 3.2 million have over $100,000 in debt. 

I’m included in that number since I took out loans for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I talk about my experience in Personal Financial Stories From an Artist and How Artists Are Weathering the Student Debt Crisis on Artsy. I also participated in the 2017 DebtFair show at the Whitney Museum.

I’m not interested in being a spokesperson for student debt, but I understand the fear and concerns around it. My debt has led me down paths I never anticipated and I sometimes limit myself and my options for the future because of my debt.

At the same time, when I discuss these frustrations with friends who attended the same art schools I did, we mostly come to the same conclusions. Debt sucks, but my art education has made my life special in a million ways. My art school experiences have given me:

  • Multiple successful and creative careers
  • Unique opportunities for travel
  • A solid art practice
  • Connections that I would not trade for anything

Art school is where I found my people. I have a community that understands what is important to me and why. I’m certain I would not have the skills and confidence that I have today without my art school education. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, even if it meant getting rid of my student loan debt.

Student Loan Repayment Options

Loan repayment can feel like a car that slams into many graduates about four months after they finish school. This is because the first loan payment is usually due six months after graduation. There are a few things that you can do to help prepare for repayment so it doesn’t feel quite so tough.

Loan consolidation

While all your loans will come through your school initially, your student loans probably don’t all come from the same lender. This can make loan repayment feel more confusing than it needs to be. It can also make it tough to get a handle on how much you’re paying in total student loans each month.

Talk to your financial aid office at school early about loan consolidation options. Then do your research to find the best consolidator for you. 

Customer service will be important. This is because each time the government changes loan repayment options you’ll need to talk to someone. They can help you figure out how these new options may apply to your existing loans. These talks can also help you figure out if there are any benefits to changing your repayment program.

Default

Don’t let your loans go into default. You may not have an income, but you don’t need to let your student loans go into collections. This creates a situation that is way more stressful than it ever needs to be. It will also impact your ability to:

  • Buy a house, a car, or anything else influenced by your credit score
  • Use federal benefits like repayment plans, deferment, and forbearance
  • Use federal student aid for a future certificate or degree
  • Receive tax refunds, and sometimes the government garnishes wages to repay the loan
  • Receive Social Security retirement benefits

Talk to your loan servicers about repayment options for your federal loans. An income-based repayment plan can be as low as $0 a month depending on your income.

Private loan repayment is trickier, but most private student loans offer deferment and forbearance. This can help you manage repayment when you’re not making enough income to cover both your cost of living and your student loans.

You’ll also want to pay attention to student loan news so you can take advantage of opportunities like Public Service Loan Forgiveness as they come up.

Art school is a worthy investment

While the rest of the world seems to think that art and design is an unsure and unstable major, look at the facts:

  • Over five million people in the US work in the arts and cultural industries 
  • Unemployment rates for creators are less than half the national average
  • The average salary for art graduates is $60,000
  • 65% of children starting grade school right now will end up working jobs that don’t exist yet

Investing in college is always a risk, a gamble. The future will never be certain. The best option is to invest in what you love and to find a way to do it that feels comfortable for you. 

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Post by Jana Rumberger