Shackled by debt

Shackled by debt: Four years of actor training can provide everything you need to launch a career—except the ability to repay your student loans. Art by Janice Stentz.

BY HARPER LEE

It’s like something out of a movie: the talented young ingénue finishes college, packs her bags, and heads west seeking stardom. She has wanted this her whole life, and she’s committed—no matter what it takes. She hustles, working in restaurants and rationing her income as she crosses her fingers that this next audition is going to be the one.

Since arriving in Los Angeles five months ago, recent college graduate Sarah Davenport has made a lot happen for herself. She’s landed an agent, a manager, a couple dozen auditions, a roommate, and an apartment. When she’s not busy with her acting career, the Georgia native often works doubles at a sushi restaurant while trying to get comfortable in her adopted city. The job pays well, covering the steep cost of L.A. living. Currently, Davenport manages her new life with neither a credit card nor a car. She Ubers everywhere and said she just stays home when money gets tight—and money is frequently very tight.

Sarah Davenport headshot and quote

“I went to Indianapolis, to film my first movie,” she said. “I couldn’t even buy food on the way home because I literally had three dollars in my bank account.”

A former chair of the International Thespian Officers, Davenport completed a B.F.A. in acting in May of 2015 after four rigorous years inside the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. As a result, Davenport is $50,000 in debt from student loans, both private and federal. She thinks she should be making monthly payments of around $300, but right now, she said, she doesn’t have enough left over each month for even $100 payments. The interest and the years of her life Davenport could possibly spend in debt are racking up, and collectors, she said, have started calling. Looking back, Davenport thinks that while she had a handle on the numbers, she didn’t fully understand the tremendous impact her student loan debt could have on her daily life and her long-term future plans for owning a home and having a family.

“I hate it. It’s been so stressful. They call multiple times a day. I’m talking five plus. They’re always there, and you can’t forget about it,” Davenport said. “I think it’s just a concept that you really can’t understand until you’re sitting there on the other side and you do get a call from a debt collector, who’s like, ‘I know where you work. I know where you live. You are paying this money.’ It is real money. It was fake, but it’s real now. I think you feel it differently than you could ever think about it. I knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t think it would be this hard.”

Sticker shock 101

Davenport is not alone. The cost of higher education is a hot topic right now, and Dramatics set out to understand what it’s like to be trying to launch a career as an actor while also managing a significant amount of student loan debt.

In 2012, The Washington Post published findings from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that student loan debt in this country had surpassed even credit card debt. CNN reported in 2014 that 40 million people in the U.S. carry student loan debt, and in April of 2015, USA Today published this headline: “National student loan debt reaches a bonkers $1.2 trillion.” According to The Institute for College Access and Success’s project on student debt the average debt load per student leaving college in 2014 was $28,950. TICAS’s report also found that seven in ten seniors left college burdened by debt. The Wall Street Journal reported that the class of 2015 had the most student loan debt in history. In 2014, National Public Radio talked to Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) about his concerns that student loan debt is the next big lending crisis looming on the horizon, similar to the subprime mortgage fiasco of 2007 that was followed by the great recession of 2008.

Kristin Conrad headshot and quote

The numbers are staggering, prompting Purdue University’s president Mitch Daniels to place his institution on a tuition freeze beginning in May of 2013. In the fall of 2015, Daniels described to Congress his alternative to student loans: income share agreements. According to the Indianapolis Star, in an income share agreement “a student contracts to pay funders a fixed percentage of future earnings for an agreed upon number of years. The main advantage is that payments wouldn’t be more than a specific portion of income, regardless of whether the graduate is unemployed or underemployed.” Additionally, the Star reported that Daniels feels that educational institutions, alongside students, should share in some of the financial risk if students can’t pay back their loans.

Still others question the real value of higher education. In his 2014 film Ivory Tower, documentarian Andrew Rossi examined the causes of the dramatic rise in tuition prices and explored the growing variety of alternatives to a traditional, four-year, residential college experience. Featured in the film is Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal. Thiel—himself a college graduate—has created The Thiel Fellowship, a grant program that offers entrepreneurial young people $100,000 to drop out or skip college and instead develop new products, services, and companies. Since its beginning five years ago, the organization advertises that Thiel Fellows have founded more than sixty companies that are together worth more than $1.1 billion.

A number of factors have sent college prices through the roof, though there is little agreement on which is the key culprit. Caroline Miller, the University of Cincinnati’s vice provost for enrollment management, points to cuts in state funding to higher education. In a piece published in 2012, the New York Times reported that “Ohio State is receiving 7 percent of its budget from the state, down from 15 percent a decade ago and 25 percent in 1990. The price of tuition and fees since 2002 increased about 60 percent in today’s dollars.”

“Yes, college has gotten more expensive,” Miller said. “But one of the biggest issues, at least in the public arena, is that who’s paying for that expense has changed dramatically in terms of subsidy. It used to be that for [public universities] what the state paid, for years and years and years in subsidy, was greater than what families paid. And in the late 2000s that switched.”

Those cuts have been coupled with a kind of “college amenities arms race.” Universities sense that in order to recruit students they must have the fanciest dorms, the best food, and the most opulent rec centers, complete with climbing walls and lazy rivers.

“The students of today expect much more of their college experience,” Randy Ulses, director of scholarships and enrollment at the University of Cincinnati, said. “These are students who probably grew up in households with two-parent incomes, and they were used to everybody having their own bedroom. ... They’re not used to going to a computer lab—they all had individual computers growing up. There’s a lot of infrastructure that goes into making sure all those things are available because that’s what the student today is looking for.”

Additionally, Rob Reddy, the chief financial officer at Oberlin College in Ohio, cites the cost of maintaining a highly skilled workforce like university faculty and staff. Reddy also suggests the nation’s trillion dollar student loan debt could be viewed as indicative of a good turn of events.

“We have a very healthy thing going on in this country which is more people going to college,” Reddy said. “If more people go to college and have to borrow some amount of money, the aggregate debt level, or the aggregate amount of student loan paper on the street, is going to grow. That’s not a bad thing. Quite honestly, that’s a good thing because we have more people pursuing higher education, and I think we can generally say that that’s a positive thing for society as a whole.”

Whatever the root cause, college is expensive, and likely to become more so. And the financial realities of a college education and a career in the arts are each challenging. When taken together, a life as an actor can seem borderline impossible, hopeless, or insane. If you are a hardworking, committed high school senior with your heart set on performing—what do you do? Grit your teeth and take out the loan? Change your mind and become a CPA? Or skip college and just get started?

School daze

Acting is fueled by empathy and imagination. Theatre practitioners imagine different people in different places experiencing different lives and invite audiences to imagine and feel with them as they go. Ironically, for many theatre students and aspiring professionals, life beyond college is hard to imagine, hard to relate to, and therefore hard to plan for.

“How can you, in high school, really know what a salary feels like, what monthly bills feel like?” asks Richard Hess, the longtime head of CCM’s drama program. “College used to be [where you learned] how to balance your first checkbook, how to do your laundry, how to set your alarm and get to class on time. And now, it’s thinking about how to manage a forty-thousand-dollar debt. No, that’s too much for them.”

Going to college can seem like the end of a long road, the big achievement earned from years of tests, anxiety, competition, and late nights. In reality, college is equally a beginning, the first phase of adulthood. Hess notes that the consequences of crushing student loan debt can have a negative, long-term effect on almost every aspect a person’s life and well-being.

“The way you date, the way you live, the way you go to the movies, the way you might fall in love, the way you might say, let’s move somewhere and buy a house. You’re not even thinking about any of that,” Hess said. “The way you approach the world has to be different.”

New research by Gallup backs Hess up: a recent analysis of Americans who graduated college between 1990 and 2014 shows that students who took on the highest amounts of student debt ($50,000 or more) are less likely than their fellow graduates who borrowed nothing to be thriving in four of five elements of well-being: purpose or liking what you do each day; financial, managing your money to reduce stress and increase security; community, liking where you live and feeling safe; social, having supportive relationships in your life, and physical, good health and plenty of energy.

Lauren Champlin headshot and quote

Other data indicate that when students cross the $50,000 debt threshold they begin to feel that their education was not worth the cost. It’s not unreasonable to wonder at what point America’s economy will start to agree. As Hess points out, having hefty monthly student loan payments can make your twenties more about debt management and monthly statements and less about exploration, opportunity, and other investments. What can you do with $400? You could travel to an audition, get new headshots, save it for a down payment on a home—or you can make just one student loan payment. Now think bigger, like Peter Thiel: what could you do with $100,000, if you didn’t sink it all into college? You could start a business, creating jobs and opportunities for others. The economic drag generated by heavy student loan burdens nationwide could be felt for decades to come as college-educated young people spend a significant chunk of their resources paying down debt instead of starting businesses and growing their personal lives. In a piece published in The New York Times in May, Ron Lieber described the student loan conversation families have with institutions as “utterly bloodless.” Signing on the dotted line is easy—making sacrifices just to scrape together a monthly loan payment for decades is not.

“I was accepted at NYU, and as a family we decided not to go there because there was no scholarship available and we would have had double the debt,” Kristin Conrad said. Now working on an M.F.A. at Ohio University, Conrad feels that while her undergraduate schooling at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida was excellent, her financial coaching was basically non-existent. “So we slightly had that conversation as a family, but Miami was still expensive. But otherwise, no one really sat me down and talked to me about it.”

Julia Guichard, head of the theatre department at Miami University in Ohio, has similar concerns: who is making sure that the teenagers and the parents taking on a great deal of debt understand what it could mean for them? Who is stewarding conversations about student loan debt on the front end, before anyone has signed anything, particularly for majors in the performing arts whose salary prospects after graduation could be especially low?

“To be perfectly honest,” Guichard said, “I think part of the problem is that those of us who are faculty or administrators are divorced from the financial side of things. We don’t see it. We don’t know what students are paying. We don’t know who is struggling.”

“If somebody sincerely says to me in the interview, ‘You know, we’re going to have to mortgage the house,’ I say, ‘Please don’t mortgage the house. Go to other places where you can get a good education,’” Bruce Miller, the director of acting programs at the University of Miami, said. “But that’s not company policy. That’s the way I approach it. And I know my other colleagues, who also go on tour with me, that’s what we do. If we see money is an issue and they’re genuinely asking us, we don’t try to lure them in and force them to take a second mortgage on the house.”

Universities and departments must recruit. They want students to pick their school. The culture and hype around the college admissions process can be disorienting, especially when you add in the cloistered, high-stress experience of college auditions. Students and families often feel that it’s a one way street: if you gain acceptance to an elite place, you should take it.

“There is something to be said for getting into those elite programs,” said Scott Wilson, a theatre educator and Thespian troupe director in Ohio. Wilson is currently completing graduate work to become a guidance counselor. “I’m sure parents whose kids get in want to fulfill their kids’ dreams, and some of them take on more debt than they should because that’s really what their kid wants and has been working for. I think too many times they really don’t look at what’s the bottom line. You know, is it worth it? To go that much in debt for a career that we know to be very cutthroat, and they’ll be in debt the rest of their lives.”

Trey Tatum headshot and quote

In many cases, it’s not just young people feeling squeezed by their student loans, but families as well. Lauren Champlin holds a B.F.A. in musical theatre from Kent State University. Her parents handled her loans, but ultimately, after years of trying to build a career in New York City, she was sleeping on a friend’s air mattress, waiting to get into low-income housing, when she realized that her life needed to change, that she couldn’t stand the thought of asking her parents for more support. Champlin said the financial security that came with getting a nine-to-five job as an office assistant felt really good.

“I’m not a child anymore,” Champlin said. “It’s not their responsibility to take care of me, and pay for my every need. They should be retiring. They should be spending their money on things they want to do. They should be spending their money on trips. I constantly felt guilty about that. It was really hard for me because it made me sad. I appreciated everything that they’ve done for me, and here I was still begging for more. I felt guilty about it the whole time because I really wanted them to be able to use their money on themselves.”

Like many supportive parents of kids in the performing arts, her family hadn’t just bankrolled college; they had also covered years of training in dance and singing and all the associated costs. In letting go of her aspirations, Champlin felt like she was wasting her family’s big investment in her talent.

“It was really a difficult decision for me to make when I finally cut the cord,” she said. “But I need to be able to pay my bills without crying to my parents every month saying I’m too short to pay for my rent because I’m waitressing and auditioning and can’t make ends meet. It was equally difficult making the decision to give it all up because I was thinking of all that money that my parents spent on me in the past as well, to support me. They believed in me, and I’m giving it up.”

Reality check

Ultimately, no matter who else is involved—schools, departments, lenders—families must make the final call.

“We are being asked to be financial advisers in some ways to families, but we really can’t advise them because we’re not responsible for their overall spending,” UC’s Ulses said. “While I may have feelings for some families when I’m talking to them—‘Oh, this is going to be financially doable for them or this is going to be financially rough or this is near impossible financially’—I can’t tell them what that feeling is. I can explain to them what numbers are available, what financial assistance is out there, and what the costs are going to be. But ultimately, I have to hope that they make the best decisions for themselves. I could be sitting there saying here’s a family who there is no way that they could pay for it. I don’t see how they could put the numbers together, and for all I know, Grandma is in the background, ready to foot the whole bill. Every family has their own situation, and they have to gather the information from the financial aid office and put it together for their family situation.”

There are some widely accepted guidelines. According to the office of Federal Student Aid, part of the U.S. Department of Education, federal income-based repayment plans cap a borrower’s monthly payment at between 10 and 15 percent of their discretionary income, a reasonable benchmark for students trying to make decisions that could affect future monthly payments. But it can be tough to predict your monthly income at twenty-one or twenty-two when you’re just finishing high school at eighteen or nineteen. It can be even tougher if you want to enter a field as unpredictable as theatre.

In June of 2014, American Theatre magazine polled five hundred theatre artists to assess the impact their student loans had on their lives. Of artists polled, ninety-one percent had borrowed somewhere between $16,000 and upwards of $100,000. On average, more than half of them made monthly payments between $200 and more than $1,000—forty-two percent of them paid between $200 and $500, monthly. About a third thought they’d never be able to pay back their loans, and another third said they weren’t sure. Seventy-nine percent responded that life as a theatre artist was challenging while less than eight percent said they had a reasonable lifestyle.

“College in general has gotten so expensive, obviously,” Wilson said. “The general rule of thumb is that you don’t want to take out student loans that total more than the average first-year salary of the field you are hoping to go into. However, if you’re hoping to be a performer, that could be a very low number.”

Actors’ Equity’s 2013-2014 report on earnings, employment, membership, and finance showed that eighty percent of Equity membership made $25,000 or less that year. In a typical season, around 17,000 Equity members worked an average of about sixteen weeks a year. Bleak as these statistics are, they represent the success stories: actors who’ve earned union membership. Thousands of young aspirants never even get that far.

“You are asking these kids to gamble on their understanding of their abilities and work ethic as eighteen-year-olds,” says Trey Tatum, a playwright who had no student loan debt following his undergraduate education but carries about $60,000 from his M.F.A in playwriting from Pace in New York. “There’s just no way, at eighteen, that you can really understand how many working actors are there compared to how many total people are trying to act. How many people out of an audition actually get cast and how many people in the callback get cast. I think the stakes are much higher than kids realize.”

Looking back, both Tatum and Champlin wish their degrees had included more coaching on personal finances. Lots of student actors get told over and over again that it’s tough out there. But warning is not the same as preparing.

“They don’t have a class for that,” Champlin said, “and I feel like they should, and it should be a requirement to take it so you’re prepared for the craziness of the life you might get stuck with. I mean, a lot of people get stuck with, like, constantly looking for a job, not knowing where your next paycheck is going to come from. I’ve talked to a couple of my friends who are in theatre who said, ‘You know, I really wish my college had sat me down and told me all the horrible things that could happen to me when I actually graduate and go to New York. That I’m not going to work, ever. And I’m going to be broke.’”

Matthew Carlson headshot and quote

Matthew Carlson, a 2008 graduate of New York University’s M.F.A. acting program, felt the same way. Even with a half ride to graduate school, he now carries six figures in student loan debt. Not long after leaving NYU, Carlson and some friends from his program began what is now the Artists Financial Support Group. The group’s mission is to “educate student and professional artists on financial self-advocacy; advocate legislative and institutional change in the cost of artist education, and innovate new ways to manage student loan debt and to budget on an erratic income.” Carlson fears that student loans wind up hindering young artists more than they help.

“I’m thirty-four and I definitely do see a delay in a number of things in my personal life,” he said. “My wife also went to NYU grad acting and has a similar debt load. We don’t have a house. I want to be at a point where I can afford to buy a house, and we want to have kids. We want to be in a more secure financial situation before those things happen.”

In his most lucrative year in the business, Carlson worked ten months out of the year in top-notch regional repertory theatres in North Carolina, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. He played Prior Walter in Angels in America, Lorenzo in Merchant of Venice, and Ken in Red. He remembers making about $38,000 that year.

“I don’t know if it’s possible for institutions to get students jobs after school, but what they can do is make sure those students leave with good training and debt that won’t cripple them,” he said. “I think it’s unconscionable for someone to leave school, as an artist, and have the same amount of debt that they would leave school with as a doctor, because they’re not going to have the same income. Sure, we think of actors making a lot of money—the top one percent of the people who are film stars and TV stars. But there are a lot of working actors in theatre who are making thirty-five to forty thousand dollars a year, what their alumni magazines would consider successful. They’re working in their field, but they’re not making a lot of money.”

Guichard agrees that many young people lack basic personal finance skills. Working as an actor is possible, she said, but if you want that life you have to be financially savvy and well-prepared.

“I don’t like ‘backup plan.’ I think it’s a terrible phrase,” she said. “I’ve started talking about diversifying your professional life. What are you going to do while you pursue your dream? You want to be an actor? Great! How do you want to do that? What do you want that to look like? And what else do you enjoy so you can continue that dream longer, because if you put all your eggs into becoming a professional actor and making your living at it—that is a very, very difficult road.”

Cutting class

If life after college with so much student loan debt is so grim—why not just skip college and start working as actor? Chances are that casting director doesn’t care where or even if you went to college.

“If someone comes in and nails an audition, they’re going to get the role regardless of which school they went to,” Wilson said. “The bigger schools do more to promote their people after they graduate with the showcases in New York and L.A. typically, so that gives them a big leg up. Having the right school next to their name can help, but I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all.”

Some research indicates that up to thirty percent of millennials regret paying for college. However, The Atlantic reports, based on new data released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, that college graduates will earn eighty-three percent more than their peers who only finished high school. Additionally, according to a 2015 report published by Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, on average, over the course of one’s lifetime and career, an American with a college degree can earn up to $1 million more than someone without a college degree. Right now, there is considerable evidence that the only thing worse than taking on a lot of student loan debt is not going to college at all. Say you decide not to be an actor. You have a degree, and that can be your passport into another career.

College can be an incredibly valuable and formative experience that is as much about personal growth as it is education. Oberlin’s Rob Reddy wants families to remember that not all debt is bad.

“Most eighteen-year-olds have absolutely no problem going in, buying a car, and taking out twenty thousand dollars in debt. Now, five years later what’s that car worth? Not a whole lot,” Reddy said. “An eighteen-year-old can come in and take out twenty thousand dollars in debt and earn a college degree, that college degree when they graduate will be worth X amount of money in income, probably more than twenty thousand dollars. ... I encourage people to think about higher education in a way that’s different than the way they think about consumer debt.”

Reddy, whose career in financial aid spans twenty-five years, said people’s concerns about student loan debt are not new and tend to fluctuate with the economy. If the job market is robust then families have more confidence that a debt can be repaid. And if the job market is ailing, families feel less confident.

“I think that the media has truly played up this issue,” Reddy said. “And while it has heightened awareness in a healthy way I think it has heightened anxiety in potentially an unhealthy way. Certainly we would all love to see less debt by anybody, but are we in a doomsday scenario? I think that’s also overblown.”

UC’s Ulses also points out that many students completing conservatory degrees finish in four years, minimizing their debt burden. They don’t often change majors or take extra time in school.

“The fine arts programs—particularly the theatre program—they’re very lock-step,” he said. “They know what you’re going to take each term, and it’s measured out. Those students aren’t necessarily looking to take a lot of other classes, and as such they graduate in four years. They’re more purposeful in their educational approach because this is what they’ve set themselves up for and this is what they want to be.”

Both Tatum and Davenport see great value in their college experiences, but still balk at the price tag.

“I met my best friends in college,” Tatum said. “I went from having an incredibly myopic world view to a considerably less myopic world view. I would never dissuade someone from going. And I think the value is still there. But if you want to go into the arts—as a parent—insist that your child do the research on what probably life will look like for the next ten years after this.”

So...what do you do?

If college is important to you, you can take a risk when it comes to financing your education—just be sure it’s a smart one. Start your search early, open yourself up to many different options, and ask lots of questions. Consider a B.A. in theatre instead of a B.F.A. A B.A. in theatre can provide lots of training in your discipline within a more flexible curriculum that allows you to explore different aspects of theatre and other subject areas. And, most importantly, know your limits; work within what your family can and cannot handle financially. Student loan debt is very difficult to discharge in bankruptcy—be thoughtful and deliberate about how much you take on and how you plan to handle it on the other side of college. Look beyond prestige and brand name to find a school that is truly a good fit for you. Finally, think of your career in the arts like running a business.

“Shakespeare was a businessman,” Carlson said. “Molière was a business man. They ran companies. You have to think of yourself in that way.”

Education is an important investment in your business, but coming out of college you will have to invest in other aspects of furthering your career. You might need money to travel, to buy clothes for an audition, to produce a piece of your own work, to enter something in a festival, to do an internship in another city. Don’t go so deeply into student loan debt that all you can do after college is work jobs not related to theatre, just so you don’t default on your loan.

“You’re always playing a long game,” Tatum said. “No matter what, you’re making contacts; you’re brewing relationships; you’re submitting and rejecting, submitting and rejecting. You’re playing that long game and money is what allows you to stay in the game the longest. No one’s going to be like, ‘Kind of a lackluster résumé but we really like how aggressively you’ve attacked your student debt.’”

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Cut back to Los Angeles, where Sarah Davenport’s post college movie is still playing out.

“I’m trying not to be hard on myself or have regret,” Davenport said. “What else would I have done? I just would have picked a different degree, and tried to go get a different job which probably, I would still be in the same boat. And even if I wasn’t, I’d be unhappy. It sucks to be in [debt] and it sucks to have [collectors] calling you. In some ways it does seem like, oh, maybe this wasn’t such a good decision. Yeah, I think there’s a part of me that thinks that, but there’s a larger part of me that thinks something very different, and very strongly. I go with that.”

Still, Davenport wonders if she could’ve had an equally valuable experience elsewhere, for a fraction of the cost, and had she done that, would she be better off now?

“Everything that I got from my program I think is invaluable,” she said. “Well, my brain says if the cost of that is fifty thousand, then yes. But it seems so ridiculous to be that much. So you know, I’m honestly on the fence. I don’t know. That’ll probably be a question that I ask myself for a very long time.”

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Read more Dramatics.