College tuition is at an all-time high, as are the stakes for families across the country. Students struggle with decisions about where to apply and which major to choose. It's a pivotal time for parents, students and college advisors. Having met the national "reply by" date of May 1, students and their families have made deposits for housing, students have decided their degree paths, and incoming college freshmen throughout the U.S. have already begun summer campus orientation.
And when the choice of major is one that prompts concern, especially one in the arts, it can cause tension and strife among families. With uncertainties about the world economy, and a high unemployment rate, parents have legitimate worries about their child's future: How are you going to make a living as an artist?
But wait, what's the rush to judgment? Back in the 1970s, when I went off to college, my classmates and I flocked to four-year liberal-arts universities to "spread our wings" and figure out what we wanted to do when we grew up.
In the 21st century our children no longer have that luxury. Today's teens live in an extremely accelerated world where communication is happening at lightening speed; sports players are taller, stronger and faster; real estate in major U.S. cities is unaffordable; the Dow has hit record highs; and perfect SAT scores and GPAs seem to be everywhere.
And in keeping with the speed at which our world is turning, college has practically become a trade school. Gone is the luxury of time to explore different coursework and "spread your wings." U.S. colleges now offer well over 100 bachelor-of-fine-arts degrees with a concentrated, rigorous, conservatory-style curriculum that didn't exist even 15 years ago. The plan is designed to ready graduates to successfully compete in their chosen performance field, where the competition for jobs is daunting. You'd better know what you want to study by the time you graduate from high school, because changing your major once you get to college could mean a fifth year, summer school and thousands more dollars in tuition.
There are some college majors that seem to put parents' minds at ease and insure future career success: engineering, health care, information technology, business administration, biosciences, and economics. But if you have a student who is following their dream of a life in the theater, this may be a career choice that strikes fear in your heart.
I have been advising families of performing-arts hopefuls for 15 years. When parents express concern for their child's future, here are the three questions I ask:
"How many of your peers are currently working in the field where they got their undergraduate degree?"
Answer: Probably very few, except for doctors and lawyers. So the undergrad degree is only a start. Don't panic if your child wants to pursue a B.F.A. in acting or musical theater. There is always graduate school.
"Would your student imagine studying anything else in college?"
Answer: No. They are doing this because they love it. No one has put a gun to your child's head and forced them to be a performer. And I believe they will make better grades and have a more positive college experience if they are pursing their passion.
"What's the worst that can happen?"
Answer: They learn their craft while getting a college degree. What's not to like? It's a process, after all, and along the way they may discover a profitable career in a related field like playwriting, stage management, directing, designing, casting or arts administration.
The parents I advise want their children to be happy, well-educated, confident, self-sufficient, contributing members of society. Support your student's passion, and give it time. You never know what they might discover about themselves in the process. Let them soar. And have faith in their dreams, even if you have your doubts. Chances are that they will land squarely on their feet.