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Veronica Wickline
13 College Lists

10 Best Undergraduate Performing Arts Schools

You dream of becoming a performing artist, but breaking into the industry from college can be tricky. While some students go right to art-making full-time after graduating, others prefer to hone their craft and build connections in a conservatory or university setting.


College can be a great way to prepare for a career in the arts, and certain schools offer a much stronger foundation than others. Keep reading for our recommendations on the best performing arts schools and how to pick the right one for you.


What is an Education in Performing Arts?


These programs place a large emphasis on honing your craft. Here, you will be given some overview about the academic theory and history of your craft. You also learn exercises and techniques to perfect your practice. Master classes are common, in which a seasoned professional in your field offers personalized instruction to a group of students.


The most valuable resources that come with a performing arts education are the time, space, and tools to focus on your craft. For many years of your professional life, it is likely you will balance working a day job with going on auditions. Additionally, you may have to travel some distance to reach a studio or performance room with everything you need to be successful. Attending an undergraduate performing arts program allows you to focus on your art for four years without these constraints.


Many successful performers discontinue their formal studies once their career picks up. For that reason, formal training is seen as less valuable than in other fields, though it is good to demonstrate that you picked a path and stuck to it. Often, the auditions you go on, internships you find, and performing opportunities you discover matter more than the courses you take as an undergraduate. For that reason, schools often provide training in how to get an agent, how to draft a resume, how to navigate an audition, and other nuts and bolts of the craft.


After graduating, some students continue to pursue the craft as their profession. These individuals go on to become Classical Musicians, Screen Actors, Theatre Actors, Vocal Artists, Dancers, and more. For a period of time, artists often hold day jobs in teaching, the service industry, corporate offices, or freelancing.


Other graduates find meaningful work in arts administration, leveraging their strong foundation in the craft to manage bands and ballet companies, open theatres, and fundraise for the arts. 


Still others decide that pursuing the performing arts full-time is not how they want to spend their time and pursue some unrelated field. Many lawyers, academics, and business administrators began as aspiring artists. The best performing arts schools prepare you for all of these possibilities so that you have options upon graduating.


What to Look for In a Performing Arts School


Many schools offer degrees in Theater, Acting, Dance, and Music, but not all programs are created equal. In fact, one of the worst-case scenarios for a college graduate is to have heaping debt and a performing arts degree but no real job prospects.


If you want to pursue a performing arts career and you think attending college is right for you, choose your program carefully. In particular, we recommend paying attention to these four criteria:


Program Rigor. If you are looking for a performing arts school, then you probably already know how important it is to hone your craft. Search for programs that emphasize building a strong foundation, giving you exposure to both the history and cutting edge of your craft.


A good way to measure program rigor is the emphasis schools place on their department of performing arts. Instead of choosing a college that grudgingly offers an Acting minor, look for institutions that feature the arts prominently in their promotional materials. Look for programs with extensive arts facilities, faculty, and course offerings.


Connectedness. Attending a performing arts school in the heart of a professional artistic community makes a huge difference if you want to break into your industry. For that reason, we recommend that you prioritize schools with easy access to internships, gigs, and auditions at the professional level.


Often, that means seeking out programs in New York and Los Angeles. However, there are schools outside these areas that have cultivated strong relationships with industry leaders. If you tour campus, ask about what resources the school offers for students seeking auditions and internships.


Financial Prospects. If you have your heart set on the performing arts, chances are you are comfortable not becoming a millionaire. But did you know that there are still savvy ways to manage your expenses even with a modest paycheck?


Look for schools with low tuition rates or generous financial aid, and a good track record of post-graduation placement so that you can rest assured your degree won’t break the bank. Apply for any merit-based scholarship to keep your cost of attending as low as possible. If you are not certain that you want to pursue a performing arts career long-term, choose a school that also lets you major in a non-artistic subject.


Prestige. Breaking into performing arts is one of the most difficult things to do as a young artist. Having a degree from a well-respected institution will open doors both in your industry and for day-jobs, a critical aspect of the young artist’s life.


Pick 5-10 professionals who have succeeded in your area of performance art and look up their education history. This exercise will give you good insights into which education pathways prepare you for success in your field.


Top 10 Performing Arts Schools


Keep in mind that our list of top schools for performing arts may be different from yours. We used the selection criteria listed above: Program Rigor, Connectedness, Financial Prospects, and Prestige. However, if you have some other priority for personal reasons, such as staying close to home or pursuing a sport in tandem with your art, your Top 10 schools may look different from ours.


With all that in mind, we are proud to present our list of the top ten schools for the performing arts in the U.S.


10. University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Location: Winston-Salem, NC

Enrollment: 1,042

Acceptance Rate: 37% (2018)


Students focus on Dance, Design & Production, Drama, Filmmaking, or Music. This conservatory experience is also designed to give you an academic foundation in core academic subjects, including Math, English, Science, and History. While academics are not as emphasized as they would be at a liberal arts program, this is a stronger foundation than many performing arts majors receive.


The median starting salary for alumni is $48,300. UNCSA also has a solid 20-year return on their investment at $135,000. That means most students have paid off their student loans and are earning a steady income twenty years after graduating. The school is far from the major city centers that lead the dance, music, theatre, and film industries, so a school more centrally located in New York or Los Angeles may be a better fit for you. That said, Winston-Salem is a two-hour drive from both Charlotte and Durham, cities with significant art opportunities in North Carolina. This school is a great pick for students who want to pursue the arts in North Carolina or for students who want a strong academic foundation without signing up for a full-fledged liberal arts program.


9. Carnegie Mellon University College of Fine Arts

Location: Pittsburgh, PA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 6,947

Acceptance Rate: 3-21% depending on your performing arts field. (2019)


Most people think of science and technology when they hear the name, Carnegie Mellon, but did you know that there is an entire College of Fine Arts with faculty, courses, and facilities dedicated to helping you hone your craft? Peter Burr, Judith Light, and Leslie Odom Jr. are all graduates of Carnegie Mellon. 


While students at Carnegie Mellon miss out on the auditions and term-time internships offered in major metropolitan areas, they have the great advantage of a strong academic foundation to enhance their performances. Students at Carnegie Mellon also have great job prospects within and outside of their primary field of interest upon graduating. The median starting salary among artistic majors at Carnegie Mellon is a strong $83,061, which suggests that many successfully go on to pursue careers outside of the performing arts industry.


8. California Institute of the Arts

Location: Santa Clarita, CA

Enrollment: 979

Acceptance Rate: 24% (2018)


CalArts offers one of the most extensive programs of study for performing artists, including Production Management, Aesthetics & Politics, and North Indian Music, to name a few. This artistic pressure-cooker boasts some impressive alumni, including Tim Burton, Sofia Coppola, and Don Chealde. While students have to trek an hour and a half to make it to downtown LA for auditions, the connections you forge on campus are likely to open doors for you upon graduation.


CalArts is a great fit for students who are certain they want to remain in performing arts for their entire careers, as it is difficult to find a job outside of the industry with a degree from CalArts. Graduates have a strong 20-year return on their investment of $185,000. Keep in mind that does not mean graduates are making $185,000 per year, but rather that their student loans are paid off and they are earning a steady income.


7. University of Chicago

Location: Chicago, IL

Undergraduate Enrollment: 6,552

Acceptance Rate: 6% (2019). No acceptance rate specifically for performing arts is published.


The University of Chicago is often referred to as the ultimate school for theoretical studies. However, with easy access to Chicago’s thriving arts scene and an impressive course catalog of applied performing arts, UChicago exceeds expectations with its performing arts offerings. While its course selection does not beat a conservatory setting, you can still develop a great foundation in your craft.


One advantage of attending UChicago is the tremendous career opportunities you will have, both in performing arts and in other industries. Consider a double major, such as Economics plus Theater and Performance Studies, to distinguish yourself both as a performer and as someone with marketable skills outside their primary industry.


6. Northwestern University

Location: Evanston, IL

Undergraduate Enrollment: 8,231, with roughly 1,100 in the School of Communication

Acceptance Rate: 9% (2019). No acceptance rate specifically for performing arts is published.


Everyone knows Northwestern is a strong academic pick, but did you know it also produced the likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers? At Northwestern, you will receive a traditional liberal arts education matched with a foundation in the theory of your craft. Students in the School of Communication can study theatre, filmmaking, radio, television, dance, and more.


The obvious downside to Northwestern is that it is competitive to get in, so be sure to apply to other schools as well. Though just outside of Chicago, Evanston offers easy access to downtown auditions and term-time internship opportunities. There is a strong academic focus here, but the connections you forge there will carry you far.

5. University of Southern California

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 19,907, with performing artists comprising roughly 20% of the student body

Acceptance Rate: 2-26%, depending on your performing arts field (2018)


USC is a large, private university situated right in L.A. Students interested in performing arts may select a major in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation, School of Cinematic Arts, Kaufman School of Dance, School of Dramatic Arts, or the Thornton School of Music.


The school’s greatest resources are its ample funding, prime location, and tight-knit alumni network. Graduates of USC often provide roles and internship opportunities to students currently enrolled in its programs. Attending is expensive, which may limit the employment opportunities you can pursue after graduation. That said, need-based and merit-based scholarships are available.


4. Curtis Institute of Music

Location: Philadelphia, PA

Undergraduate Enrollment: 130

Acceptance Rate: 5% (2019)


This elite, highly selective music conservatory has produced some of the most prominent contributors to performing arts, including Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Jennifer Higdon. Students who wish to focus on Opera or Composing, as well as students looking to build an excellent musical foundation, should consider Curtis Institute of Music.


Musicians come to be cloistered in this elite setting to emerge as leaders of their field. If you are primarily a dancer or actor, this school is not a good fit for you. As with other conservatories, attending Curtis makes it more difficult to pursue career pathways outside the music industry. However, for many, it is the golden ticket to their success within a performing arts career.


3. New York University, Tisch School of Arts

Location: New York, NY

Undergraduate Enrollment: 51,123

Acceptance Rate: 26% for Tisch (2018)


Tisch School of the Arts is the performing arts segment of NYU. While it is much smaller than the total NYU student body, at around 3,000 students it is quite large for a performing arts program. This offers the advantage of more opportunities to connect with peers who share your artistic interests. However, with so many students, it can be easy to feel lost in this larger campus setting.


The school focuses on performing, cinematic, and emerging media arts. Celebrated alumni include Lady Gaga, Adam Sandler, and Idina Menzel. At Tisch, students may choose to pursue more theory-based or applied coursework depending on their interests, and the school is well-stocked with performance spaces and practice rooms. Just note that the tuition costs are especially substantial, and students should plan their finances carefully.


2. The American Musical & Dramatic Academy

Location: New York, NY

Enrollment: 269 in New York, 280 in Los Angeles

Acceptance Rate: 21% (2018)


Also known as AMDA, this conservatory embraces both the bohemian heritage of West Village and its ties to Broadway. AMDA also has a thriving campus in Los Angeles, allowing students their pick of two thriving arts scenes. Students throw themselves wholeheartedly into one of the school’s four tracks: Acting, Music Theatre, Dance Theatre, or Performing Arts. Students with a more academic focus can choose to earn a BA in Theatre.


AMDA is one of the leading names in Performance Art higher education, so attending opens the door to any number of opportunities following graduation. Like other conservatories, it has the downside of reducing students’ options in the event that they decide performing arts is not the path for them. That said, the industry connections, focus on the arts, and stellar faculty mean that AMDA students have a huge advantage breaking into the industry.


1. The Juilliard School

Location: New York, NY

Enrollment: 942

Acceptance Rate: 6% (2018)


The Juilliard School has held the distinction of training some of the most accomplished performers, including Robin Williams, Viola Davis, and Patti LuPone. Located in the heart of New York City, Juilliard offers the dual benefit of world-class instruction and access to the city’s performing arts scene.


The only downside to attending Juilliard is that it effectively locks you into a performing arts path. If you want to keep your options open, consider looking elsewhere. That said, if you know for sure that a career in performing arts is for you, no school offers the same foundation and opportunities as Juilliard.


Choosing the Top Performing Arts School for Me


This list reflects a wide range of school choices, so the #1 choice for us could be very different than your own. Here are a few questions to consider as you navigate this school list and start to put together your own.


Which schools specialize in my field within performing arts? Every arts community has its own focus. An opera singer would strongly prefer Curtis on this list because of the emphasis it places on classical music training. Someone looking to perform in musical theater would get more out of attending AMDA because there is training available for both singing and acting. Conduct online research and connect with others in your field to learn which programs have the best support for someone with your focus area.


Do I want to attend a conservatory or be in a more academic setting? This is one of the biggest differences in the schools on our list. Conservatories offer more time for students to hone their craft, and most resources on campus are directed towards the performing arts. By contrast, universities offer a mix of academic coursework and artistic training. So, which one fits your needs better?


Conservatories tend to be best for students with one focus: to excel at their craft. These students want to become the best they can be in their field, and they are certain that this is the right path for them. Conservatories build a narrower skill set, but it’s a very deep skill set. One downside of the conservatory environment is that everyone around you does the same thing, so it can be easy to get jealous or discouraged. On the plus side though, those same peers are likely to become valuable professional connections once you all are in the working world together.


Universities are best for students who have both an applied and theoretical interest in their field. For example, an actor who is also interested in the history of how Shakespeare has been performed in different places and time periods would be a great candidate for a university. There, students develop both aspects of their interests. Additionally, students who are still on the fence about whether a performing arts career should consider attending a university, where they will be exposed to a broader range of skills that make them employable in fields beyond performing arts. The downside to attending university is that students spend less time honing their craft, but the upside is a lot of exposure to different people and ways of thinking.


How much debt am I willing to take on (if any)? Your college choices will be limited based on how much debt you are willing to accrue. Some of the best programs have hefty tuition costs, and they may be worth the investment to help you break into your industry. That said, as an artist, it can cripple your job prospects to have student loans to repay. Later on, you may find your dream job only to discover that you cannot take it because you need to work somewhere that covers your student loan bills.


If you can find a great scholarship opportunity, consider that offer very seriously. Many schools reward good grades with merit scholarships. Even without a scholarship, you can afford to pursue an arts career. Break out a calculator to determine how much debt is reasonable for you to take on. Here are two equations that may be useful:


Average Annual Income for Entry-Level Professional in Your Field

– Basic Living Expenses in Your Area of Residence


Maximum Amount of Money You Can Pay Back Per Year

Maximum Amount of Money You Can Pay Back Per Year

x Maximum Number of Years You Would Want to Be in Debt


Maximum Value of Student Loans You Should Take Out


If you are having trouble getting estimates to plug into these equations, ask a parent or teacher for help or join our free chat forums for advice from peers. 


Where do I want to live and work after graduating? You do not have to have an ironclad answer to this question right now. However, each of these schools sets you up to be successful in a particular geographic area. UNCSA is a great place to go to school if you want to pursue an arts career in the South. Just about any film major will be encouraged to spend some time living in L.A. Typically, actors get the most work if they are based in New York City. For that reason, choosing an arts school becomes easier if you already know where you want to live after graduating.


Don’t be afraid to base this decision around factors besides your profession! Here are a bunch of reasons besides career why you may want to live somewhere:


  • My family lives there too.
  • My close friends have congregated in the area.
  • I won’t have to drive a car there.
  • My dog will have lots of space to run around.
  • I have easy access to the ocean.
  • I get to experience all four seasons.
  • I really get along with the people who live here.


Every community has some arts scene, so you will never be without that part of your life. The reason we emphasize location so much in this article is that there are a multitude of performing arts opportunities in New York and Los Angeles.


Do I like the atmosphere on campus? You won’t know the answer to this question until you pay a visit yourself. As much as objective factors should factor into your decision, at the end of the day you’re going to be on the campus of your choosing for many years once you enroll. It’s important that you can feel at home there. Try to visit a few conservatories, universities, big schools, and small schools before you make a decision on where to apply. Also consider making a trip to New York and L.A. if you can afford it to see if they are places you could call home if your career led you there.


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Short Bio
Veronica is an alumna of Harvard College, where she earned her A.B. in History and Classics. After graduating, she joined CollegeVine serving as the Curriculum Development Manager. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is writing her debut novel.