Financing Your Film School MFA: Your Guide to Financial Aid

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Whether you dream of using USC as a launching pad into the Hollywood hierarchy or want to hone your documentary storytelling at NYU, a graduate degree in film promises to help you develop the skills and connection you need to succeed.

But first you have to pay for it.

Graduate programs in general are not cheap, and film school is no exception.

To get a sense of what your MFA will cost you, take a look at the latest rates at the top four film schools in the United States:

  • USC: $35,214 per year; 3 year program
  • AFI: average $62,500 per year; 2 year program
  • UCLA: average $17,272 per year for residents, $32,374 per year for non-residents; 2 to 4 year program
  • NYU: $63,442 per year; 3 to 4 year program
Of course, you will also need to eat and enjoy adequate shelter while not hard at work on degree, and these prices are for tuition only. Living allowances for expensive cities like New York and LA will significantly increase your costs, bumping the total cost per year up into the neighborhood of $84,000 to $100,000.

Don't panic!

Yes, a film MFA is a big investment. Fortunately, there are several ways to cover the costs. Let's break it down.

Financing and Loans
Most people end up covering the vast majority of graduate school costs with their own savings, followed by loans to cover the rest. Here are the main options for financing your MFA.

Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans
Direct Unsubsidized Loans are provided by the U.S. Department of Education and are available to graduate students regardless of the program you enter, as long as your graduate school offers them. These loans are available to graduate students regardless of need, but you'll still need to complete a FAFSA to secure one. Your graduate school will let you know the amount you can borrow based on a very simple formula: the cost of attendance minus any other financial aid you receive.

With an unsubsidized loan, you're responsible for all the interest, which begins accruing immediately. You can choose to make interest payments while you're in school if you like; if you do not, the interest is simply added to the total amount you borrowed. You have a grace period of six months after graduation before you need to begin repayment.

The maximum amount you can borrow is $20,500 per year.

How to Apply: Complete your FAFSA online beginning October 1 of the year before you plan to enroll, and remember to fill it out again each year you're in grad school. Because grad students are automatically considered independents by the Department of Education, you'll only need your own Social Security number and tax return information — not your parents'.

Direct PLUS Loans for Graduate Students
Direct PLUS Loans are also available from the US Department of Education. All you need is a decent credit history (or have a co-signer with a good credit score) and meet the basic FAFSA requirements for aid. Direct PLUS loans allow you to borrow up to the full amount of attendance in your program, minus any other aid you receive. Then it's just up to you to pay it back in 10 to 25 years.

While it's technically possible to borrow the full amount for your graduate school program in the form of federal loans, there's an important caveat: The government has a lifetime borrowing limit, so prepare to have your direct loans capped at $138,500. This limit includes any money you borrowed as an undergraduate, so it's possible that you may not have enough money left available to you to cover one of the more expensive MFA programs.

Direct PLUS Loans make it possible for many, many aspiring filmmakers to attend graduate school, but the drawback is that the interest rate is typically about a percentage point higher than the rate on Direct Unsubsidized Loans. For this reason, it makes sense to max out your Direct Loan eligibility first, before tapping into additional PLUS Loan funds.

How to Apply: FAFSA

Federal Work Study

You may be surprised to learn that campus jobs are for grad students, too. The Federal Work Study program can provide part-time employment that's at least minimum wage while you're enrolled — but you do have to demonstrate need to qualify. You can choose to receive your pay directly to defray living expenses, or you can ask your school to apply your wages to your tuition bills. Either way, work study jobs are often in areas related to your field of study, so it could also buy you some extra face-time with professors or access to equipment if you land a good gig.

How to Apply: FAFSA

Private Student Loans
For anyone who has hit the ceiling on their borrowing allowance from the federal government, private student loans can cover the difference. These are available from local and national banks, credit unions, and brokers like Sallie Mae. The major drawback to private loans is that they typically have higher interest rates, and you'll need a good credit history to qualify. The repayment plans may not be as flexible, either. If you go this route, be sure to shop around for the best terms and lowest interest rate available. Once you graduate, it's also a good idea to keep an eye on refinancing opportunities to lower your rate — or to extend your repayment period if you need to.

How to Apply: Each lender will have its own paperwork and requirements, and will surely need a credit check, bank statements, and your most recent tax return to get started. Try searching your options at Credible.com to compare terms and rates for graduate school loans.

Scholarships and Grants
Remember how every local business seemed to have a scholarship to give away when you graduated from high school? Unfortunately, graduate school isn't like that. You're unlikely to see any merit aid on that financial aid offer when you're accepted into your program — though it never hurts to ask! You may have better luck seeking out private scholarships, which might be based on need, merit, or a combination.

To help you in this search, we've compiled a Top 10 list of film school scholarships. Check the deadlines carefully and get started early so you have all the paperwork and portfolio submissions you need.

For more general graduate school scholarships, you can also try running a search on FastWeb, or you can check in with your career resources department at your undergraduate institution to see if they have a database or other connections to help.

Creativity, Grit and Flexibility
If this all feels impossibly overwhelming, take a breath. There are lots of ways to make your MFA more affordable that don't involve borrowing money. A few ideas:

  • Consider a Public University: Did you notice how much cheaper UCLA was for California residents? If your state has an MFA film school in its own universities, this could be the most affordable way to get your degree.
  • Pick Up and Move: If your state doesn't have a public program that interests you, you could always move. Each state has its own residency requirements, so you might not qualify for in-state tuition immediately. But if you're patient, this could be an excellent long-term plan.
  • Start With Industry Experience: If you need to sock away some more money to afford graduate school, why not do it in Hollywood — or any number of places with a solid film or television industry. Working your way up by starting as a PA might sound old-fashioned, but there's a lot to be said for real-world experience and connections while you save up.
  • Check Your Relatives' 529 Balances: If your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other approved relatives have a 529 college savings plan that hasn't been used up yet, they can name you the beneficiary and give you the money for tuition, tax-free. This might be a long shot, but every little bit helps if someone has money that isn't already tagged for one of your siblings or cousins.
The Bottom Line
Getting your MFA can be expensive, but there are plenty of ways to finance it. As you decide what's right for you, be sure to crunch the numbers. Use a student loan calculator to compare different loan terms and see how changing the repayment period affects your payment and what you owe over the life of the loan. Where there's a will, there's very often a way, as long as you keep your eyes open and your calculator handy.
About author
Elizabeth Trach
Elizabeth Trach is a professional educator, writer, and editor with an MA in Creative Writing. She is also the author of Both Sides of My Skin, a collection of short stories published by Annorlunda books.

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