How to Save Thousands on your Film School Degree

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If you're trying to decide on whether or not to go to film school, especially for a master's degree, affordability likely plays a major role. The high cost and less predictable ROI on a film degree makes some aspiring students nervous to apply. Take the Wall Street Journal's recent report that Columbia film alumni have the highest student loan debt compared with earnings among graduates of any U.S. master’s program. With a median debt of $181,000 and earnings under $50,000 per year, this data reflects a troubling trend of sky-high film school tuition with limited internal aid.

But the common belief that film industry professionals can't make it big without an Ivy League film school education is largely myth. You don't have to burn through your savings or take on extraneous debt to enjoy a fantastic film school experience. Here are our top picks for budget-friendly film schools plus simple strategies to help you finance your degree.

Calculating how much you need in film scholarships and grants​


Film school scholarships can save you thousands on tuition and other living expenses. 43% — almost one-third — of funding available to film school students comes from state and institution-based scholarships and grants. Receiving aid depends on:
  1. How often you apply. Researching and applying for scholarships each semester increases the odds of earning free money towards your degree.
  2. Your need. Need-based scholarships are available to students who struggle to pay for college due to socioeconomic disadvantages.
  3. Your merits. Merit scholarships are awarded based on your grade point average, which should ideally be 2.5 or better; previous awards; and other extracurricular activities.
  4. Your heritage. There are some scholarships and grants open only to BIPOC film students (more on this later).
Each scholarship and grant you apply for will have a unique set of criteria, and some are more specific than others. You should apply to both film-specific scholarships and grants as well as general liberal arts scholarships. For example, the Beinecke Scholarship Program awards college juniors pursuing a bachelor’s degree with the intention of earning a master’s or doctoral degree in the arts, humanities, and social sciences $4,000 prior to enrollment and an additional $30,000 during enrollment.

When you're researching your top five film school programs, make a budget calculating around how much you'll need to take out in federal loans, private loans, and your savings to attend. In addition, consider your weekly and monthly expenses and whether you have the time and capacity to work, as most graduate film programs don't allow students to work more than part-time, if at all. Add up any surplus expenses to calculate your target for scholarships and grants.

The no. 1 factor to qualifying for scholarships and financial aid​

The precursor to qualifying for the majority of loans, grants, and scholarships is applying for federal financial aid (completing your FAFSA). Most colleges require a FAFSA to grant internal scholarships and awards.

The Pell Grant and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) are two key federal loans for undergraduate students who demonstrate significant financial need. If you qualify, you are not required to repay these loans. Make sure to submit your Federal Student Aid form as early as possible to broaden your options for funding.

We recommend you begin researching the best scholarships and grants for you well before you submit your film school applications. Many scholarships are open to applicants who have been accepted to a program, but have not yet enrolled. You can also apply for scholarships before you make your final decision.

How much is film school?​

Many people believe that only private liberal arts colleges have the specialized instruction, equipment, and prestige to produce exceptional filmmakers. But there are several well-known, successful public universities that have good film degree programs, and not only in California.

Film school programs at public universities — especially for residents — are more affordable in the short-term. For example, an MFA in Writing for Film and Television at Emerson College (private) costs between $30-40,000 per year vs. an MFA in Screenwriting at California State University, Fullerton (public) which costs only $5-10,000 per year.

Affordable San Fransisco and LA film schools​

LA film school tuition is automatically higher than most film schools in the nation, with the exception of New York University. Consider that in 2019, LA was voted the eighth most expensive city in the U.S. However, there are some colleges in and outside of LA that offer exceptionally affordable tuition rates and a top tier education.

USC is the typical first choice for new and aspiring filmmakers, but an affordable hidden gem is The Los Angeles Film School. In 2017, TLAF outranked USC and UCLA as the best film school in LA. Tuition costs between $5,000-8,500 per semester with few additional fees. Numerous internal scholarships and grants, such as the Hollywood Dreams Scholarship, help TLAF students become rising stars in the industry without living beyond their means.

California State University, Northridge (CSUN) also made The Hollywood Reporter's Top 25 American Film Schools list in 2020. The Department of Cinema and Television Arts offers seven film, television, and new media master's programs. Its connections to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) have helped students receive thousands in emergency grants and graduate and professional positions at Chapman, Loyola Marymount University, and more.

Hollywood isn’t the only place in California rife with opportunities for filmmakers. San Fransisco State University offers three-year MFA programs in Documentary Filmmaking and Film & Television Production, and the Bay Area is home to the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM), the longest running film festival in the Americas. At only $5-10,000 per year, this MFA program is a steal — but the cost of living may outweigh the relatively cheap tuition.

Affordable East coast, Midwest, and Southern film schools​

The East coast is a great option for film school, especially if you want to cut back on day-to-day living expenses and rent. Stony Brook University is only one hour and 15 minutes by car from Manhattan and offers an MFA in Film with tracks in Directing, Producing, and Screenwriting. Students pay only one-fifth of the New York University’s Tisch School of the Art tuition and learn the ins and outs of independent filmmaking.

Head down south to take advantage of one of the most famous film schools on the East coast: Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts. This college offers an affordable two-year Screenwriting MFA with an underlying focus on motion picture production. Students can study abroad in London and work closely with experts in the film industry — all for under $20,000 per year. Check out FilmSchool.org member Juliana Lee White's experiences as a CMPA graduate student.

Few film schools are free, but here's one notable exception. Located in the heart of the midwest, University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center is one of the most prestigious screenwriting fellowship programs in the world. Graduate students receive a stipend of $18,000 over three years of study. Screenwriting is highly competitive: only one or two students are admitted each year. Learn more about the program in this interview with Kendra Daniels, a FilmSchool.org member and Michener Fellow.

Alternatives to traditional U.S. film degree programs​

If you want to save big on film school and broaden your horizons, consider going international. German colleges are famous for their zero-cost bachelor’s and master’s degrees, such as the University of Television and Film in Munich. International film students can choose from five top-ranked film programs taught in a mix of English and German. However, you must have a good command of German prior to enrollment.

Already have a film background but want to advance your industry knowledge and make new connections? You might consider enrolling in a low-cost film certificate program. UCLA's certificate programs for current or aspiring directors, producers, cinematographers, and entertainment managers cost less than $10,000. These programs are open to domestic and international applicants and helped 50% of graduates switch or advance in their careers.

The best scholarships and grants for film school students​

The first place to search for scholarships and grants is your college, if you’re accepted or enrolled. At USC, merit scholarships supply anywhere from several thousands dollars in funding to a full ride. However, full rude film school scholarships are extremely competitive and factor in your portfolio, need for aid, grade point average, and more.

Phi Delta Theta's famous Francis J. Lyon fellowship is open to both Phi and non-Phi graduate students with a remarkable passion for film. The typical deadline is May 1 for an award of $2,500.

Ethnicity scholarships are also an excellent resource for BIPOC filmmakers. The CBC Spouses Visual Arts Scholarship is open to African-American students majoring in liberal arts with a GPA of 2.5 or better.

The AFSCME/UNCF Union Scholars Program is also open to BIPOC undergraduate students majoring in liberal arts with a GPA of 2.5 or better, a valid driver’s license, and an interest in working for the labor movement. Latino filmmakers who aspire to work in the television industry should apply to the The Randy Falco Scholarship, which supplies $10,000.

Here are even more scholarships and contests to investigate (worth up to $10,000):

Is film school worth the cost?


Some filmmakers have a ‘No film school, no problem’ attitude and make it work. But ask most film school graduates and professionals about the benefits of attending film school and you’ll hear that studying film will take you even further in your career.

If you're still trying to decide the best possible film degree program, take a look at our student interviews and database of public and private universities for film students. FilmSchool.org compiles average test scores, demographics, and other key data points to help you confidently apply and enroll in a program worth the cost.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting this AD FREE and 100% community supported site. Supporting Members also enjoy access to private student clubs and forums, full access to our database that tracks upwards of 3,300 film school applications, Acceptance Data statistics that demystify common questions about how to construct a winning portfolio, ideal GPAs and GRE scores, and much more!
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Alexa P.
Alexa has 5+ years of experience developing content for purpose-driven brands. Alexa credits watching movies for inspiring her as a poet and an artist. You can follow her latest projects on alexapellegrini.contently.com. To work with Alexa, connect with her over LinkedIn or email.

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