Recently, I read an article over at Get Rich Slowly  that stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Essentially, the author asked how much input a parent who is paying for college should have over their child’s choice of major . There was a wide range of responses all the way from “You’re killing her dream” to “I’m not paying for some bulls#*t degree.” Although I’ve already chimed in with a few comments of my own, I’d like to share my own thoughts in a bit more detail here. Afterall, what are blogs for right?


A Little About My Educational Background

As somebody who graduated with a degree in Theatre Arts, I think that I have a unique view on this topic. First, the artistic fields are driven more by passion than monetary goals. In my case, my parents never intended to pay for my schooling. It was going to be something that I had to pay for myself. So, while they may have tried to steer me away from the theatre major, ultimately, it was my decision since I was paying it. (Unfortunately, as part of the settlement from my brother’s death, my parents did end up paying for it in the end.)

Being an 18 year-old kid, I wanted to change the world. I didn’t care about money. I didn’t care about fame even – although that would have been nice. All I wanted to do was what I thought I loved, and that was acting.

At the time, the cost of my schooling wasn’t something that was really tangible to me. It didn’t feel real. Like most students these days, I was financing the whole thing. I wasn’t thinking about how I was going to use my degree in order to make money to pay back the tens of thousands of dollars in student loans that I was accumulating. I was focused on following my passion. Of course, my 18 year-old brain hadn’t realized that it takes money to fund a passion. You see, I had forgotten that the term “show business” has two parts to it. Almost all of us were focused on the “show” part when we needed to pay much more attention to the “business” end.

While I would never trade in the experiences I had or the life-long friendships I formed while in college, I would love to have back the $35,000 I spent.  Also, I wish that I would have studied something that would have put me in a better financial situation. If I could go back and do it all over again, I certainly would have chosen a different college major.

The Best Way to Attain an Education in the Arts

Honestly, if I truly wanted to follow my passion, I never should have went to college at all. In fact, I had a professor who flat-out told us that. He encouraged us all to drop out and get involved in the business. “Go out and meet people, carry coffee for the 2nd assistant to the assistant director,” he would say. “If you want to be an actor, go out and act. What are you doing here? There are people your age and younger already making a living doing this. You are wasting your time in college.”

Looking back, he was absolutely right. Success in show business is seldom found through spending time in a college setting. Success usually develops from getting involved in the business and networking with the people who are already doing it. The way to learn is by watching the professionals while you work for them during the day. At night, you can take professional level classes at a fraction of the cost of college. Furthermore, these classes are taught by professionals who are already making a living in the business, which presents another opportunity for networking. So, while a college education is a great investment for certain scientific and mechanical disciplines, in many artistic fields, a college education is neither something that is necessary for success nor is it justified by the expected salary for “working” graduates.

I still have a lot of friends “working” in the business. However, out of the 150 or so students that I went to school with, probably 20 of them are still involved. Most of them do theatre for little or no money. The vast majority of those who are able to “make a living” in the theatre do so on the technical side of things. Still, most of them are living from paycheck to paycheck – one gig to the next. Regardless, we all wasted our money because we spent thousands of dollars for a degree in a field which requires no degree to find work.

The Reality of the Dream

When following your artistic passion, the reality of actually finding a job is much less sexy than the dream. The hours are long, the pay is peanuts, and the jobs are few and far between. For me, reality hit when I had to start paying back my loans. It hit when I went without health insurance for a year. It hit when I was constantly searching for work. Some people love this lifestyle. They love the martyrdom of being a starving artist. I did not.

While I think a parent should be supportive of their child’s dreams, they also need to be realistic. Following a passion is addictive. In many ways, it is similar to a drug. Should parents be expected to fund their child’s lifestyle to pursue other addictions? I don’t think so. Why then should they be obligated to fund an addiction to the idea of fame or passion? While at first glance these addictions may not seem as dangerous as others, the effects that they can have on one’s life can be just as damaging in the long run – albeit in different ways

Although the choice must ultimately be up to the child, the parent can’t necessarily be expected to participate in the decision. They are not obligated to throw money away on an overpriced college education that will be worth very little in the end. The question is how do you encourage a legitimate dream without funding a misguided addiction…and how do you tell the difference?

What Would I Do?

So, do I think that a parent should pay for their child’s college education if their child chooses a major that they don’t agree with? I guess, it honestly depends on the situation. No matter what major a child wishes to pursue, parents should have a serious conversation with their child discussing the merits of what they wish to study. They need to discuss their child’s goals and expected outcomes. Parents should explain their options. Together, parents and children should decide whether the child even needs a college degree in order to pursue their dreams.

In theory, this all sounds great. However, in practice, I’m not really sure what I would do if my child wanted to pursue this sort of a degree. The reason I’m saving for their college in the first place is to keep them from acquiring debt with places like FedLoan. Would I allow them to follow their passion but let them accumulate debt to do it?

I don’t know. I’m tempted to say that I probably would not pay her way. If she wanted to be an artist or an actor, then I’d encourage her to forego school and get working. However, I’d probably keep her money set aside to use for college in case she changed her mind later. In that way, I hope that I could walk the very fine line of encouraging my child while still parenting in a responsible way.