"So... do you need a degree to be successful in the audio field?"
One of the most common questions I hear discussed is whether or not someone needs to go to college in order to be a successful audio engineer. The answer is dependent on many factors including personal situations, finances, and the area in which you would like to specialize. The short answer is no, not necessarily. For the longer answer- let's discuss!
First, I'll briefly describe my own path to working full-time as a freelancer in audio post production. I received a Bachelors of Science in music industry studies with a concentration in recording and production. For my own journey, I found my college experience to be incredibly valuable and worthwhile. There were a number of factors that went into me making the decision to attend a college program, so let's highlight them below.
1. I had no prior audio experience. I was a musician and knew that I loved that world, but had very little knowledge as to what an audio engineer actually did. I distinctly remember my first workshop I attended at school; it was about reverb, and I was totally lost. That was the moment I knew it would be worth it to me, as I would be going into an environment where I could ask as many questions as I needed to.
2. The gear at my school was consistently accessible to me. There were multiple studios, and there was always a good chance that one of them was available to work in. That hands on experience was something that increased my confidence in studio environments, since a lot of the time, I had already worked with that piece of equipment before.
3. The professors were qualified and willing to both challenge me and work with me.
4. I was able to graduate with minimal student debt. I think too often people don't talk about what you're supposed to do if you alone are responsible for your college education finances. I took advantage of every financial opportunity available to me, and I want to talk about that a little bit more.
How I got out with minimal debt
Without a doubt, college is an expense that should be considered very carefully. Student debt frankly sucks some major a**, and if you attend somewhere out of state, or a private institution- that debt can grow faster than you can say "sound speeding." Keep in mind that if you have a large amount of student debt upon graduation, you will likely be paying on it for many years, and will need an income to accommodate that extra payment every month. Here's the path that I took to minimize my own debt coming out of school:
- While this wasn't totally intentional, I attended community college for two years and then transferred to a university to complete my degree. There are pros and cons to doing it this way, and I will note that if you have parents who can afford to pay for the full four to five years of university, I think it's very beneficial to be at one place the entire time. For me, neither me nor my family could afford college when I graduated high school, so I planned to attend community college locally until I figured out what exactly I wanted to do. I lived at home to save on rent, and worked full time while in community college. I also received several grants upon graduating from high school, which (excluding the cost of books which is highway robbery) covered most of my tuition costs. In this way, I was able to actually save up money for a couple of years.
Now, doing it this way obviously means you are not around anything remotely audio related for the first half of college. But, this is a golden opportunity to check off all general education courses for way less money than completing them at a four year school. Just make sure that the school you are attending will transfer your course credits. You can ask your academic advisor to verify this for you, or call the university to double check. Once you transfer, you'll have already completed most of your gen eds, and get to only focus on classes directly relating to your degree.
- Once I transferred, I immediately began applying for FAFSA government assistance. This is a US based thing, so if you live outside the United States, there may be some other comparable program. Essentially, you try to convince the government you're unable to pay for college and ask them for grants or loans. Most of the time, this is where people sign up for the dreaded student loan, but you can also receive grants which is free money you never have to pay back. There are a ton of technicalities here that screw with the system, but I can't deny that receiving FAFSA was the only reason I was able to graduate. Here's the link to their site if you want to check it out.
There are some things to keep in mind when it comes to the paperwork. If you are over 18 and your parent(s) are claiming you on their taxes as a dependent, you may have a harder time receiving grants, as the government will look at your family's total income to determine whether or not you need financial assistance. It might be worth talking to a tax expert to see if it benefits you to not be included as a dependent and to file your own taxes.
Something no one tells you is that you can appeal the government's decision regarding your FAFSA grant and loan status. Oftentimes, your family income looks too high on paper, and so they will begin distributing to others they deem higher priority. After which, there is occasionally leftover money that was granted to the school that has no where to go. I learned this in my last semester of college, when I was suddenly denied any assistance (not even loans). I called the financial offices at my school and asked them (more accurately, begged) if there was anything I could do, which is when I heard about the appeal. Essentially, I had to fill out some paperwork and write out a document describing that my family income was not in fact going to my college education. I then had to present before a board at the school, which sounds terrifying, but it was basically four people in a room and it took all of 2 minutes. A week later, my application was 'reviewed,' and two grants were deposited into my checking to pay a portion of my tuition.
- Outside of FAFSA, there are a ton of college grants and scholarships available from various places. Check to see if you qualify for any of them- I received a couple that ultimately paid for an entire semester of college. Oftentimes it's just getting a couple professor recs in your chosen major and submitting them. You can check out sites like this one that can search for grants that match your major, education, and more.
- The last thing I did to minimize my debt was work throughout my time at university. This is not ideal, and it certainly takes away from the time you can invest into your education. My advice (if this is something you need to do) would be to see if you can find jobs that relate to your major. For example, I worked as a concert recording engineer, setting up mics, tracking senior recitals, and editing/archiving these performances for the school of music. I also worked live sound at a local church a couple days a week. Both of these jobs I could include on my resume upon graduating, and they taught me valuable skills I didn't learn in school.
Minimizing debt using these steps is not always accessible or available to everyone, but I wanted to delve into the ways I personally was able to squeak by.
Check out the school before you commit
Colleges want you to attend; they want that tuition money. The programs might look flashy and necessary for your career when you are looking at them online, but in reality turn out to be much smaller and less beneficial than you imagined. One way to double check that a college education is right for you is to visit the college directly, if possible. Many universities offer a program called "student for a day" or something similar, where you are able to attend college while still a high school student for one day to see if the program is what you are looking for. You receive a schedule and attend actual courses you would sign up for; you eat on campus, visit the facilities. And, most importantly, you get to chat with actual students. Linked here is an example of a similar program at Belmont University.
Even if a "student for a day" program isn't available, you can always head to the school one day on your own and ask to speak with several people pursuing your major there. Students will tell you the unfiltered truth; whether they love what they're doing or hate it. In my experience, (as long as you call ahead) many professors or heads of programs are more than happy to set up a brief tour and introduce you to current students as well. Some questions to ask might be:
"How much hands on time with equipment is available?"
"Do you need to audition to be in the program?"
"Does the school help with internship placements upon graduation?"
"Are there any alumni who currently work in the audio field?"
"What does studio access here look like?"
"Can you work on independent projects (outside of school program homework) here?"
Some last thoughts to consider
I polled this question about receiving audio degrees to fellow sound engineers on Instagram, and the responses were varied. Here are several key points that were consistently brought up:
- Networking. Receiving a degree helps you to network with both current students and past alumni. Depending on the school, this can be a valuable resource you otherwise would not have access to. Many programs plan trips to cities and studios that are influential to the industry (New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, etc.) which is a great way to meet studio engineers for internships or entry level jobs.
- Foundation of knowledge. If you are just starting in your audio journey, going to college can help to form a foundation of information to stand on and learn from. This information could prove incredibly useful in entry level positions, especially when it comes to operating equipment that you may not have access to on your own.
- Personality and experience is key. Compared to a college education, most people brought up that your personality and the experience you gather in the industry is worth more to employers than any degree.
To sum up: an audio degree isn't necessary to have a successful audio career. But, if you do receive one, the connections that you make and the hands on experience you obtain can be invaluable, and well worth the cost of admission.
Do you have any money saving tips for college? Thoughts to add on getting a degree? Add them to the comments below! ⬇️