College and Debt or Chasing Dreams in Arts

Tommy Bracco, 21, is an actor, singer and dancer working in New York City.

By Andrea Kayda

When Tommy Bracco was 7 years old, he asked his aunt which career made the most money. She replied, “If you’re successful, an actor.” Little did his aunt know at the time, but those words would stick with him for the rest of his life.

Bracco is now a 21-year-old “triple threat” — an actor, singer and dancer — reveling in the success of his latest show, “Newsies,” which was recently picked up for a three-month run on Broadway.

Bracco’s path was not the traditional one. He attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia Performing Arts High School for drama and was accepted into Marymount Manhattan College. After one semester, he dropped out. His course work wasn’t too demanding and he wasn’t discouraged by the hour-long commute from his home in Tottenville, Staten Island — he decided to follow his dream.

“College will always be there. The ability to dance and tumble will not. I took a leap of faith and jumped into the world of auditioning,” he said.

The grim economy facing young adults combined with a growing loan burden makes following one’s dreams not as risky as it once was. According to 2010 data from the Bureau of Labor statistics, individuals with higher levels of education earn more and are more likely than others to be employed. But some, like Bracco, have begun to reevaluate the risk in foregoing college in pursuit of an endeavor that doesn’t require a degree.

In October, Forbes Magazine and the Center for College Affordability & Productivity released a list of America’s most expensive colleges, using data from the National Center for Education. Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers topped the list at $58,334 (including room and board) per year, followed by University of Chicago at $57,590 and The New School at $57,199.

But private universities aren’t the only institutions raising tuitions; public university tuitions have also seen a swell of almost 130 percent, according to the College Board.

The rising tuition costs have, since 1988, been exceeding Americans’ incomes, according to latest IRS data. And while tuitions have increased, even at public universities, middle class incomes have stagnated. In order to afford the exorbitant price tags, many students resort to taking out student loans. According to, about two thirds of students graduating with four-year degrees did so with loans averaging $23,186.

Unlike Bracco who left college behind, others are adding degrees as they try to ride out the bad economy.

Michael Tylutki, 25, from Franklin Square, Long Island, is in his second year at Touro Law School. In 2010 he graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he accumulated approximately $40,000 in student loans, with a bachelor’s in finance. After moving back to New York, he applied to law school. “I knew the job market was horrible, so instead of sitting around and trying to find a job that wasn’t really there or take a job I didn’t want, I decided to go right back to school,” he said.

His J.D. will cost him another $120,000 ($40,000 a year) making his total debt after graduation approximately $160,000. “It’s not a great feeling knowing I have all this debt, but it’s something that is so common nowadays and something I had to take on in order to do what I wanted with my life. Just about all of my friends at school are in the same position so it’s not too bad, and they have all these kinds of pay-back programs, so all in all I think I made the right decision,” he said.

Among adults ages 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor’s degree, some 57 percent say they would rather work and make money and 48 percent say they simply can’t afford it, according to a 2011 report from the Pew Research Center.

But with college enrollment levels steadily increasing and growths projected as far as year 2020, many still consider attaining a degree to be the wisest choice.

In 2009, the College Board conducted study — a random national sample of high school seniors who registered to take the SAT — to understand the effects of the recession on the financial circumstances and college plans of high school seniors and families. The study found that the recession is having a considerable impact on two-thirds of these students and their families.

Results also suggest several expected shifts: more students will start to choose public institutions and community colleges; more will live at home and commute to college; and more will work part-time to pay for college.

Many students are willing to accept the financial hardships that college necessitates, expecting the money to come back to them in the long run. It was once reported that a college degree was worth $1 million, but according to The Wall Street Journal and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the net value of a U.S. college degree is now about $325,000.

And another College Board Trend Report, Education Pays 2010, found that by age 33, the typical college graduate made enough to compensate for not only four years out of the labor force, but also for average tuition and fee payments at a public four-year university funded fully by student loans.

But for now, Bracco is leaving his options open: “I plan on following the path that my heart, my dreams and my head take me on. Eventually I will have to hang up my dancing shoes, but that won’t stop me from being a character actor in shows. … I can go into casting. I can choreograph. I can even go to college! I don’t have a set plan but any one of those seem fulfilling to me.”

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