Degree or Not Degree: Can College or Private Conservatory Lead to the Same Acting Roles?

By Terry Knickerbocker

Terry with a TKS Graduate Laura
Vocational training and higher education are typically viewed as two distinct educational tracks, leading to two different career paths – one requiring a college degree and one not. But when it comes to actor training, the two paths merge – with both potentially leading to the exact same roles and careers. Students should consider that, as they decide how best to pursue their passion for acting. That is not an argument against college, which is a wonderful and rewarding experience for many students. It is an argument for understanding the distinctions between the two paths – to determine which is best for a particular student. As someone who taught acting at a renowned university for years and now runs a leading private conservatory in New York City, I know those distinctions well. Examining them is instructive.

Degree or Not Degree

One major distinction is that college and university drama programs offer bachelor’s degrees. That’s not a small consideration. We live in a society where a college degree has historically been a highly valued outcome. That may be reason enough to go to college. It is often a major factor for parents, who may be paying the tuition; however, recently the career value of a bachelor’s degree has come into question.

Fallback; Spring forward

Parents often also see a college degree as a valued fallback in case a student’s acting career does not spring forward. But that always strikes me as sad. Shouldn’t a student’s education be structured around that student’s passions rather than positioned as a backup plan for failure?

A Safer Space vs. an Elite Place 

Some college drama programs are at elite universities, which offer added stature. But success at almost all colleges and universities is judged by grades. Success and failure are prescribed in advance – from A to F – with failure to be avoided. Yet failure is how we learn. Risking failure is daring to be great. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is vital to creativity.
One of the great attributes of leading private conservatories is that they aim to provide as safe a space as possible, where students can take chances, risk embarrassment, try out an approach that may not work. That safety cannot exist to the same degree when the goal is an A, when the pursuit is of a prescribed outcome rather than personal growth and creativity.

The Producers

Another advantage of colleges and universities is that their drama departments typically produce shows. That gives students a chance not only to perform but to experience the full breadth of a production. Some students will even decide that they prefer to be backstage. Those productions may also be seen by industry professionals, which can sometimes advance careers, although there is no guarantee. There is a great difference, however, between being in a production and learning how to treat your body as an instrument of your artistry. Many students in college productions play their parts without ever embodying the characters they portray – without ever coming to grips with what is in the way of their portraying those characters.

Acting Has Its Costs

College and university drama programs are typically far more expensive than private conservatories, and that difference is worth considering. Students may go to college hoping to prepare for an acting career and then emerge so loaded with debt that they cannot afford to pursue the career they wanted. The fallback becomes the career before the desired career is even explored. This may affect the graduates’ artistic choices. How can they work on that low-paying reading of a great new play, if they have to make their student loan payments?

A Life to Arrange

In the end, my advice to acting students is this: Arrange your life in a way that supports what you really want to do. Don’t fit your interests into life; arrange your life around them. Recognize at the outset that two paths – college and private conservatories – can lead to the same roles and therefore the same careers. No director casts a production based on college degrees; what matters is talent, ability, and performance. The question is: How will you grow most in your pursuit of the art of acting? Your growth in that pursuit – no matter where it takes you – will always reward you. At the end of the day, hopefully the industry is casting based on who’s the best actor, not on where they went to school.
Terry Knickerbocker is founder and studio director of the Terry Knickerbocker Studio.

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