The approach of spring means it’s officially audition season for drama schools and high school seniors are dusting off their Shakespeare monologues on the quest to earn a spot in one of the many acting training programs across the country. There’s no shortage of options, which means that students will have to make some decisions as they plan the next major chapter of their lives. One of those decisions is whether to pursue training at a conservatory or at a college/university. Before we learn more, it might be helpful to define what exactly a conservatory is: a specialized school designed specifically to train students in a specific field, like acting or dance. But wait! Don’t college programs do that too? Yes, but there are some important differences. Let’s take a look at them.


Both conservatories and college theatre programs offer classes in acting, voice, and movement, but students in a college program will also need to take classes outside of their major. These are called “general education” classes and include basic math, science, and English classes as well as some electives. I remember vividly sitting in Bio 101 and going over my David Mamet monologue in my head (sorry, Professor). At a conservatory, students take almost exclusively performance classes, sometimes with some theatre history classes mixed in as well. But you’ll fully concentrate in one specific area like acting, dance, or voice. This sometimes means that there’s less flexibility in being able to “mix and match” classes at a conservatory. At a college program, you’ll probably be able to take a dance class or a theatre design class even if your major is acting.

Ultimately it’s a question of immersion vs breadth: conservatories are designed to fully immerse students in one area of concentration while college programs tend to offer somewhat broader training and experience across disciplines.


Class schedules may also differ: college classes are often structured to either meet for about 50-60 minutes four or five days a week, or 80-90 minutes two days a week. Conversely, conservatory students may attend the same class every day for at least an hour or two. Classes in a conservatory tend to be very studio-heavy, meaning that students spend most of their time practicing and honing their craft through exercises and performances. That scene from Angels in America? You’ll probably be spending at least an hour a day working on it in class.

Conservatory programs also tend to be more rigorous in that students are often in class from morning to afternoon, and then often go into rehearsals in the evening. Colleges on the other hand may have class schedules that have gaps in between classes during the day, or you may go from a performance class straight to a general education class. This may call for some extra planning. Speaking from personal experience, I learned quickly that when you have a morning movement class and then a biology lecture class, packing deodorant and a change of clothes is paramount. I spent many a morning frantically changing from sweats and a tank top and dousing myself in body spray, all while going over lines for my role in our production of Passion Play (some experiences are universal for theatre students).

 Take a  look at a day in the life of conservatory students for an idea as to what to expect.

Certificate vs Degree

Another important difference between conservatories and colleges is the type of degree offered, or if there’s a degree offered at all. In the United States the standard undergraduate degree is a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four years to complete. There are two types of bachelor’s degrees that theatre students can earn. A BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degree is a focused, specialized degree with the bulk of the classes being performance/studio classes. A BA (Bachelor of Arts) is a more generalized degree with performance classes, as well as classes like theatre history, criticism, and perhaps some complementary classes like humanities or film. All four-year college programs will offer a degree, some a BFA and some a BA (and some both).

When it comes to conservatories, it’s more varied. Some conservatory programs take less than four years to complete. Those programs might offer a certificate or an associate’s degree, which is a two-year degree. Others do take four years and will offer a degree (almost always a BFA).

Some conservatories offer only the training and no official certificate or degree. How do you know what’s right for you? It depends largely on your ultimate goals. If you want to teach or continue on to a graduate program at some point, you’ll more than likely need a bachelor’s degree. If your primary focus is on becoming a professional actor, having a degree vs a certificate is less important.


Admission to conservatories is almost always by audition. Students usually undergo multiple rounds of auditions in front of a panel before they are granted admission. Most conservatories offer a limited number of spots, so competition can be fierce. This is especially true at the top-tier conservatories like Juiliard, where about 7% of applicants are admitted. Some conservatories (and some college programs) even do a “cut” at the end of each school year where some students are cut from the program.

Many college programs have audition requirements too, but they may differ slightly from conservatories. For example, some colleges offer both a BFA and a BA degree so that students who aren’t granted admission to the BFA program can still pursue a theatre BA. The idea is that conservatories and BFA programs are for students who demonstrate that they’re serious about pursuing a career as a professional actor and have the potential to do so. At any rate, you should be prepared to work hard to earn a spot.


Between tuition, textbooks, supplies, and living expenses, acting programs are no cheap endeavor. But costs can vary widely. The cost of a college program will largely depend on whether the school is public or private, and whether you’re attending as an in-state or out-of-state student. In 2021, the average annual tuition at a public college in the United States was about $9,600 compared to $33,000 for private colleges. Students who aren’t residents of the state they’re attending college will on average pay at least twice as much in tuition (colleges usually define a resident as someone who has lived in the state for at least two or three years prior to enrolling). As an example: UCLA (which boasts a renowned acting program) costs about $13,000 for in-state residents and $43,000 for out-of-state residents. Private schools will cost even more: tuition at the top private university acting programs – Carnegie-Mellon, Brown, and NYU – is about $55,000 for in-state residents.

Acting conservatories vary even more widely in cost, mostly depending on the length of the training program and the prestige of the conservatory. Consider some of the top conservatory programs in the United States: Juilliard ($51,230), American Academy of Dramatic Arts ($37,575), Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute ($19,650 for a one-year program).

Of course, these numbers are just for tuition. Students will also have to consider housing, food, and other expenses. The cost of living in cities that house top-tier training programs, like New York City or Chicago, can be quite high.

There’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” choice – you should consider your career goals, the kind of training you’re looking for, and the kind of experience you want. If you want to stay closer to home and have a more traditional college experience, a college program is probably the way to go. But if a big city like New York and the intense lifestyle of a professional actor are calling your name, a conservatory is worth looking into.

1 comment

  1. I really enjoy getting the stage agent information you folks send me
    through my email…it really gets my applause… (Please cut me a break)You break things down into a stage rightstage left.. Simple and easy directions….I take a bow to the article about conservatory or college attendance.. the young man Kevan Dunkleberg really laid it out so well talking about cost and how to choose where you’re going to go… I really believe his advice on how to get a quality education in either place.., I enjoyed, it all….I really appreciate your hard work so much… Maybe next time you can write an article regarding the ghost light ….That might be a career in itself.…sincerely yours Steven Kramer🎭

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Join StageAgent and Ace Your Auditions

Enjoy the ultimate theatre research and networking platform. StageAgent helps performing artists save time, improve their craft and discover opportunities.

Create Your Profile

Display your headshots, credits and skills to showcase your talent.

Read Expert Guides

Prepare for your next role by studying our expert show guides.

Find Audition Materials

Explore hundreds of monologues, scenes and audition songs.

Discover Audition Notices

Find performing and backstage opportunities in your city.