Small LAC for music (jazz piano/composition/production) with strong financial aid

The short version: What are the small LAC’s with strong aid possibilities (need-based/academic/talent merit) that have excellent music programs?

We just dropped my oldest child at Grinnell College last week (freshman) and we are thrilled with the small, selective, collaborate/quirky LAC experience she is having so far. We are also thrilled with the amount of financial aid she is getting at a school with a big endowment. We’re from Philly, so Iowa was not originally in our plan, but this school was just the perfect fit. Phew.

My middle kid is a rising Jr. in high school. In many ways, a school like Grinnell, would also be fantastic for him. He is neurodivergent; the small, supportive community and focus on mentorship would be hugely beneficial for him. We now know that the full needs-meet selective privates are good possibilities for us financially because we’ve run all the NPC’s with my older daughter. My son will have good stats so less selective privates could also work for us with merit.

The issue is, he is ALL ABOUT MUSIC. This guy is going to be a musician. Jazz piano, composition, producing, scoring; he wants to do it all and doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. He needs to be with other good musicians to be happy. He doesn’t need 8,000 of them like a Berklee, but he needs a cohort of like-minded music-makers and he needs a small handful of excellent teachers. We love the idea of a good liberal arts eduction, and he’ll need that reading/writing/thinking for his music career, but 4 years of classes that are not predominantly music related would not be palatable for him. Back to Grinnell, an open curriculum like that where kids take exactly what they want and leave the rest could work, IF there was enough music learning potential offered.

We have toured and are considering conservatories and bigger schools with robust music programs. Some seem too rigid; you have stay in your lane, either piano performance OR production. Some are going to be way too expensive for us, particularly those in expensive cities (Boston and NYC) that don’t guarantee housing all 4 years.

Our thoughts about college being an effective vehicle for a contemporary music career are shifting as we compare college program specifics with the mix of real skills he needs in order to be ready for the modern music industry, which is changing constantly. So many of those skills can be obtained more efficiently with the right private teachers and mentors, and we don’t need to wait for college for that .

He does need to go to college though. Those are special growing-up years. The right school does wonders for focus, independence, maturity.

We are in Philly. I’d rather this kiddo be within driving distance. Fafsa EFC is 22K with one kid in college; will have two in college by the time this guy goes; hoping to pay under 20 all-in.

We have toured: SUNY Purchase, Berklee, New School, Hart School of Music

What small LAC’s with strong music and strong aid should I be looking at?


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Oberlin and Bard are the obvious choices, they both should meet the price point though Bard might gap you and oberlin is farther than you want.


I’ve read a lot on here about Lawrence and St Olaf so it might be two to look at but of course they miss the geographical limits.

Maybe Rochester and Bard could work. Bard has a 5 year double major.

Shenandoah is drivable as well.

Hope that at least gives you schools to look at.

Rochester and St Olaf meet need.


I’ve heard a lot of talk about Loyola U in New Orleans as being very good musically, yet small, but also handy to Tulane…


There may be suggestions in this thread worth consideration…


Have you and has he read the Double Degree Dilemma essay posted under the Read Me thread on the music forum? And I also suggest you consider posting there.

A BA will generally be 1/4-1/3 music classes plus lessons, and extracurricular performance. A BM will be 2/3-3/4 classes in music. Then there are double majors, major/minor and of course double degree.

Since you have been looking at BM programs, I am a little confused. Also don’t know how academically qualified he is. I immediately thought of Williams (good music, good aid), Amherst (ditto, and free curriculum), Hamilton (ditto and free curriculum), Wesleyan (has always been progressive), Davidson, Vassar…also St.Olaf, Clark (I am a fan of Clark).

I know a multi-faceted kid who did Boston Conservatory, which has a lot of resources since the merger with Berklee and she did everything she wanted to- but expensive.

Oberlin has a newish Musical Studies major for kids not doing the BM but who want access to the conservatory.

For LAC conservatory programs/double degrees, Oberlin, Bard, Lawrence, Ithaca, Hart Tufts and Harvard/NEC would fit the bill you describe. Many others but that’s a start.

Peabody has a new Music for New Media program which might appeal. Not traditional classical composition. Depends on what he wants. Loyola is a great suggestion. U Denver maybe. If he wants production there are other schools to suggest.

One caveat: if he is not doing a BM and is interested in a school that does have a BM program, he or you should check to see what opportunities are available for non-BM students in case the best teachers and performances go to them.

He sounds like a kid who would like a BM program but then again, some of the LAC music BA’s are pretty multi-faceted and curricula have been expanded at many schools (even Harvard!) to prevent the kind of narrow silo-ing he does not want.


Not a LAC but University of Rochester has an open curriculum and Eastman School is one of the best for music.


As I was reading your description of what your family was looking for, I kept thinking Loyola New Orleans, Loyola New Orleans, Loyola New Orleans…up until the driving distance statement. It is within driving distance, but it’d be a LONG drive, preferably with a partner to take turns doing the driving.

But, it has a great music school with an array of programs, from commercial and contemporary to classical, as well as business, production, etc. As a Jesuit school, it has a strong tradition of intellectual inquiry and there will be some requirements for a certain amount of breadth. The campus has a very racially and economically diverse student body and is very open and welcoming of people, regardless of their religion, sexual orientation, etc. The school gives generous merit aid as well, and the school staff is known as being very warm and interested in their students. And of course, few cities in the U.S. are better for jazz than New Orleans.

@AmyIzzy has a student there and @2plustrio visited it last year and may have additional feedback.

I’ll put my thinking cap on for other suggestions closer to home.


Oberlin’s NPC for first kid was much higher than Grinnell’s. Meets-need is a relative term. The really small selective schools were our lowest by over 10K when we went through this two years ago.

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Any inside scoop on the music scene there?

Ok, thanks! He went to a jazz camp at Eastman last year so we’re familiar with Rochester. The double major thing at Bard has had me curious, but I think that could be quite a load for a serious musician to also be fully majoring in a non-music field. Not sure his ADHD can handle that. He did a jazz camp at Shenandoah this past summer and didn’t love the vibe. I’ve heard a lot about St. Olaf so it’s definitely on my list to look at more closely. Do you know much about music at St. Olaf?

Oh, and Lawrence is a great option but just a bit far. We looked at if for my daughter (also into music) and her merit possibilities were great there. On our list.

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Yes, Loyola New Orleans is on the list!


Thank you. Loyola New Orleans is on the list to check out. It’s a bit far, but we’re open to that.


I’ll be honest - don’t know about Lawrence or St. Olaf - other than everyone on here loves them.

If you are going farther and it’s larger, but U Miami is farther and meets need.

Just wanted to throw all those out to look at.

Good luck.

This is all great advice, thanks so much. We will read the essay you mention.

When we did our first tour spring break of Sophomore year, we looked at the BM programs; at the time he was pretty focused on a straight jazz piano performance/jazz studies degree. Then, he went to two jazz camps this summer and came home saying he did not love traditional jazz enough and didn’t want to be limited to that. He is constantly creating music that span other genres, though jazz is at the heart of much of it. He also wants to compose and score and produce.

He’s got the potential to be very high stats and GPA is above 4.0 going into Jr yr, but with the time the music takes up, I’m not sure we’re going to pull off tippy-top scores this year particularly on the ACT. He is only taking 2 AP’s and attends a performing arts high school where academic rigor is not the push.

My older kid, the one currently at Grinnell, was Williams and Amherst admission material. I’m not sure if my son is, but maybe? But I’d like to know more about why you say Williams and Amherst, Hamilton, Wesleyan are good music. Know anything about Clark for music particularly? Amherst was a really low NPC with older kid; those are the numbers we need.

Thanks again, I’m going to read through all your suggestions carefully.

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Prior to the pandemic, it certainly seemed as if half the student body belonged to a band with a few actually experiencing commercial success (Santi “Santigold” White, MGMT and a few others are still revered.) Experimental music is at the core of the Wesleyan music scene (it pioneered in the field of Ethnomusicology) and the jazz community is heavily influenced by past faculty like Anthony Braxton, and current ones like, Jay Hoggard, Class of 1976:
Jazz Orchestra, Music - Wesleyan University
Also, Jazz Ensemble, Music - Wesleyan University


How big of a cohort are you talking about? 20 kids in a college? 20 in a graduating class? 200?

The difference is that oberlin gives merit aid - and according to an extensive conversation I had with the admissions rep where I asked the question in several different ways - she would get merit on top of the need based aid (which was extensive in our case as well). At the time they were promising at least $10k merit - which on top of our need based aid shown on the NPC would have been in the ballpark for us. I didn’t test this though as my kid got in ED at another school and never applied to oberlin in the end.

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