Attending a performing arts college is a big decision—you're committing to focusing exclusively on your art for four years. Once you've made this choice, you need to find a school that'll allow you to accomplish your career goals.
In order to help you find the right school for you, I've compiled a list of the best performing arts colleges in the US. Keep reading to see what these are!
How Is "Performing Arts College" Defined for This List?
This list includes schools that exclusively offer drama and dance degrees. Since music schools tend to differ dramatically (I'm so punny) from drama and dance schools, I've left them out of this article; if you want to read more about the best music schools in the US, here is the place to find that information.
Furthermore, I've focused on schools where drama and/or dance is a priority. These schools only offer performing arts degrees or have specialized performing arts schools at the larger university.
Going to a performing arts college has many advantages for students. You will be surrounded by like-minded artists who will inspire you, help you with your creative pursuits, and also likely be your colleagues when you graduate. Additionally, you'll be at a school that doesn't view your art as a mere extracurricular activity.
Although it's possible to get a performing arts degree from other colleges, this list of best performing arts colleges is designed for students who know 100% they exclusively want to study acting or dance and are looking for an environment that fully supports them in their ambitions.
How Did I Decide on These Top Performing Arts Colleges?
Don't ever take rankings of the top performing arts colleges as absolute fact—not even those from Backstage or The Hollywood Reporter. Instead, you should use these articles as a starting point for your own research. Whenever you look at a list of the best performing arts colleges, try to see how the rankings were determined.
Here, I'll explain how I came up with this unscientific list of schools. I started by limiting my search to schools that prioritize dance and drama by only offering performing arts degrees or by having a specialized program within the larger university.
I then took the following three criteria into consideration:
- Ranking: I used a variety of ranking lists from respected industry sources such as Backstage and The Hollywood Reporter as a starting point for my research.
- On-Campus & Off-Campus Extracurricular Opportunities: It's important as a performer to have the chance to actually perform. Does the school provide opportunities? Do you have the option to intern off-campus with a local theatre or dance group? Can you study abroad at premier programs? Do you get to perform in an industry showcase?
- Notable Alumni: How many alumni have risen to the top of their fields? If there are a lot of notable alumni, the program they attended likely contributed to their success, either by providing them with superior skills or superior resources (such as internships, industry connections, etc.).
I split this list into tiers instead of rankings since rankings are usually not that meaningful. Tier 1 schools are the cream-of-the-crop performing arts colleges; they provide students with the most extracurricular opportunities and have the longest lists of notable alumni. Tier 2 schools are still excellent but don't have the same opportunities or as many notable alumni as the Tier 1 schools do.
Note that not all of these schools are excellent for both dance and drama. Actually, some of these schools only offer a dance or a drama program. Within each school description, I've noted whether it's a top school for dance, drama, or both.
At Tier 1 schools, you can perform in first-rate productions.
Best Performing Arts Colleges: Tier 1
We'll start our list with the Tier 1 schools, or the best performing arts colleges in the country.
The Juilliard School—Drama and Dance
Always listed near the top of both drama and dance rankings, Juilliard boasts an unbelievably long list of notable alumni who have won more than 105 Grammy Awards, 62 Tony Awards, 47 Emmy Awards, 26 Bessie Awards, 24 Academy Awards, 16 Pulitzer Prizes, and 12 National Medals for the Arts. That's quite a pedigree!
The school is extremely exclusive, selecting only eight to 10 students for the BFA Acting Program, eight to 10 students for the MFA Acting Program, and about 24 students for the BFA Dance Program.
Outside the classroom, the dance program holds 15 public performances each year, and the drama program puts on many plays and senior showcases in both New York and Los Angeles for industry professionals such as casting directors, agents, and managers. If you're looking for a program that can put you on the fast track to an amazing career, Julliard is an excellent choice.
NYU Tisch School of the Arts—Drama and Dance
Like Juilliard, NYU Tisch is also always near the top of the rankings for both drama and dance. And for good reason: the school has a long list of notable alumni, many of whom have performed on Broadway, at Radio City Music Hall, and in movies and on TV. While the list of notable alums is long, some names you may recognize include Lady Gaga, Elizabeth Olsen, James Franco, Spike Lee, and Kristen Bell.
Tisch offers many different degrees in different artistic fields, including drama, performance studies, film & television, dramatic writing, and cinema studies. The school is also branching into different performance media, including music production and video game production/design. The school also takes advantage of its NYC environment by partnering drama students with professional acting studios where they can perform in a wide array of productions led by world-famous theatre artists and faculty.
Carnegie Mellon has a long history of top-notch drama education: in fact, it was the first degree-granting drama institution in the US. More importantly, Carnegie Mellon is a drama powerhouse with a faculty of working theater professionals and well-known alumni, including Holly Hunter, Billy Porter, Judith Light, Ted Danson, and Zachary Quinto. This school offers separate acting and musical theatre degrees as well, giving students the option to specialize in different types of performances.
The drama department offers a unique, hands-on education that gives students plenty of on-stage opportunities. The department puts on 20 shows per year, allowing for many performance opportunities. Additionally, the school cancels classes for a week each year to let students engage in performances of any kind (such as original works or adaptations of movies). Seniors get to perform in showcases in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh in front of industry professionals.
Additionally, Carnegie Mellon offers students a chance to engage in interdisciplinary studies through The Studio for Creative Inquiry and The Center for Arts in Society. If you're interested in seeing how drama can affect the world both on stage and beyond, then Carnegie Mellon would be a great fit for you.
Theatre school has fun costumes!
One of the top dance programs in the US, the Boston Conservatory boasts a faculty of world-class artists who have worked with notable choreographers such as Antony Tudor, Robert Joffrey, José Limón, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Agnes de Mille, and with dance companies such as Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet of New York, and Limón Dance Company.
There are many performance opportunities throughout the year, the most prestigious being the ability to perform as a member of the Boston Conservatory Dance Theater. Alumni perform with dance companies around the globe as well as on Broadway. Keep in mind, however, that the Boston Conservatory specializes in contemporary dance...so if you're looking for classical training, you should consider a different program.
Yale University—Drama (MFA)
No best performing arts colleges list would be complete without the Yale School of Drama. This school is world renowned for its MFA Acting program; however, I'd advise against doing the more general BA program, which doesn't give you access to the same faculty or performance opportunities.
The MFA program offers programs in every aspect of performance, from on-stage acting all the way to technical design and stage management. The School of Drama also boasts a long list of famous alumni, including Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Giamatti, and Lupita Nyong'o. The school also invests heavily in students' networking opportunities; students in their final year act in showcases in both New York and Los Angeles in front of industry professionals.
In the past 10 years, 100% of graduates have landed agents or managers within the first month out of school. So if you're serious about having a career in the performing arts, you should definitely consider Yale's MFA program.
Northwestern is one of the few drama schools that doesn't require an audition for admission. However, getting accepted is tough because drama students are held to high academic standards, and the current university acceptance rate is around 8%. It's not surprising that many of the program's alumni go on to have illustrious careers. Some of the school's most notable alums include David Schwimmer, Stephen Colbert, Anna Gunn, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Zach Braff.
Undergraduate students at Northwestern have many opportunities to perform in both school-sponsored and student-run shows. As many as 40 shows a year are staged at the Wirtz Center for the Performing arts, and another 40 student-led shows happen across campus. Additionally, seniors are invited to participate in showcases in New York and Chicago in front of industry professionals.
Best Performing Arts Colleges: Tier 2
In this section, we take a look at other great performing arts colleges that we've classified as Tier 2. These schools are still excellent, but they aren't quite as prestigious as those listed in Tier 1. Having said that: you're still setting yourself up for a great career if you earn a degree from any of these universities!
UNC School of the Arts—Drama and Dance
UNCSA is home to exceptional drama and dance programs. Alumni of the dance program have gone on to perform with the American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Martha Graham Ensemble. Others have danced with performers such as Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, and Beyoncé. UNCSA's notable alumni include include Mary-Louise Parker, Lucas Hedges, Anthony Mackie, and Dane DeHaan.
Drama and dance students at UNCSA have many performance opportunities including a senior showcase for industry professionals in New York. Drama students also perform their showcase in Los Angeles.
California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)—Drama and Dance
CalArts is considered the best dance school on the West Coast and one of the top drama schools in the country. The School of Dance boasts distinguished faculty and brings in guest artists to give students industry and expert perspective. Some recent visiting artists include Gerard & Kelly (mixed media performers) and Benjamin Millepied (former principal dancer with the New York City ballet and Natalie Portman's husband).
The school also offers several performance opportunities, such as in American College Dance Festivals; it also has an International Exchange program with the London Contemporary Dance Center which allows students to gain international dance experience.
CalArts also boasts a top-notch drama program as well. The drama school is a great choice for actors who know they want to pursue film or television acting since, during the final year, students enroll in Acting Studio for the Camera. This course specifically trains students for acting and auditioning for film and TV. Additionally, at the end of the final semester, students get to perform in an industry showcase in Los Angeles. The drama school has a bunch of famous alumni including Don Cheadle, Ed Harris, and Alison Brie.
Take the leap and apply to a performing arts school!
Rutgers University—Drama and Dance
Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts has world-class drama and dance programs. Thanks to its proximity to New York City, the dance program offers students opportunities for master classes and workshops in world dance forms with international artists. It also has two tremendous programs abroad, DanceJerusalem in Israel and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London.
Rutgers' drama program is unique and well rounded. Classes run the gamut from Shakespeare to modern TV. Students spend their third year at the Rutgers Conservatory at Shakespeare's Globe in London, which culminates with a performance on the Globe stage. The final semester is focused on an effective transition into the professional acting world with classes in On-Camera Technique, Auditioning, and Introduction to the Life of a Working Actor. The drama program has some famous alumni, including Kristen Davis and Calista Flockhart.
Fordham is located in the Bronx, which means students will be steeped in dance culture and history from the moment they step on campus. Known primarily for its partnership with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Fordham offers students a liberal arts education and collaboration with a world-famous modern dance company. Additionally, the program and company call Lincoln Center home, which is pretty amazing!
Many alumni continue to perform with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater after graduation, while others have gone on to dance for prestigious companies and on Broadway. Some of Fordham's incredible dance alumni include Ephraim Sykes (who performed in Hamilton on Broadway), Anne Souder (Martha Graham), and Victoria Guajardo (Momix).
Syracuse offers separate degrees in acting or musical theatre, allowing students to specialize in a particular field. Students also have the opportunity to study "abroad" in New York, Los Angeles, and London, which are some of the best cities for the dramatic arts in the world. The program has developed a number of famous talents, including Taye Diggs, Jerry Stiller, and Vera Farmiga.
Students can also perform with the Syracuse Stage, an outstanding Equity theater company, and gain Equity points while still in school. Equity points are one way performers can earn membership into the Actors' Equity Association, which is the union for professional stage actors and managers. In other words, graduating with a degree in drama from Syracuse gives you a leg up in the theatre world.
The University of Southern California is known for its film program, but it has a fantastic drama program as well. It's probably not a huge surprise given that the school is located in Los Angeles, the heart of the film industry. Because of that, the school invites many visiting artists to work with students to develop their craft. Former visiting artists include Lisa Kudrow, Bryan Cranston, and Tony Shalhoub.
The program prides itself on tailoring programs to fit each student's individual needs and goals. While all students get a solid foundation in the dramatic arts, they also get to take highly specialized classes like Stand Up Comedy and Medical Clowning. That allows students to focus their studies to fit their future careers. Famous alumni from the USC School of Dramatic Arts include Forest Whitaker, Troian Bellisario, Deborah Ann Woll, and Beck Bennett.
Oklahoma City University—Dance
Oklahoma City University is well-known as an arts school, but its dance program stands out from the crowd because of its focus on American dance forms. The school teaches tap, jazz, and musical theater dance at the highest levels. Students can also major in arts management, a unique degree that teaches students how to be professional managers that help direct performers' careers. Famous grads performing on Broadway include Sara Edwards (dance captain, Foilles) and Marie Danvers (Christine in Phantom of the Opera). If you specialize in American dance, Oklahoma City university would be a great fit for you.
So many schools, but where should YOU apply?
Which of the Top Performing Arts Colleges Is Best for You?
Just because Juilliard is an incredible school doesn't mean you should want to go there. It's a tiny school with a very intense program which might not be the best fit for all students. Here are some questions to ask yourself when trying to pick one of these best performing arts colleges.
What Do You Want to Specialize In?
If you're interested in dance, do you want to do ballet or contemporary? If you're interested in acting, do you want to perform in plays, musicals, television, or film?
Look into the programs and see what courses are offered. Try to avoid picking a school specializing in ballet if you want to do contemporary dance. Similarly, avoid picking a musical theatre program if you want to act in TV (and vice versa).
Hip-hop is awesome.
What Opportunities Are There Outside the Classroom?
I touched on this above, but be sure to go to a performing arts school where the opportunities align with your interests. For example, if you want to do Shakespeare, then Rutgers—which offers a year abroad in London working at the Globe Theatre—might be a better fit for you than CalArts or Northwestern would be.
Extracurriculars are where you get your experience, so make sure you'll be getting experience in your chosen specialty.
What's the School Like?
Is it a big school or a small school? Is it a conservatory or is it at a larger university? If you hate large schools, just don't choose one. You don't want to dread being surrounded by tons of students or being forced into cheering for the basketball team.
If you get overwhelmed by intensity, a conservatory (such as Juilliard or the Boston Conservatory) might not be a great choice for you since they're both small programs where competition is fierce. On the other hand, at a school like Syracuse, you could take breaks from your theatre community by hanging out with other students who are majoring in journalism, engineering, pre-med, etc.
In short, pick a school where you will be most comfortable so that you can thrive.
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As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.