Top 25 Graduate Schools for an Acting Degree, Ranked

7:00 AM 6/10/2019

by Seth Abramovitch

Some are free, some cost a fortune, but not all MFA programs are equal. The Hollywood Reporter sorts them out in its annual, ranked list after consulting with academics, influencers and alums.

Top 25 Graduate Schools for an Acting Degree - H 2019
John Haynes, 1998. ©LAMDA Limited; Jessica Katz/Courtesy of Juilliard; Larry Merkle/Courtesy of American Conservatory Theater; Courtesy of Rada; UIG via Getty Images; Courtesy of Northwestern University

Like so many decisions in life, the choice of where to get an acting degree often boils down to money. Many of the schools on this list offer full-ride scholarships (and even living expenses), if you're lucky enough to be among the one or two percent who get in. Others — especially those with door-opening names, like Juilliard and Yale — require truckloads of cash to attend (an MFA from Columbia runs about $65,000). Of course, money isn't the only factor, which is why The Hollywood Reporter has once again consulted with academics, influencers and alums to rank the top 25 schools turning acting into serious business.

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    Grads of the No. 1 acting school in the nation had a big year, from Tony Shalhoub (Tony win for The Band's Visit, Emmy nomination for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) to Brian Tyree Henry (Emmy nom for Atlanta, roles in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and If Beale Street Could Talk) to Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong'o (Us). There also has been a recent push to make Yale a smidge more affordable (it's about $30,000 a year), with the school investing "substantially" in financial aid, says Dean James Bundy.

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    After its first full year under new director Evan Yionoulis' leadership, the program has expanded its on-camera training and introduced a new course, Story, in which young actors develop projects in a variety of media, from streaming series to feature films. It also has beefed up cross-disciplinary collaborations with other wings of the storied institution, including the playwriting and dance programs. Tuition runs about $45,000 per year.

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    UC San Diego

    A couple of key faculty moves — the installation of Vanessa Stalling as head of directing and the poaching of movement teacher Stephen Buescher from American Conservatory Theater — have invigorated this program, which shares facilities with the world-famous La Jolla Playhouse. Second-year students get a small role in a Playhouse production (like the Tony-nominated Junk, which transferred to Broadway with grad Sean McIntyre in the cast). Tuition: $17,000 per year (California residents); $32,000 per year (non-residents).

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    Brown University

    Brown offers full-ride scholarships as well as the guarantee of understudy and performance work at the affiliated Trinity Rep professional theatre. That means you potentially can leave this program with an Ivy League degree, an Actors' Equity card and little to no debt.

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    NYU Tisch School of the Arts

    Celebrating its 51st birthday this year, the program, chaired by director Mark Wing-Davey, offers a three-year program that includes a class presented in collaboration with the Public Theater and taught by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Still, tuition isn't cheap — about $63,000 a year (although NYU does cover an average of 60 percent based on need) — and so are living expenses in New York.

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    Royal Academy of Dramatic Art

    Until his death in 2015, Alan Rickman served as vice chairman of this 115-year-old institution. The postgraduate acting program — the MA Theatre Lab, introduced in 2011 — offers a degree in just 12 months. Grads frequently go on to work in West End productions and the U.K. film and TV scene. Tuition: $25,000 per year.

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    University of North Carolina

    MFA actors at this program graduate with an option to join Actors' Equity and are full members of the PlayMakers Repertory Company, frequently named one of the nation's best regional companies. The school offers full ride along with a stipend.

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    London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art

    The program introduced a new director this year, Sarah Frankcom, former artistic director of Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, and last summer opened the curtains on a new program in partnership with Audible to sharpen students' audiobook narration skills. Graduates of the 158-year-old school include Ruth Wilson (currently appearing in King Lear on Broadway) and David Oyelowo (starring in Masterpiece's new adaptation of Les Misérables). Tuition: $17,000-$32,000 per year.

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    The Old Globe and University of San Diego

    A new director has joined the already world-class faculty: Jesse J. Perez, who comes from Juilliard, where he taught for 12 years. The two-year program recruits seven students each year for year-round coursework and gives each a full-ride scholarship.

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    Columbia University

    In the past two years, this once-languishing Ivy League program has turned itself around, thanks to the addition of top-tier staff like Ron Van Lieu (formerly head of Yale School of Drama) and new hire Peter Jay Fernandez, who last taught at The New School. Columbia also has the brand-new, state-of-the-art Lenfest Theater and, of course, the home-court advantage of being located in Manhattan. But it isn't cheap: tuition is $60,000 for the first two years, $5,000 for the third.

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    University of Tennessee

    Students get a $14,000 annual stipend over and above having their tuition covered. They also get eight to 12 performance opportunities at the affiliated Clarence Brown Theatre over the course of their three-year education, including the guarantee of a featured or leading role in their final year. The small class sizes and location in an affordable artistic hub make it an attractive option.

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    Case Western Reserve University

    Alum Rich Sommer (GLOW) swung back to his alma mater to teach a master class in on-camera acting. Eight students, out of 900 hopefuls, get a full ride plus a living stipend and — thanks to an affiliation with the Tony-winning Cleveland Play House — the guarantee of an Actors' Equity card before graduation.

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    Guildhall School of Music & Drama

    Michelle Dockery, Lily James, Dominic West and Daniel Craig are all alums of this London-based school. Unlike RADA's one-year program, the Guildhall School is a full three years of intensive study. But it's pricey — non-EU members will spend $70,000 annually — and offers minimal networking for American performers.

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    American Conservatory Theater

    Jacob Ming-Trent, the youngest person ever accepted into the program — at age 20 — is playing Panda in HBO's upcoming Watchman series. Other alums include Annette Bening (currently starring in Arthur Miller's All My Sons on Broadway) and Elizabeth Banks (working on a new Charlie's Angels movie, which she's writing, directing and appearing in as Bosley). Tuition: $30,000 a year.

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    The school makes the most of its Hollywood-adjacent geography, with plenty of collaboration with the film department. There is also a new Acting for the Camera class in the first year as well as a motion-capture class taught by Jeff Burke, the school's associate dean of technology and innovation. Tuition: $16,800 per year (California residents); $32,000 per year (non-residents).

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    USC School of Dramatic Arts

    This was the first full year for the school's Career Center, which offers management services for graduates. USC and the Pasadena Playhouse pair up on productions, and Tony Kushner recently collaborated with students on adapting his 1985 play A Bright Room Called Day. Tuition: $43,000 a year.

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    Northwestern University

    A new MFA in Acting launches in fall 2019 and promises to be one of the more interesting in the country thanks to its connection to Steppenwolf Theatre, the company that launched acting giants John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf. The two-year full-ride program will be run by Tony-winning director Anna Shapiro in facilities on its Chicago campus.

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    Florida State University

    There's a lot to like about Barry Jenkins' alma mater, not the least of which is a completely waived tuition and a $10,000 stipend. In addition, students spend six weeks during their third and final year studying in London, all expenses paid. They also become full-time company members at the affiliated Asolo Repertory Theatre.

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    Southern Methodist University

    Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham is a graduate of this three-year curriculum, which devotes its first year to "use of self under imaginary circumstances," its second to "immersion in classic texts" and its third to mounting full-scale productions of classics by Ibsen, Chekhov and Beckett. Tuition: $44,800 per year.

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    University of Missouri

    A few years ago, New York's The Acting Company — which helped launch the careers of Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone — contacted this school to propose hiring its MFA acting grads for a new production partnership. That's a testament to the quality of the talent coming out of UMKC, which works closely with Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Tuition: $25,000 per year.

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    Depaul University

    A solid program in the country's second-largest theater hub, DePaul has introduced a course that connects students with acting jobs throughout the city. One recent grad, Tiffany Oglesby, has taken full advantage of local productions, appearing on Fox's Empire, Showtime's The Chi and NBC's Chicago Med. Tuition: $35,000 a year.

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    Rutgers University

    Jeremy Davidson (Netflix's Seven Seconds) and Broadway star Kevin Chamberlin are alums of this three-and-a-half-year program, which focuses on classical training. Proximity to New York is a plus — particularly at an annual showcase presented in Manhattan for theater pros. Tuition: $29,000 per year.

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    An out-of-the-box education is what you'll get at this school 30 miles north of Hollywood and co-founded in 1961 by Walt Disney (and expanded with his Mary Poppins profits) as a center to train animators. These days, it's CalArts' acting grads who draw attention, with everyone from Don Cheadle to Alison Brie passing through its doors. Tuition: $50,000 per year.

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    University of Washington

    Jane Nichols, a clowning expert, joined the faculty for a serious boost to its comedy training, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival vet Scott Kaiser has come aboard to teach "Shakespeare's Wordcraft" — a subject on which he literally wrote the book. Tuition: $28,800 per year.

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    Savannah College of Art and Design

    Backlash to the state's new abortion bill not withstanding, Georgia remains one of the busiest production hubs outside L.A., a boon for grads. SCAD has a lot going for it, like Studio A, a full production soundstage for original student content. Tuition: $38,400 a year.

    Additional reporting by Alexander Modiano and Lorraine Wheat.

    This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.