The 10 Best Performing Arts Colleges in the US

Attending a performing arts college is one of the most rewarding experiences a student can have.

When a promising musician, actor, or dancer chooses to become a performing arts major, they decide to pursue their passions above everything else. The decision is significant, and it’s essential to attend an excellent performing arts college to maximize potential.

Today, we are looking at 10 fantastic performing arts colleges that have sent graduates into Broadway, major symphonic orchestras, film & television roles, and more. These are exceptionally prestigious schools that regularly invite major guest artists to campus, are highly selective, and have stellar faculty who are accomplished performing artists themselves.

To qualify for this list, the listed schools must have elite programs and majors in theatre, dance, and music. While there are some exemplary programs in just music, for example, if they do not also have dance and theatre programs, we are not considering them for this particular list. 

Additionally, we are evaluating either conservatory or conservatory-style programs within a major university or liberal arts college. It is permissible if some programs are spread out through different schools (for example, dance is frequently in a separate “school” in the greater university from the theatre program).

We are looking at schools based on faculty and alumni accomplishment, selectivity, strength in the three major performing arts areas, impact on the local community, and how these schools place in other major ranking publications. 

Here are College Gazette’s picks for 10 of the best performing arts colleges and universities in the US.

Cornish College of the Arts (Seattle, WA)

Cornish College
Joe Mabel, Seattle – Cornish, CC BY-SA 3.0

An independent conservatory of approximately 600 enrolled students, Cornish is an established performing arts program. Faculty in the college are not only educators, they are also remarkable performers who have led significant careers in the arts. 

Cornish has one of the most prestigious theatre programs in the country whose alumni include the likes of actor Brendan Fraser. Over thirty accomplished artists teach in the Cornish Theater program, including Department Chair Richard E.T. White, who has directed productions at the American Conservatory Theater, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Berkeley Shakespeare Festival.

Dance is another remarkable performing arts major at Cornish. The most famous graduate of the dance program is Merce Cunningham, a revolutionary choreographer who collaborated with the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The dance curriculum at Cornish includes classes in ballet, contemporary performance, kinesiology, and more.

Cornish is home to a remarkable library specializing in the arts, holding over 50,000 combined volumes of books, CDs, and periodicals. 

University of the Arts (Philadelphia, PA)

University of the Arts
Beyond My Ken, University of the Arts Dorrance Hamilton Hall, CC BY-SA 4.0

A college specializing in the visual and performing arts, the University of the Arts is among the nation’s oldest conservatories. UArts has something for every creative, with specializations as varied as art education, film, music, dance, and more.

An example of the University of the Arts’ unique commitment to the performing arts is its Polyphone Festival. At the Polyphone festival, professional composers and lyricists come to campus to create new musicals, experimenting with the idea of “what is a musical?” The collaboration between students and professionals results in an experience where students think about theatre from a fresh perspective.

The University of the Arts is home to one of the most prestigious dance performance degrees in the US. One of their faculty members, Wayne David, has been teaching dance at UArts for over three decades. As the head of their Jazz Dance program, he has choreographed performances worldwide, including recent engagements in Liverpool, Chile, and London. 

Alumni of the University of the Arts include songwriter Elle King, Brooklyn actor Emory Cohen, Grammy-award winning bassist Stanley Clarke, and musical theatre performer Lucas Steele, best known for his starring role in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

Boston Conservatory at Berklee (Boston, MA)

Boston Conservatory
Jim.henderson, Boston Conservatory, CC BY-SA 4.0

Berklee is an iconic college of music, and in 2016 the Berklee College of Music merged with the Boston Conservatory to create one of the most impressive performing arts institutions in the world.

The dance program at Boston Conservatory specializes in contemporary dance; building on the foundations of ballet and traditional jazz styles, Boston Conservatory trains dancers in modern trends and dance styles. Several publications rate the Boston Conservatory BFA dance degree among the best, including performing arts publication Backstage, which has named it a top-10 program for dance multiple times in the past decade.

Alongside Berklee, Boston Conservatory’s music program encompasses every major style of music, including classical, jazz, popular music, and musical theatre. Students at BoCo benefit from Boston, a culturally rich city home to dozens of professional performing arts organizations as varied as the Boston Symphony and the Handel & Haydn Society.

University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)

University of Southern California
Joe Mabel, USC, CC BY-SA 3.0

USC was recently ranked by in the top 5 performing arts colleges in the country. Looking at the school’s offerings and alumni, it is easy to see why USC is so highly ranked. 

The Thornton School of Music at USC is among the best music schools in the country. Thornton is among the few schools to have a top program in every collegiate music specialty; classical music, popular music, jazz, music business, and music production are premiere programs at USC Thornton. 

The School of Dramatic Arts at USC may just be the most desirable in the country for aspiring actors, thanks to its proximity to Hollywood and its esteemed faculty connected to the professional film industry. Faculty at the School of Dramatic Arts include notable actor Joseph Hacker, who has starred in over 50 television roles and has authored a widely-read text on auditioning.

New York University (New York, NY)

NYU Tisch
atp_tyreseus, Tisch School of the Arts NYU, CC BY 2.0

NYU is an iconic performing arts institution whose Tisch School of the Arts has one of the most competitive theater programs for admission. Tisch has one of the most accomplished alumni bases of any performing arts school, with former students having won 22 Academy Awards, 17 Emmys, 12 Tonys, and 4 Grammys. 

Tisch’s majors run the traditional gamut of performing arts: acting, dance, drama, musical theatre, stage design, and more. However, one particular performing arts program at the Tisch School of the Arts is especially unique, the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Here, contemporary musicians ranging from songwriters to producers learn the business of music and entrepreneurship.

Musical theatre is one of the most renowned programs at NYU Tisch, with NYU routinely taking the #1 “most represented” school on Broadway every year on a list published by Playbill magazine.

However, Tisch is not the only school at NYU with a strong performing arts basis. Indeed, the Steinhardt School at NYU is home to a leading classical and jazz performance program. Many faculty members hold appointments in the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Juilliard School (New York, NY)

Juilliard School
Ajay Suresh, Alice Tully Hall, CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the most famous performing arts institution in the entire world, Juilliard benefits from its superb uptown New York City location as well as its enduring brand, known universally as a symbol of selectivity and excellence.

Juilliard may just have the most selective dance program in the entire world. Alumni of the dance program include Robert Battle, Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Ohad Naharin, seminal modern dance choreographer; and legendary artist Paul Taylor.

Music is the most comprehensive program at Juilliard and perhaps its most famous department. Faculty in the music program are a who’s who of classical music, including members of the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and soloists such as Emmanuel Ax and Itzhak Perlman.

Conveniently located in Lincoln Center, Juilliard provides students with all of the arts culture uptown NYC offers.

Northwestern University (Evanston, IL)

Northwestern University Bienen School of Music
Music man 600000000, RyanCenterfortheMusicalArts, CC BY-SA 4.0

Few performing arts schools can boast an alumni base as accomplished as Northwestern’s, with the likes of David Schwimmer, Zach Braff, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stephen Colbert, and Warren Beatty calling themselves Northwestern alumni. 

Northwestern’s theatre students gain significant pre-professional experience through the Northwestern Student Theatre Coalition, a performing arts collective featuring 11 distinct groups with their own executive director boards and performance series. In every performing arts group, student activities can range from production, design, direction, and even stage management.

Students frequently connect with Chicago area performing arts organizations outside of the theatre department through faculty connections, including the Lookingglass Theatre, Goodman Theatre, and Steppenwolf Theatre, among others. Opportunities are endless for actors at Northwestern.

Another performing arts concentration, music, is integral to the Northwestern University experience. Through the Bienen School of Music, students immerse themselves in a traditional conservatory education complete with accomplished faculty, many of which are members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Students also have the opportunity to work with the string quartet-in-residence, the Dover Quartet, a virtuosic group made up of Curtis and Rice graduates.

Indiana University (Bloomington, IN)

Indiana University
McAnt, IUSampleGates, CC BY-SA 3.0

It seems like every year, Indiana is ranked in the top 10 for any of its performing arts specialties in dance, theatre, or music. And, their alumni are collectively among the most decorated performing artists from any college, having won over 30 Emmy awards, six Academy Awards, and even four Tonys.

The theatre program at Indiana has perhaps more opportunities for stage performance than any other school. In a normal year, the theatre program stages over a dozen productions in its modern, state-of-the-art facilities. Faculty members in theatre include renowned costume designer Linda Pisano, whose work has been seen at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Opera San Antonio, Cincinnati Opera, and over a hundred more theater credits.

The Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University has some of the very best young musicians in the country. The opportunity for music at Indiana University is immense; eight full-scale orchestras, five jazz ensembles, six choirs, and six concert bands are available for music majors to participate. Recent honors for the Jacobs School of Music include being named a “top 10 voice school in America” by Classical Singer magazine. 

Dance at IU is regarded among the best programs in the country. Their legacy was molded, in part, by the late Violette Verdy, a longtime IU faculty member and one of the most accomplished ballerinas in history. Every year, ballet students participate in three full-scale ballets hosted at Indiana’s Musical Arts Center. Alumni of the dance program have found employment in the Boston Ballet and the Nashville Ballet, among dozens of other professional organizations.

University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH)

University of Cincinnati
Greg Hume, UC Rec Center 05, CC BY-SA 3.0

Many schools are home to elite musical theatre programs, but Cincinnati is among the very best. In just the past few years, alumni of their musical theatre program have been cast in many of the most successful Broadway productions, including Anastasia, Wicked, Hamilton, Chicago, and dozens more. In fact, the last time Playbill magazine did a “Big 10” ranking of Broadway employment by alma mater, Cincinnati ranked in the top 10.

Cincinnati’s jazz program is among the most accomplished in the country. In 2019, the jazz studies program at Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) became the inaugural college affiliate of Jazz at Lincoln Center. During this special partnership, students and faculty from CCM accompanied trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis during a two-week residency in Brazil.

Students in the College-Conservatory of Music benefit tremendously from the Corbett Center for the Performing Arts, a four-level facility complete with classrooms, three full dance studios, an auditorium, and even design labs.

Additionally, Cincinnati is home to many electronic media facilities for students interested in music production and radio broadcasting. 

University of North Texas (Denton, TX)

University of North Texas
Michael Barera, University of North Texas (Murchison Performing Arts Center), CC BY-SA 4.0

The University of North Texas is home to a stellar performing arts program, with experiential learning at its curriculum’s heart. What makes the theatre program at UNT stand out is how involved undergraduates are in every aspect of theatre production. At UNT, students direct productions, design scenery, stage original musicals, and even participate in shows in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth community.

UNT may just be most famous for its music program, which presents an unbelievable 1,000 performances annually in a normal year. Faculty members are drawn from several of Texas’ best professional performing arts organizations, including the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, and the Dallas Opera. 

In particular, jazz performance is widely recognized at UNT. Between 1994 – 1997, when US News ranked jazz programs, UNT placed #1 every year. Twenty-four years after the US News ranking, UNT is still going strong; their resident jazz big band, the One O’Clock Band, has been nominated for seven Grammy awards.

The music library at UNT is one of the most extensive specialty music libraries globally, collectively housing over one million volumes of CDs, books, and periodicals. 

Finally, the dance program at UNT is one of the best throughout the country. Recent guest artists at UNT include celebrated choreographer Bebe Miller, a former distinguished professor of dance at Ohio State. Alumni of the UNT dance program include Nick Cave, one of the most famous modern dancers of the 20th-century. 

UNT represents one of the very best values in higher education; not only is it our pick for the best performing arts college in the country, it is also significantly less expensive than many other schools on this list.

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