Me’Lisa Sellers was working full-time in NYC as a celebrity fashion stylist, working with such artists as John Legend, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and Usher. But in her heart she wanted to be an actor; she had minored in acting in undergrad. So after 10 years as a stylist, she decided to act full-time. “I was beating the pavement and doing pretty well,” she recalled. “But I became increasingly aware of a skill set that I just didn’t have.”
So she decided to back to graduate school. One of the programs she was accepted to was the American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theatre School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, which, according to The Hollywood Reporter, was one of the top 10 schools for drama training. There was one catch: Tuition for the two-year program was $62,593. Sellers further calculated that her living costs in Cambridge, Mass. would be $50,000 for two years. Despite some scholarship money and a meager amount she raised via GoFundMe, Sellers—who’s expected to graduate in 2018—will be facing close to $130,000 in loan debt.
Her story is not unusual. In January, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released a list of hundreds of colleges that saddle students with more debt than they can afford to repay given average expected incomes for their field of endeavor. That list included for-profit colleges such as ITT Technical Institute and the Art Institute of Phoenix; it also included the ART Institute, a graduate drama program run by the nonprofit American Repertory Theater. According to the school, while graduates of the program leave with an average debt burden of $65,000, their average projected earnings only amount to about $36,000. Which means, according to the ED report, that institute graduates must pay around 44 percent of their discretionary income to make minimum loan payments. Such programs are deemed predatory by the federal government and are at risk of losing access to federal financial aid.
As result of this report and the threat to its financial aid access, ART announced in July that it will take a three-year hiatus while it reevaluates its program. “It would be irresponsible to continue, especially if our federal financial aid was taken away,” said Diane Paulus, ART’s artistic director.
The news has been met with a mixture of reactions. Said Robert Brustein, the founder of the institute and of ART, “Frankly, I think it’s the end of the institute. It’s been neglected and mismanaged.”
Others were more optimistic. “I feel like ART is doing the right things,” said Aida Rocci Ruiz, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in dramaturgy. “They’re saying, ‘There’s all these problems, and we’re going to pause and fix them.’ What else are they expected to do? If they didn’t pause, that would be a problem.”
When reached for a comment, Robert Kelsey, dean of arts and humanities at Harvard, sent the following statement: “Pausing the Institute will enable Ms. Paulus and her colleagues at the ART and elsewhere at Harvard to consider new and creative ways to support our shared pursuit of the dramatic arts. I look forward to this time of reflection and renewal with eagerness and optimism.”
According to the school, the end goal is to return with a program that includes a “fully funded MFA,” said Scott Zigler, director of the Institute. “We are not going to go forward operating in the same model. We are going to need to take a three-year pause and explore the options. It gives the theatre an opportunity to explore new models of theatre training, and all kinds of ways the program can be enhanced. And it also gives the theatre an opportunity to explore finding a better way to fund the students.”
But the story of how ART got to this point, and how it’s hoping to right itself, should be seen as a cautionary tale for a theatre field that is, for better or worst, overflowing with MFAs. Even James Bundy, the dean of Yale School of Drama, admitted that this issue isn’t one that is specific to ART.
“It is a sad fact that many graduate schools, including schools with very diverse populations of students, are burdening students with such heavy debt that their future artistic and life choices will be severely constrained,” Bundy wrote in an email. “Barring fabulous television and/or film careers, these young artists may be in debt for decades.” The average loan debt for a master’s at Yale School of Drama is around $14,000.
That number is the exception. According to a poll of 500 theatre graduates released by American Theatre in 2014, 27 percent of respondents had $16-30,000 in debt and 22 percent had $31-50,000 in student loan debt. And 29 percent had $51-100,000 in debt. It’s a problem plaguing all of American higher education: The total outstanding student loan balance in the country is $1.4 trillion.
Zigler feels that given this field-wide issue, ART Institute is “being unfairly singled out right now.” He explained that the ED only evaluated for-profit schools and certificate programs, not degree programs. And prior to 2017, institute graduates received a domestic certificate from Harvard and an international MFA from the Moscow Art Theatre School in Russia.* That meant that the institute was considered a certificate program by the ED (even though its housed at a non-profit). “If the same metrics applied to us as a certificate program were applied to other MFA programs, a lot of programs wouldn’t have passed,” he said. “The Harvard Institute is not the only graduate program that has a high level of indebtedness.”
Why and how are students even amassing that debt to begin with? For professionals looking for a leg up in the theatre industry, an MFA is commonly seen as a kind of prerequisite. According to ART institute student Katie Rich, who has a bachelor’s degree in theatre, a number of professionals told her that while it could take eight years to become a working artist, “an MFA from a reputable program, with that network and that training, can cut those eight years down to two or three,” she recalled. “I think it’s necessary in the American theatre landscape right now.”
This alleged necessity doesn’t come cheap: Rich estimated that she will owe $110,000 in student loans after graduation in 2018. It’s common knowledge at this point that the price of education has grossly outpaced inflation and wage growth. When the Institute was founded in 1988, its tuition was $11,150** for two years; tuition is now for $62,593 for the same period. That number is comparable to other prestigious MFA programs: Juilliard in New York City costs $41,310 per year for a four-year program; at Yale it’s $29,750 a year for a three-year program.
What sets ART apart from these other schools, according to Sellers, is its financial aid packages—or rather, the lack thereof. Along with Rich, Sellers has been advocating for more financial aid possibilities for students. In their research, they found that a number of the nation’s top 10 programs offer generous scholarships, grants, and work study to cover a majority of tuition and living costs; programs like the University of California, San Diego, are tuition-free. But at ART, students who file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) receive around $2,500 in scholarships—a minuscule amount considering the school’s tuition and living expenses.
Zigler noted that while ART institute vocal pedagogy and dramaturgy students are given teaching assistant jobs that help with those costs, scheduling conflicts prevent those opportunities from being offered to acting students.
One complicated root cause of this disconnect is Harvard’s and the institute’s atypical university-to-theatre relationship. Harvard does not award any MFAs. As a workaround, ART students would receive their degree via the Moscow Art Theatre School. The class of 2017 was the first class to receive a Masters in Liberal Arts degree from the Harvard Extension School, which is respected in the field for theatre practitioners but complicates things for those going into academia. “Had I gone into teaching, the MFA is what I would need to show my experience,” said institute alumna Adam Kern (‘08), who helps run the alumni association. “The MLA isn’t a terminal degree for theatre so we’re anticipating alumni who go into academia with that degree are going to have some trouble.”
And while other MFA programs nationwide receive partial funding from their host universities, Harvard graduate programs are responsible for their own finances. That meant, according to Zigler, “Each entity is its own financial hub, and each entity is operating in a somewhat independent manner, so, for example, the law school has its own scholarship system; they are not tapped into the Harvard scholarship system.” Neither was the institute, despite years of advocacy to Harvard on the part of ART leadership and its students.
“The ART Institute was and is part of Harvard,” said Rich. “But up until now, it was in kind of in its own world within the campus. And historically, Harvard hasn’t been very kind to the arts.” So the institute’s budget is drawn from ART’s $18-million budget, not from Harvard’s, and its educational scholarships derived from an endowment created by ART. Despite months of letter-writing and meetings among Rich and Sellars and Harvard administrators, the university has not agreed to provide more funds to the institute or give institute students access to Harvard general scholarships.
A Harvard task force on the arts in 2008 recommended that the university began awarding MFAs, including a fully funded one in theatre. And that’s been the long-term plan for Paulus since she became artistic director of ART in 2009.
“I completely supported that—that given the economics and the issues of student debt, that the only way to create a Harvard MFA was to make it fully funded, so that led to the question of how do we raise the kind of funds, in conjunction with getting the Harvard MFA,” Paulus said. “Plans for a major fundraising campaign had been in the works for years now,” aimed at generating scholarships for institute students, and also at renovating its Loeb Drama Center, where students are trained.
Nick Basta is an actor and instructor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He graduated from the institute in 2003, and from his graduating class he estimates that around half are no longer acting. “I don’t know what that tells you,” he admitted. “It’s an expensive way to figure out if you don’t want to do it.”
Many sources, alumni and staff, who spoke for this article admit that both undergraduate and graduate programs are putting too many students out into a field oversaturated with talent.
“Most of us in the field believe that there are many more graduate students in training than can be meaningfully absorbed by the profession,” said Yale’s Bundy. “The ethics of encouraging so many of them to undertake so much debt are questionable. It’s a perfect storm of overwhelming demand combined with poor consideration or ignorance of the value proposition.”
While the rules of capitalism dictate that supply meet demand, ART Institute alumna Kerry O’Malley, class of 1993, disagrees. “They shouldn’t take so many students!” she exclaimed. “Drama programs used to cut people. You’d start with 30 people and you end up with 10. If they didn’t think you could make it, they would cut you.” She adds, “If you don’t think there is work that can sustain people, then don’t have a program!”
Another strategy, according to Zigler, is to make students more competitive in the field. He is now also the dean of the School of Drama at University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts, splitting time between North Carolina and Massachusetts until 2018. At the institute he’s incorporated on-camera training and voice-over courses for the acting students.
“I do think one thing that schools can and should do is introduce entrepreneurship training and specifically cultural and media entrepreneurship,” he said. “People need to be taught how the current media landscape works. We’re offering professional training that helps them monetize their training more fully. That will not reduce their debt load, but it may help people earn money on the back end.”
No matter the training, most agree that while a theatre education is valuable, it ought to be cheaper. In an industry currently in the throes of an ongoing conversation about equity, diversity, and inclusion, lowering the cost of education is one way to attract individuals from more socioeconomic backgrounds. Otherwise, according to O’Malley, “What’s going to happen is the only people who end up with MFAs are going to be rich kids. The people whose stories need to be told, to have a full American experience, are not going to be able to go to school and tell them. You’re going to have a class division in whose stories are being told and how they’re being told.”
Paulus believes that the debt issue is also magnified in an industry where low wages are commonplace. “The issue of artists’ compensation is one that needs to be addressed in the industry,” she said. “But that is only exacerbated when a student graduates with enormous debt. Training students in graduate conditions that do not burden them with student debt is a goal that must be hand in hand with how arts and artists are a valued part of a capitalist society.” As part of its three-year plan, ART, the theatre, is also investigating how it can better compensate its artists.
At the end of the day, Sellers said, universities have an obligation to give their students the best chances possible to succeed in their chosen field.
“If you’re going to train artists and you truly care about their success after they train with you, then you must fully fund the program, so that they have a great chance at hitting the ground running and surviving and thriving in their art,” she said. “I just think that’s the only way to do it.”
*A previous version of this story missrepresented the nature of the Harvard certificate. It has been corrected.
**A previous version of this story stated that institute tuition was $5,300 for two years in 1988. That was actually the figure for one-year’s tuition.