Unexpected Development In Student Debt

There was a warning shot across the bows of university/conservatory arts training programs whose graduates have debt out of proportion with their earning potential in the Chicago Tribune last week. Harvard University is suspending graduate admissions for their theatre program for three years after receiving a failing grade from the Department of Education.

Simply put, the federal policy looks at the debts-to-earnings ratios of career-training programs (and, yes, the arts are a career) in an attempt to discern whether the programs provide students reasonable returns on their investment in tuition. The 2015 regulations hold that the average student’s debt from the program should not exceed 20 percent of their discretionary income or 8 percent of their total income. If that is not the case, then the program could lose access to federal student loans.

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Which brings us back to Harvard and… the A.R.T. Institute, …. The Institute has been facing two big problems.

The first is that the median debt rate for students of the two-year program, which enrolls about 23 people a year, is a whopping $78,000 and the typical post-graduation income of those students is miserably low when compared with that debt: just $36,000 a year. If you’re trying to make it in New York City, or even in Boston or Chicago, $36K per annum sure does not allow a lot of cushion for debt repayment.

Such are the entry-level salaries in the arts, which long have been subsidized by those who work therein, especially those in the kinds of jobs you can expect straight out of graduate school.

Tribune reporter Chris Jones goes on to suggest that arts training programs should be held to similar standards as trade schools rather than claiming an exception,

“…based on the mostly spurious argument that students are pursuing their creative dreams, know the cruel realities of the profession and thus have some awareness of the financial risks and the inequality of its rewards — some people, obviously, make a whole lot.

In many cases, these students are going into debt to acquire credentials and, yet more importantly, a network to aid them in a profession that, to its detriment, is growing ever-more nepotistic and lazily elitist, especially when it comes to its dominance by a few well-known training programs.”

That last sentence about the industry being partially to blame for using the imprimatur of a brand name as a shortcut for hiring decisions evokes the recent conversations about arts careers only being accessible to people with the means to take on debt and support themselves during unpaid internships.

Well, actually Jones goes on to explicitly talk about that, no extrapolation of concepts required.

But who wants the arts dominated by debt-free elites?

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…If these programs cannot be made more affordable and accessible without the promotion of onerous indebtedness, then more attention must be paid by the culture industry to those programs that can.

Many fine public universities offer excellent arts education, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The issue that needs fixing is whether such programs can open an equivalent number of doors.

The ultimate question of course is, will people start to make the effort to seek out talent elsewhere or will the status quo remain?  I don’t really want to wish complications upon anyone, but I wonder if the issues Harvard faced might crop up with other schools and that will provide greater incentive and necessity for arts and media companies to look elsewhere when hiring.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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2 thoughts on “Unexpected Development In Student Debt”

  1. Harvard has so much money in their endowment that they could easily have rescued the program by offering fellowships to the tiny number of students involved. I think that this decision was not about student debt really, but about Harvard’s indifference (or hostility) to the arts.

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