Why some selective M.F.A. programs are going tuition-free

July 10, 2024
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A number of selective graduate programs in the fine arts—including some at the University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon University and the Juilliard School—have recently dropped their hefty sticker prices and gone tuition-free in the name of expanding access to arts education.

“The impact of these gifts on our students’ futures—and the field—cannot be overstated,” Evan Yionoulis, dean and director of Juilliard’s drama division, said in a news release last September when the New York City–based institution announced it would no longer charge tuition to students seeking a master of fine arts degree in drama beginning this fall. “Entering the profession without additional debt will allow these gifted artists the opportunity to take the kind of work, especially in the theater, that will allow them to develop their craft and provide a stable foundation for a lifelong career.”

And when USC announced last month that its acting and dramatic writing graduate programs would stop charging tuition next year, Emily Roxworthy, dean of USC’s School of Dramatic Arts, characterized it in a news release as “an important investment in the future of storytelling and the performing arts.”

That may be true. But even as philanthropic donations allow the country’s most selective M.F.A. programs to go tuition-free, the larger arts landscape in higher ed is increasingly under siege. Many art institutions are in dire financial straits, and the field as a whole has faced mounting public skepticism about the value of pursuing a degree that doesn’t promise clear-cut career paths or high earnings postgraduation.

Over the past several years, a number of cash-strapped independent art schools have closed, including the Memphis College of Art, the San Francisco Art Institute and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In June, the abrupt closure of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia left students scrambling to figure out where to complete their degrees.

But the handful of tuition-free master’s of fine arts programs—which also include those in the drama departments at Yale and Brown Universities—won’t be able to absorb all the aspiring writers, artists and actors who face diminishing options for formal fine arts training.

In fact, eliminating tuition is only making the application process to already-selective programs even more competitive. Just as the number of applications it received substantially increased after New York University’s medical school went tuition-free in 2018, tuition-free M.F.A. programs have also received record numbers of applicants.

Juilliard, for instance, received twice as many applications for its drama M.F.A. program this year as last, according to Yionoulis. She told Inside Higher Ed that the art school’s top priority over the next few years is to make “as much of Juilliard tuition-free as we can manage,” and she hopes to show more fine arts schools and programs that it’s possible.

“It’s something that we who are in higher education in the arts have always wanted to have happen,” she said. “This is going to make a huge difference to students once they get out of school, a huge difference to the field and therefore the culture.”

Applications to Yale’s drama M.F.A. program increased by 29 percent after the program went tuition-free in 2021. And applications from Black and Indigenous would-be students and other people of color increased by 45 percent, said James Bundy, dean of Yale’s drama school, adding that the program’s student body reflects the nation’s demographic diversity.

White students have historically dominated fine arts education programs, which equip graduates with both the refined skills and industry connections they need to realize success in the oversaturated television, film, theater, art, publishing and design markets. Roughly 50 percent of the graduates of visual and performing arts master’s programs in 2020 were white, while 7 percent were Black and about 9 percent were Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And that dynamic carries over into the entertainment industry, which has historically prioritized and critically acclaimed a disproportionate share of art by and about wealthy, white people.

“Going tuition-free was primarily about equitable access. There shouldn’t be barriers to training in the arts, specifically because of the arts’ intrinsic value to society and also because careers in the arts aren’t necessarily lucrative,” Bundy said. “It’s important strategically not to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in training someone who then ends up, because of financial pressure, unable to pursue the career for which they’ve been trained.”

For Eliza Kuperschmid, who is entering her last year of the dramatic writing M.F.A. program at USC, the announcement last month that the program was going fully tuition-free came as a huge relief—even though she was already receiving an 85 percent discount on tuition.

“USC is almost spearheading equity in the arts during a time when we’re seeing theaters shutting down and arts programs losing funding. It’s a nerve-racking time to work in theater,” she said, noting that she’s still not sure which direction she wants to take her career—playwriting, arts administration or teaching. “Tuition being lifted is allowing me to dream more broadly about my options.”

Overcoming Sticker Shock

Although many top M.F.A. programs—including USC, Juilliard and Yale—already offered substantial financial aid packages to the vast majority of admitted students before they went fully tuition-free, they’ve still struggled to overcome perceptions about poor return on investment and sticker shock.

A widely circulated 2021 article in The Wall Street Journal profiled graduates of Columbia University’s film master’s program who were “hobbled for life,” with half of graduates earning less than $30,000 while taking on a median of $181,000 in student debt. That same year, students at Juilliard staged a rare protest after the school hiked tuition, even as administrators reminded protesters that 92 percent of students received financial aid.

But when those big tuition discounts aren’t widely advertised, they don’t translate to prospective students or the public in the same way that explicitly eliminating tuition does, said Bundy, Yale’s drama dean.

Before Yale’s drama program eliminated tuition in 2021, the sticker price was about $32,000 a year.

“Even when we were saying we were providing need-based aid and the average student was only paying 11 percent of the cost of their education, that was a long-winded message that didn’t translate to further investigation on the part of prospective students,” Bundy said. “Being tuition-free gets people’s attention, and it makes them think differently about their prospects.”

Robert Townsend, director of humanities, arts and culture programs at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, said that while applicants from more privileged communities may already be aware that most students pay far less than an M.F.A. program’s advertised price, it’s not typically as clear to students without that social advantage.

“Being more explicit about the fact that these programs are free is really important in helping to diversify, not just the race and ethnicity demographics, but also the kinds of class demographics of the people trying to come into these programs,” Townsend said.

But offering free tuition at selective M.F.A. programs alone won’t diversify fine arts education or the arts industries.

In addition to helping students refine the technical skills associated with their chosen craft, an M.F.A. degree equips graduates with broad, marketable communications skills. But that’s not always made clear to students from lower-income backgrounds who may have the talent for an art degree but fear the industry’s infamous financial uncertainty.

“We need to start seeding the ground for this from the high school level on so that people who may not necessarily see this as a career path become more familiar with it as an opportunity and space they can go into and feel more comfortable taking the risk and earning that degree and working their way into these industries,” Townsend said. “But there are a lot of hurdles along the way. To the extent that a program like USC’s is lowering at least one of those hurdles, that could make an important difference.”



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