Music School profits from free tuition

Students admitted to the School of Music pay no tuition.
Students admitted to the School of Music pay no tuition. Photo by Joyce Xi.

In 2005, billionaire couple Stephen Adams ’59 and Denise Adams donated $100 million to the Yale School of Music, enabling the school to provide a full tuition award and fellowship to all students.

“This generous gift will enhance the ability of the school to attract the world’s finest musicians and will support a number of important advances at the school,” University President Richard Levin said at the time.

Musicians paid attention: according to the school’s Director of Admissions, Daniel Pellegrini, 1,496 prospective students applied for admission the first year that tuition was free in 2006–’07, up from 777 the year before.

Seven years on, the 125 students most recently admitted to the School of Music are now in the midst of weighing their offers from graduate music programs. But the opportunity to enroll in a school with no tuition will not necessarily be the determining factor in their decision-making process, 10 students and three professors interviewed said.

With students’ concerns ranging from a desire to study under specific faculty to the city in which they want to be based, selecting a graduate music program is not just a question of cost.

BENEFITS OF A GIFT

Having completed a master’s degree in music at the Yale School of Music and now nearing the completion of a doctorate degree, Jordan Kuspa MUS ’12 has been through the application process for graduate music programs twice. Kuspa said music departments at other universities, particularly within the Ivy League, are capable of offering accepted students greater financial assistance packages than Yale’s autonomous School of Music. Still, Deputy Dean Paul Hawkshaw said that, rather than being ranked among music programs at other Ivy League schools, Yale is often considered by applicants to be on par with top conservatories — which Kuspa said only offer tuition-free programs to a select few students.

Professor Martin Bresnick of the School of Music’s Composition Department said that because the school is largely independent from the University, it does not have as much access to endowment resources as music programs at other elite universities, which are departments within the universities’ graduate programs rather than separate schools.

Kuspa added that institutions like the Juilliard School, the New England Conservatory and the Cleveland Institute of Music are not “fundraising beacons” the way Yale or other large research universities are.

Between the School of Music’s two-year master’s and doctorate programs, 211 students are enrolled at the school. All receive free tuition, as a result of the Adams gift. Master’s students are also given a $3,500 stipend and doctorate students are given $6,000.

One student in a master’s program at the School of Music, Bresnick said, will pursue a doctorate program next year at Cornell, where he was offered a stipend of over $20,000, compared to the $6,000 that Yale provides to doctorate students.

“We have to make a case to students that although we can’t provide as much money, we provide a different kind of musical education, which for some people is more appropriate,” Bresnick said.

Yale’s name alone may cause many people with offers from other programs to come to the Yale School of Music, Hawkshaw said. Being at Yale means that students have opportunities to enroll in classes in any part of the University, Caroline Ross MUS ’13 said, one hand resting on the novel she was reading for her literature seminar at the Graduate School. Since the School of Music is free, she added, students have time to “take advantage of other things at Yale,” instead of working one or more jobs.

School of Music Dean Robert Blocker said that while the School cannot attract especially talented students by offering them more money as their competitors do, the School of Music has seen an increasingly talented student body. He added that the school’s application rate has more than doubled and the yield of students offered admission is now higher than it was prior to the introduction of free tuition.

“What happened in the applicant pool was that it was not only getting larger, but as the reputation of the University and the school were moving upward, we were receiving a higher-quality applicants,” Blocker said. “The real key is that we are able to be far, far more selective.”

Bresnick said the impact of the gift has been felt differently in different departments. The string instrument program used to lose students to other schools with better financial assistance, and now has a better position in the “competition for the really best players,” Bresnick said. In the Composition Department, which the former Stanford professor said has always been seen as particularly distinguished and thus managed to attract top applicants, the number of “viable applicants” has risen from 20 of 65 to 40 of 180.

“It doesn’t correlate exactly,” Bresnick said, explaining that the number of exceptional applicants has risen but not by the same proportion as total number of applications received.

A ‘TRANSFORMATIVE’ GIFT

Kuspa ultimately chose to complete both degrees at Yale because he had identified a professor under whom he wanted to study. The key priority cited by all 10 students interviewed was neither the free tuition nor the ancillary benefits of the improved facilities, but rather the specific teacher one could end up studying with — be it for composition, guitar or tuba.

“I don’t think anyone applies to music school without knowing about the faculty they want to study with,” Noori said.

Blocker, who served as dean from 1995 to 2005 and then returned to the post in 2006, explained that the $100 million gift — the largest in the School’s 118-year history — has been used toward more than just providing financial support for students.

The gift, he said, has been “transformative” in boosting the quality of the experience the school can provide. Blocker added that the school has used the money to appoint 15 new full- and part-time faculty, renovate most of its facilities and launch new initiatives.

“It’s the whole package,” he added. “A lot of schools give you scholarships.”

Since 2005, Blocker said the School of Music has renovated all of its buildings — with the exception of Hendrie Hall, whose upcoming renovations are to be funded separately by the University — and developed new performance programs such as the Yale in New York performance series, which enables students to perform at venues including Carnegie Hall.

Blocker added another portion of the gift has been spent on acquiring top-of-the-line equipment for student use. Hawkshaw said the Adams gift was a “game-changing gift” and specifically mentioned the school’s purchase of a number of new pianos.

“I can remember that, not long ago, we didn’t have such good instruments for people to practice on,” he added.

Because the gift made possible a financial aid policy that does not discriminate among admitted students on the basis of relative talent, it has contributed to a less competitive environment than those at other graduate music programs, several students and faculty interviewed said.

Roberto Toscano, who completed a master’s degree at Tufts and will begin a doctorate program at Columbia in the fall, said that while the majority of top American music programs provide comprehensive support, they only select two or three candidates in what he called a “hyper-competitive and overly saturated” process.

“Merit-based aid programs are present at places like Stanford and Berklee,” Bresnick, who teaches composition, said. “I’m really glad we don’t think that way.”

Ian O’sullivan MUS ’11 said he believes the School fosters a “healthy environment” compared to other programs. He added that, within the Guitar Department at the music school in which he studied, students are more willing to be openly critical of one another as well as admit to their own faults.

“From what I hear, other schools like NEC or Juilliard are very competitive — students are sort of battling each other within the same studio,” O’sullivan said. “I never really felt competition with the other guitarists here at Yale, because everybody is pretty open-minded as far as seeing that everybody has different abilities and different strengths.”

Justin Tierney MUS ’12 said students choose to attend music school for very different reasons from their peers at other professional programs.

“Higher education is always touted as an investment, [and with] more practical degrees like in law, medicine and engineering, it really is. You put money in and get more money back,” Tierney said. “But the investment you make for music school is really for your own intellectual fulfillment and skill. There’s really no award waiting for you.”

Tierney said he only applied to music programs that offer full scholarships. At Yale, he said, the faculty is a “huge draw,” and the money is “icing on the cake.”

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