Upon graduation, current first-years at the Yale School of Drama will have $10,000 less debt than last year’s graduates, thanks to an expansion of the school’s financial aid program.

While total aid packages remained largely the same, the Drama School transformed many of its loans into scholarships for the current academic year. Students said they are pleased with the changes, and some said they think their work will improve now that much of the financial burden of school has been lifted.

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This year, tuition and fees for students will total $25,735 — a jump of over $2,000 from last year — in addition to the cost of books and living expenses, which range from $13,000 to $15,000. The average financial aid package came to $35,000 for students in each of the School’s three class years, with the average estimated debt upon graduation decreasing from $26,500 to $16,000.

Yale University President Richard Levin said financial aid has been a central focus for School of Drama Dean James Bundy.

“We increased our level of central support for the school,” Levin said. “Financial aid … has been the highest priority of Dean Bundy, and he’s been consistently urging us to add to the amount of support we provide.”

As in previous years, the ratio of grants to loans awarded to students increases with every year of schooling, so first-year students are expected to take on the most debt, currently $14,000. The amount decreases to $2,000 for the second year, and for the third and final year no borrowing is required. Last year, students were still expected to pay $14,000 their first year, but their second and third years added $12,500 and $3,500, respectively, to their debt.

The Drama School, which has a need-blind admissions policy and awards aid based on need, has increased the amount of grants students receive. Elis in their first year receive an average of $19,000 in grants, second-years $30,000 and third-years $32,000. For the 2006-’07 school year, the average grants were $14,000 in the first year, $15,500 in the second year and $26,000 in the last year.

Bundy said in an e-mail that alumni donations, the support of the Provost’s Office and President Levin, and the endowment’s performance allowed the financial aid budget to grow.

Deputy Provost Charles Long said improving financial aid for the professional schools, including the Drama School, is a priority for his office. He said he would like to enable these schools to offer the same level of support that Yale College, the Graduate School and the School of Music — which went tuition-free after a $100 million anonymous donation in 2005 — do.

“Financial aid in the professional schools is one of our highest priorities,” he said. “We’re trying to help the schools with University funding until they can raise their own.”

Maya Cantu DRA ’10 said she is very pleased with the school’s financial aid offerings.

“[The grants] will certainly help in my living and working without much anxiety as to how I’m ever going to pay back all my loans,” she said in an e-mail. “So I imagine the quality of my work will be better without that kind of fear.”

Bundy said students who have to worry less about financial aid are able to produce more creative works because they are not as concerned with making money to pay back their loans.

He said the improved financial aid packages should help the school recruit applicants from a wider range of backgrounds.

“Better financial aid lowers barriers for a diverse array of applicants,” he said. “As the cost of undergraduate education nationwide often requires more student borrowing, it’s ever more important for the School of Drama to take a leadership position in financing graduate theater training.”

Another component of the financial aid total, work-study, has increased only for second- and third-year students. Last year, all students were required to earn $2,000 in work-study through jobs ushering or doing technical work in one of Yale’s theaters. This year, first-year students must meet a $2,000 minimum, while second- and third-years must earn $3,000. These jobs usually total 150 to 200 hours per year, which Bundy said allows students to gain experience in areas outside their primary concentrations.

Unlike many of its peer institutions, the School of Drama does not provide merit-based scholarships, which many other schools offer. The Tisch School of the Arts at NYU provides a limited number of graduate assistantships, which provide tuition remission and a stipend in return for completing teaching, research or administrative jobs. But Tisch does not offer grants as part of its need-based aid.