A.R.T. Institute to Shutter for 3 Years After 'Failing' Debt Grade

The Oberon
The OBERON on Massachusetts Avenue is owned by the Harvard's American Repertory Theater Institute. Under pressure from the federal government for settling its graduates with debt, the program will shutter for three years.
After the graduation of the Class of 2018, Harvard’s American Repertory Theater Institute will close its doors for three years in order to “work on a strategic plan,” according to an email sent to Institute alumni and students earlier this month.

This decision follows the A.R.T. Institute’s move in January to freeze admissions for the next year after the U.S. Department of Education listed the Institute—which offers two-year graduate programs in acting, dramaturgy, and voice pedagogy—as one of hundreds of college programs failing to meet federal standards for student debt.

In the email, sent to students and alumni of the Institute, A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane M. Paulus ’88 wrote that the Institute will “work with Harvard to explore options for an MFA, establish a stronger base of financial support for the Institute, and improve the A.R.T.’s educational facilities as part of an overall renovation of the Loeb Drama Center.”

A.R.T. Producer Diane Borger said the Institute did not take the decision to shutter lightly, but described addressing the concerns that she said were shared by Institute leadership and students as “the most responsible thing” to do.

“To do these things properly and rigorously, it takes time,” Borger said.

The January decision by the Education Department was the result of Obama-era legislation that sought to target predatory for-profit colleges and degree programs that saddle graduates with unmanageable levels of student debt.

Two years of tuition at the A.R.T. Institute cost around $62,500. The Department of Education estimated that A.R.T. Institute graduates earn, on average, around $36,000 per year—a debt-to-earnings ratio of 44 percent. Under federal guidelines, that ratio—the proportion of income that, after accounting for basic expenses, goes to debt payment—must be under 20 percent.

The Education Department focused part of its investigation on degree programs that award “certificates” instead of traditional master’s degrees. From 1999 to 2016, A.R.T. Institute graduates received a Master of Fine Arts from Moscow Art Theater School and a certificate from Harvard University. The Classes of 2017 and 2018 receive Master of Liberal Arts degree from the Harvard Extension School.

The news has concerned some students in the program, who worry about both the affordability of the program and the impact its closing could have on their careers.

“All the negative attention the Institute is receiving might be conflated with the education of the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training somehow being diminished. That is certainly not the case,” Jesse Friedman, a member of the Institute’s Class of 2018, said.

Other students, though, are nonplussed. Charlotte Stoiber, a recent graduate of the Institute, said the acting profession places more emphasis on performance than credentials.

“If I had done my M.B.A. at Harvard and Harvard Business School was going through a hiatus, I would be a lot more worried,” she said. “It’s only important to me that I went to a program this good because it made me good for the audition.”

Students in the program said that debt has long been a problem for them and welcomed any changes that would make the school more affordable.

Me’Lisa Sellers, a current student who has advocated for financial aid policy reform, said that many of her peers are struggling with burdensome student loans.

“If you’re not doing anything to aid them, then they’re becoming victims of the same policy that has been found negligent,” she said.

Last year, all A.R.T. Institute students—regardless of financial need—were given a $2,500 scholarship, according to two students in the Institute. In financial aid letters distributed two months ago, the Institute increased these student scholarships to $14,500.

Sellers argued this was not enough to relieve what she called “debilitating” debt, sometimes greater than $135,000.

Borger said administrators were trying to keep a “very open mind” about the upcoming process. Students, alumni, donors, and representatives of other graduate theater programs will be involved in the process, she added.

Though A.R.T. Institute Director Scott Zigler will leave in June 2018 to become dean of the drama school at the University of North Carolina School for the Arts, Borger said she believes “his wisdom and his experience” will help guide the transition.

—Staff writer Sarah Wu can be reached at sarah.wu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_wu_.

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