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A.R.T. Institute Affiliates Respond to Failing Debt Grade

The Loeb Theater
The Loeb Drama Center.
UPDATED: January 26, 2017 at 12:14 p.m.

After their program received a failing grade for student debt from the U.S. Department of Education, students at the Harvard American Repertory Theater Institute said they are concerned about their future finances, but recognize that careers in performing arts are often low-paying.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of hundreds of colleges and universities that failed to meet federal standards for student debt levels. While the Department of Education's investigation mainly targeted for-profit programs, Harvard’s A.R.T. Institute—a two-year acting, voice instruction, and dramaturgy graduate program—also came under fire for saddling its graduates with high levels of debt, putting the program at risk of losing federal financial aid.

Consequently, the A.R.T. Institute has frozen admissions until it can ensure that students will be able to receive federal financial aid, according to Scott Zigler, who directs the Institute.

Zigler defended the program and said that the A.R.T. Institute does not misrepresent the earning potential of its graduates.

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“I think a lot of the for-profit schools have made promises like that that they haven’t been able to deliver on. We don’t make those promises,” Zigler said. “I don’t know that anyone coming out of acting school expects to be making a lot of money three, four, or even five years after.”

Some students currently enrolled at the A.R.T. Institute also said they recognize the difficult of earning a substantial salary as a professional actor..

“I didn’t enter the acting profession to become rich, but I also don’t want to be left with student loan balances that I will never be able to repay,” Shawn Jain, a first-year student at the Institute, wrote in an email.

Elizabeth Amos, another student at the A.R.T. Institute, said she decided to enroll in the program despite potentially low future earnings.

“I chose this program despite the expense because I believed it to be an investment in my future that would bring me great returns. And to be clear, I don’t expect those returns to be financial,” Amos wrote. “You cannot choose a career in the arts expecting to be wealthy.”

Still, Jain wrote that some students are concerned about the status of federal financial aid and the long-term implications of student debt.

“I'd like us to receive a commitment in writing from Harvard that students in the [A.R.T. Institute’s] class of 2018 will receive the funding we need to ensure that we graduate… I would gander that nearly all of my classmates in the Institute will graduate with a tremendous amount of debt,” Jain wrote.

Zigler said he does not expect to raise the A.R.T Institute graduates' earnings. Instead, he suggested that a longer-term solution for remaining eligible for federal financial aid would be to develop a Master of Fine Arts degree program at Harvard.

“There is not much the A.R.T. can to do address the earning side of the metric. There is not a lot that we can do that will make it easier to be successful as an actor in America,” Zigler said.

As for alleviating student debt, Zigler said the Institute hopes to use this time to address the overall cost of the program and find new funding sources to increase scholarships.

Zigler said the Institute also hopes to use the admissions freeze as an opportunity to evaluate the career resources the program offers its students.

“I think we probably can do better in terms of professional preparation. We want to give our students every leg up professionally.” Zigler said. “I think one thing that students are looking for is a sense of career longevity—not necessarily a lot of money.”

—Staff writer Valia P. Leifer can be reached at val.leifer@thecrimson.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: January 26, 2017

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Scott Zigler, the director of the A.R.T Institute, wrote an emailed statement to The Crimson. In fact, he spoke by phone.

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