Harvard University’s ART Institute, a graduate program in theater, has suspended admissions after the US Department of Education gave the program a “failing” grade for burdening its graduates with unmanageable levels of student debt.
In an announcement last week, the Education Department listed Harvard’s ART Institute among hundreds of college and university programs across the country that did not meet federal regulations governing the amount of debt students can accrue when measured against their expected earnings.
Ninety-eight percent of the programs that got a failing grade were at for-profit institutions. Harvard’s ART Institute was among the relatively few nonprofit programs to be cited. The designation could jeopardize the two-year Harvard program’s eligibility to receive federal financial aid.
Established in 1987 by the American Repertory Theater, the Institute is formally known as the ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. It admits around two dozen students each year for graduate study.
David Cameron, director of media relations for Harvard, said the ART was suspending admissions for the ART Institute’s class of 2019 because of “uncertainty surrounding the availability of federal aid for prospective students.”
“This temporary pause on the two-year master’s program does not affect the students currently enrolled in the acting, dramaturgy, and voice programs,” Cameron said in a statement. “Rather, it enables the A.R.T. to evaluate the program and undertake vital strategic planning to address, among other things, student funding mechanisms.”
A spokeswoman for the ART declined further comment on Tuesday.
Total tuition for the two-year program at the ART Institute costs around $63,000, and the median student debt for the program is $78,016, according to Harvard. Meanwhile, the Education Department found that graduates of the program earn roughly $36,000 annually — meaning they pay, on average, roughly 44 percent of their discretionary income on loan repayments.
Under federal rules, certificate programs such as the ART Institute can qualify for federal student aid only if they prepare graduates for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.”
By that measure, a graduate’s estimated annual loan repayment cannot exceed 20 percent of the graduate’s discretionary income.
“It has to lower its tuition, clearly,” said ART cofounder and former artistic director Robert Brustein, who is still on the ART Institute faculty list. Speaking by phone on Tuesday, Brustein noted that several recent ART shows have gone on to Broadway. “It has to give some of the money that’s being made by these Broadway transfers back to the students. That would justify the fact that so many productions are prepared for Broadway at this point.”
Shawn Jain, an acting student in the program, called on Harvard to provide “the funding we need to ensure that we graduate.”
“I didn’t enter the acting profession to become rich,” said Jain in an e-mail, “but I also don’t want to be left with student loan balances that I will never be able to repay.”
The federal regulations are part of the Obama administration’s ongoing campaign to protect students against career training programs that often encumber students with high levels of debt and bleak job prospects.
While the rules — known as the Gainful Employment regulations — are aimed mainly at for-profit colleges, they also include certificate programs at private nonprofit and public institutions. The ART Institute — in addition to granting graduates a master of liberal arts degree — awards them a “Certificate of Achievement” from the faculty at the Moscow Art Theater School.
“When a student makes a personal and financial decision to attend college, the student must feel confident that it is a sound investment in his or her future, not a liability that will further defer his or her dreams,” said US Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a statement issued by the department.
An earlier version mischaracterized how rare it was to receive a “failing” grade on student debt in Massachusetts.