In many of America's top conservatories, the world's most promising musicians are often deep in debt and giving music lessons just to cover the rent and close the gap between their scholarships and graduate school tuition.
But a $100 million donation is about to change that scenario at the Yale School of Music.
The anonymous donation, announced this past week, will make advanced music education free beginning next year. Music scholars hope it will pressure other schools to do the same.
"Money is a big factor," said Yale master's candidate Clara Yang, 24, who paid for her first year with loans, financial aid and by giving piano lessons.
The current year's tuition at the Yale School of Music is $23,750, and about 200 students are enrolled each year.
Half the former art and music students surveyed by college lender Nellie Mae in 1998 had debts bigger than their salaries and most said that, in hindsight, they should have borrowed less.
"These are incredibly talented people who do wonderful work and enter careers that are not high-paying," said Yale President Richard Levin. "Even members of the great symphony orchestras don't make a lot of money."
Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Juilliard School and a graduate of the Yale School of Music, said music graduate students sometimes enter the workforce with debts as high as $75,000 and without a guarantee of a job.
"How do they pay off those loans? Often that high debt forces the artists out of the profession entirely," Polisi said.
Five to 10 percent of Juilliard graduate students pay full tuition, Polisi said. The rest receive financial aid that covers most of the costs. Despite that aid, he said, Yale's new policy will give it a recruiting advantage.
"It will be an important wake-up call to all schools that graduate students, by nature, are poor and need help," said Richard Killmer, an oboe professor at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music.
Killmer, who for years has also taught classes at Yale, said money concerns frequently force students to take side jobs that can interfere with their studies.
By removing the tuition barrier, Thomas Duffy, acting dean at the Yale School of Music, said he hoped to recruit students who might otherwise not even consider attending music school.
The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which is almost exclusively undergraduate, has been free since 1928. Dean Robert Fitzpatrick said going tuition-free keeps schools from lowering their standards, even slightly, to accept those students who can pay their own way.
"You do that often enough and the quality of the school is diluted," Fitzpatrick said. "The difference between the best and least student at Curtis is very narrow."
Fitzpatrick said he doesn't expect a sea change in tuition policy among the nation's conservatories. The best schools already find a way to accept the best musicians, he said.
"Yale already had this profile: They were a small, elite school that was already giving massive amounts of financial aid," he said. "This is simply the icing on the cake."