Jennifer Myung owes the U.S. government $55,000, and for the first time she isn't worried about paying it back. That is because she has swapped a budding career as a concert violinist for a job as an investment banker.
Myung, 25, made that switch in October. With two graduate degrees from Boston's New England Conservatory, she turned down a rare opening with the New World Symphony and an audition for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
A recent $100 million anonymous gift to the Yale School of Music, which allows students a year of free study, has stirred debate on the costs of studying performing arts in the United States and whether Washington should do more to help.
With the cost of tuition rising every year and conservatory students spending as long as six years in school, many are swamped in debt as they enter a field in which jobs are scarce and salaries are often low.
"Even if you do music really well, there's no guarantee that you'll get a job," Myung said.
The Yale donation, announced in October, will cover tuition costs of all enrolling students next year. It was the largest donation ever to the university.
It was followed a month later by a $40.6 million gift to the Indiana University School of Music, and has cast attention on students such as Myung, who said the prospect of years of debt drove her to choose a new career.
Thomas C. Duffy, acting dean of the Yale School of Music, said: "Students are leaving schools burdened with debt between $20,000 and $40,000. We don't want to expand our program on the backs of our students. . . . That would be unconscionable."
Jory Fankuchen, a graduate student at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, said he feels "lucky" to owe only $20,000. "From the time you are 6 years old, you've studied music more than a brain surgeon studies for class," he said. But you still can't make a living half the time."
Many students said that they would not have been able to attend graduate school if not for generous financial aid. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a full-time music graduate student paid an average tuition of $3,599 in 1987. That figure has since nearly tripled, to $10,237.
At New York's Juilliard School, tuition is $24,330 a year, but when living expenses are included that cost can rise to $40,000.
Still, more and more students are applying. From 1982 to 2002, the number of master's degrees in music grew 37 percent. The number of students studying for bachelor's degrees increased by 89 percent.
That means students with bigger debts face even greater competition for jobs that will help them pay off loans once they graduate.
For international students, financial aid is usually crucial. Many face tough job restrictions or do not qualify for U.S. government assistance. In general, foreign students can hold on-campus jobs, but many resort to illegal work.
"These on-campus jobs are very low-paid," said Robin Miller, 25, a cellist from Vancouver, B.C., whose tuition was covered by the Manhattan School of Music. "It is literally impossible to support yourself and pay tuition from work that you can legally do here."
International students often play gigs for employers who pay in cash.
School officials often lament that the arts are underfunded.
"There's a growing concern," said Joan Warren, associate dean of financial aid at Juilliard, noting that federal student loans have not increased in recent years.
At the New England Conservatory, where 85 percent of students receive financial aid, public relations manager Ellen Pfeifer said she thinks Yale's tuition-free offer raises the bar for other schools.
But Alexander Brose, director of admissions at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, said that even though Yale's tuition-free education will make things more competitive, he does not expect other schools to offer free tuition anytime soon.
"Everyone would love to be able to offer full tuition to their students, but it's just not possible for most of us."
Yale's Duffy said he hopes that attention on the issue will prompt other generous grants.
"It's absolutely astounding that students have been flocking to our school, given that they have [huge debts] even before they walk in the door and into a profession that isn't high-paying," he said. "And yet our conservatories are filled, our applications are up, and the talent level is better than ever. This is a real labor of love."