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$78,000 of Debt for a Harvard Theater Degree 

click to enlarge Katierose Donohue, who graduated from Harvard’s graduate theater program 12 years ago but still pays as much for her student loans as she does for rent, in Los Angeles, July 27, 2017. Despite being at the world’s wealthiest university, the acting institute's students receive modest financial aid and leave with a median of $78,000 in debt in exchange for a master of liberal arts degree from the Harvard Extension School. - BRIAN GUIDO/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Brian Guido/The New York Times
  • Katierose Donohue, who graduated from Harvard’s graduate theater program 12 years ago but still pays as much for her student loans as she does for rent, in Los Angeles, July 27, 2017. Despite being at the world’s wealthiest university, the acting institute's students receive modest financial aid and leave with a median of $78,000 in debt in exchange for a master of liberal arts degree from the Harvard Extension School.

By SOPHIE HAIGNEY
© 2017 New York Times News Service

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Twelve years after finishing Harvard’s graduate theater program, Katierose Donohue still pays almost as much in student loans each month — about $650 — as for her share of the rent in Los Angeles. She recently stopped hosting her monthly sketch comedy show, “Ma’am,” because she didn’t always break even on her $200 budget. She’s now working side jobs as a dog walker and a social media copywriter, after past gigs serving at Starbucks and handing out free cigarettes for Camel.

She’s never missed a loan payment, but there’s no end in sight: She borrowed nearly $75,000 to attend the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard and still owes about $54,000.

“I can’t afford to make my craft, even though I’m regularly booking work,” Donohue said. “One fellow alum said to me, ‘Getting this degree basically guaranteed that I wasn’t able to pursue it as a career because I immediately had to get a job to pay for the education I received.'”

Most young actors don’t face graduate school debt like this — yet it is common for those who attend the A.R.T. Institute. Despite being at the world’s wealthiest university, institute students receive modest financial aid and leave with a median of $78,000 in debt in exchange for a master of liberal arts degree from the Harvard Extension School. In contrast, the loan debt average for master of fine arts students at Yale School of Drama tends to be about $14,000, a financial aid officer said. At Juilliard, the average student loan debt for the four-year undergraduate drama program is $27,000.

The steep repayment burdens have been a straitjacket on students and their career aspirations for years. But now they have become a major problem for Harvard and the A.R.T. Institute, too.

After the Department of Education criticized the debt loads in January, the institute halted admissions for a year — and then, last month, extended the freeze to three years. Some students and alumni worry that the resulting notoriety will sully the institute’s name and the value of their degrees. In a recent letter to institute leaders, the A.R.T. Institute Alumni Association also expressed a lack of confidence in Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, who oversees the institute and is a prominent Broadway director.

click to enlarge Shawn Jain and Me’Lisa Sellers, who recently concluded their first year in Harvard’s graduate theater program, in Cambridge, Mass., July 20, 2017. After the Department of Education criticized the debt loads for students of the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard, the institute halted admissions for a year — and then in July extended the freeze to three years. - CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZIELLO FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
  • Shawn Jain and Me’Lisa Sellers, who recently concluded their first year in Harvard’s graduate theater program, in Cambridge, Mass., July 20, 2017. After the Department of Education criticized the debt loads for students of the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard, the institute halted admissions for a year — and then in July extended the freeze to three years.

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