You may recall that the Yale School of Music’s hundred-million-dollar endowment was one of the biggest news stories of last year among our kind. The even bigger story was that the endowment would be used to cover tuition for all Yale music students.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the meetings wherein the endowment’s fate was decided. The mind boggles at the thrilling variety of possible uses for $100 million—killer concert series, studios with vintage Neves and U47s, new Steinways for everybody. Yale could have demolished their existing music facilities and erected a towering golden pyramid. They could have hired a team of scientists to bring Charles Ives back to life and had enough left over to offer Zombie Ives a handsome salary. But they chose instead to waive everybody’s tuition. Why?
Even before the endowment was announced, I’m sure Yale’s composition program was in a position to be as selective as any in the United States; although we tend to associate it with conservative music, I have no doubt that their students are, for the most part, highly talented and impeccably qualified Tanglewood-types whose success in the field is all but guaranteed. I find it unlikely, then, that Yale’s decision was made with an eye toward recruiting more promising students (as their press release seems to indicate).
The real value in Yale’s tuition waiver—and Yale’s tuition, by the way, is probably nothing to sneeze at—isn’t that it allows Yale to head-hunt more competitively, but that it eliminates a confounding variable (money) in the equation of professional musical success. By waiving tuition, Yale has leveled the financial playing field for its applicants.
The majority of American composers come from relatively comfortable socio-economic conditions (otherwise they would have to get real jobs). Although not all of us could afford to go to pre-endowment Yale, a demographic survey of the field would, I expect, reveal a strong skew toward middle-class whites and Asians whose educational options are limited much more strongly by their qualifications than by their bank accounts. Admission to composition programs is generally meritocratic as long as you can afford to enroll, and if we juggle loans, jobs, and a credit card rotisserie, we usually can. But there are undoubtedly a great many gifted musicians in America who can’t. If more universities, top-tier ones especially, were able to offer a tuition waiver like Yale’s, I suspect that the narrow demographic character of the field would widen considerably over the course of a generation or two. And no offense to Yale, but what if a music school with a genuine commitment to experimental music were to offer a universal tuition waiver? I predict that the diversity of students—and, necessarily, the diversity of musical directions—would expand significantly. In terms of what to do with a huge sum of money, that’s the most thrilling possibility of all.
Moral of the story: If you receive a hundred million dollars from an anonymous donor, waive tuition. Do it for the kids.