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"Tuition Freeze Now" written in chalk on the Juilliard School campus.

Courtesy of Sarah Ma

Students at the Juilliard School danced and sang along to protest songs on the sidewalk in front of their campus in New York City last week. It may have looked like an impromptu street performance from a distance, but up close, passersby could read the demands on the signs the students held.

“Actors and musicians all demand you freeze tuition,” one sign said. “What’s outrageous? Tuition raises,” said another.

Juilliard students were shocked to learn recently that tuition at their renowned performing arts conservatory was going up by nearly $2,000. When the institution’s leaders announced this spring that undergraduate tuition for the 2021-22 academic year would rise to $51,230 from $49,260, many students worried about having to pay more and started calling for a tuition freeze.

“Students are really, really pushing for this cause that matters a lot to them, especially during COVID, when $2,000 could mean two months of rent in New York City or it could mean several months of groceries,” said Sarah Ma, a freshman music student at Juilliard.

Administrators have responded to the protests by pointing to a growing pool of financial aid dollars that will be available for students to offset the 4 percent tuition bump.

"Juilliard’s teaching, coaching, and performance opportunities are unmatched, and great care is taken to offer this education at the lowest possible cost," a Julliard spokesperson said.

A Rare Student Protest

Protests and demonstrations about any number of issues thrive on many college and university campuses, which are often hotbeds for political and social activism.

The same is not true for Juilliard, Ma said.

“The arts have always been historically connected with protest. Art has always been inherently political,” she said. “However, when you get to very exclusive, conservatory-level arts, like Juilliard and other arts conservatories, that is really rarely seen. Juilliard has seldom seen any student organizing for a demand.”

Ma can recall few protests on campus. One of the most notable protests on campus occurred long ago, in 1940, when students rallied around Howard Langford, a professor at Juilliard who was dismissed over salary and tenure issues, Rolling Stone reported. Student and faculty activism also saved the dance department, which was at risk of being shut down in the 1970s due to budget cuts.

Most recently, students organized in 2019 and successfully pushed for an increase in the minimum wage from $9 to $15 for all student workers.

About a third of Juilliard students have signed a petition calling for a tuition freeze. A number of alumni and faculty members have expressed their support for the students’ demands.

“Thanks to each and every one of you for fighting to create conditions of artistic productions that are more inclusive. High tuition limits artistic creativity for you, as well as for everyone who comes after you,” Aaron Jaffe, an assistant professor of philosophy and liberal arts, wrote in a statement of support for students. The statement was posted on the Instagram account of the Socialist Penguins, the student group that organized the protests.

Juilliard administrators responded to students’ demands via email in May, about a month after they first started organizing against the tuition increase.

“We share your concern that the cost of a college tuition is a financial burden, especially for the most economically vulnerable students,” Joan Warren, vice president for enrollment management, and Lesley Rosenthal, chief operating officer and corporate secretary, wrote in an email to the Socialist Penguins on May 14. “While we recognize that the tuition increase of $1,965, to $51,230 for next year is on its face unwelcome news, we would urge you to bear in mind that Juilliard awards financial aid to 92 percent of its students.”

Juilliard officials suggested that students who are concerned about the tuition increase submit an appeal to increase their financial aid packages.

“Although student aid packages do not automatically increase over the four years of attendance, the school has set aside a pool of funds for appeals commensurate with the size of the tuition increase to assist those students for whom the rising costs are a hardship,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Student protesters were largely unhappy with Warren and Rosenthal's response.

"If vice president Joan Warren and the Juilliard administration actually shared student concerns about the skyrocketing cost of tuition, they would listen to the overwhelming student and community demand for a #tuitionfreeze," the Socialist Penguins wrote on Instagram.

The student protests and the administration’s response have led to tensions.

The institution began investigating a handful of students for code of conduct violations following protest actions in a campus building on June 7, which was first reported on by the Park Avenue Pianos blog. Ma’s and other students’ access to the building was revoked following a student occupation there.

“It feels like our needs are being ignored and instead we’re being punished for expressing those discomforts with administration,” Ma said.

Students later took their demonstrations outside.

Barrett Hipes, dean of student development, said in a June 10 email to all students that the ongoing investigations into student actions were not in response to their protest rallies.

“I do want to be very clear that the investigations of these alleged violations of the Code of Conduct are just that. They are in no way a reaction to otherwise appropriate demonstrations,” Hipes wrote.

The Tension over Tuition Discounting

The protests at Juilliard highlight a tension often brought on by tuition discounting strategies. Like most private institutions, Juilliard advertises high tuition prices and heavily subsidizes those prices for many students through institutional or federal financial aid. More than nine in 10 Juilliard students receive some form of financial aid, whether it’s an institutional grant or scholarship, federal student loans, or a federal Pell Grant for low-income students.

As tuition prices climb, so too do private institutions’ discount rates. Last year, average tuition discount rates reached an all-time high of 53.9 percent, which means that for every $100 charged on paper, an institution does not collect $53.90 from students or families. Juilliard’s tuition discount rate is 66 percent, far above the average.

About one in five Juilliard students are beneficiaries of tuition-free programs or receive full tuition scholarships.

The actual net price to attend Juilliard varies based on the incomes of students and their families. During the 2019-20 academic year, students whose families earned between $0 and $30,000 per year paid an average of $24,474 to attend, according to the National Center of Education Statistics. About one in five Juilliard students fall into this category, according to a school spokesperson.

Students whose families earned between $30,001 and $48,000 paid $22,765 on average, and students whose family income was between $48,001 and $75,000 paid $34,277.

Students with families in higher income brackets have experienced the largest changes in net price over the past several years, NCES data showed. During the 2017-18 academic year, students whose families earned between $75,001 and $110,000 paid an average of $26,764 per year. That average jumped to $39,678 by 2019-20. The same is true for students with families that earned $110,001 or more. Those students paid an average of $38,696 during the 2017-18 academic year and $49,356 during the 2019-20 academic year.

Average net price among students in the lower income brackets has fluctuated by several thousand dollars over the past several years. Between 15 percent and 20 percent of Juilliard students are eligible for Pell Grants each year. It’s possible that Juilliard students from lower income brackets will experience little or no change to their net price despite the tuition increase. Students from higher income brackets who receive little or no financial aid could see their bill go up by nearly $2,000 next year.

Juilliard’s tuition increase outpaces average tuition hikes, said Bill Hall, founder and president of Applied Policy Research Inc., an enrollment and pricing advising firm. Most independent colleges and universities are raising their tuition by 3 percent for the upcoming academic year.

Hall said elite colleges and universities like Juilliard are compelled to increase their tuition over time for a couple of reasons. The first reason is prestige pricing.

“They’re not about to abandon $50,000, because that’s the prestige marker,” Hall said. “The sticker price is the marker of how important the education is.”

The second reason is to keep up with the costs of instruction.

“If you’re not going to raise tuition, you better be prepared to make a few more cuts to faculty positions,” Hall said. “You’ve got to make the money before you can spend the money.”

Educating students at Juilliard costs about $90,000 annually per student, a spokesperson said.

Though Juilliard’s semester has ended and many students have left campus for the summer, Ma said they’re not dropping their demands. Many alumni, faculty members and friends of the institution have expressed support for the student protesters.

"We’re at odds against this extremely prestigious and wealthy university. It’s a lot for a freshman to handle," she said. "We’ve been receiving so many messages of support. It has been actually fairly overwhelming."

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