There is an ugly elephant in the room at a lot of music schools and conservatories: exactly how much this is all going to cost us. In monthly payments. Six months after we graduate.

Music schools aren’t alone in happily admitting students who will later struggle to pay off their debt. The cost of higher education has skyrocketed in the past twenty years. In a time of recession and high unemployment, few students can afford the kind of debt they’re taking on. But we musicians are particularly vulnerable to financial challenges, and our advanced degrees don’t necessarily mean increased income.

Unfortunately, the more prestigious the institution, the more likely young musicians are to sign their financial futures away in order to attend. The most prestigious music school in Chicago costs $13,864 a quarter. There are three quarters in the normal academic year. This does not include any living expenses.

In an interesting development, Northwestern recently made their doctoral program full-fellowship. This means, of course, that far fewer students are admitted. (Doctoral string enrollment is in the single digits.) Still, I know several graduates of this school whose debt exceeds their annual income by two or three times.

This past fall, I sat on a panel at DePaul’s School of Music (where I got my master’s), speaking with freshman students about a variety of issues. In talking with them, I stressed that debt is a major concern. Many students have no clue what their loan total will look like as a monthly payment, how compounding interest can bite them in the ***, and how these loan payments could curtail their financial freedom later on. Music schools and musical mentors need to help students understand the reality of loan debt before they take the plunge. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that current tuition and loan practices at music schools are unethical.

[As a personal note, I’d like to point out that an MM from DePaul costs roughly a third of what it costs at Northwestern. I’m impressed with DePaul’s record in providing financial aid and keeping graduate tuition reasonable. Also, at Vanderbilt, where I did my undergrad, they recently went to a no-loan system. Students’ financial need is now met entirely by grants, and not loans. Hey, good job, alma maters! … now Vandy, how about making that retroactive? That $18k would be a load off.]