f11photo/shutterstock
f11photo/shutterstock

In the relatively staid world of billionaire philanthropy, media mogul and native Brooklynite David Geffen has always been something of a wildcard.

In 2017, he called out affluent New Yorkers’ “shameful” unwillingness to sufficiently fund the renovation of David Geffen Hall. Around the same time, he gave $150 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, drawing comparisons to Andrew Mellon and leading some to wonder if he was punishing his home city for its stinginess. (Geffen called the accusation “nonsense.”) Geffen is 78, has no heirs, and for all his grantmaking, has barely made a dent in his $11.4 billion fortune.

Now comes word that Geffen gave the Yale School of Drama $150 million to cover tuition for current and future students. In recognition of the gift, which officials called the largest in the history of American theater, the school is now named the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University.

True to form, the gift is pretty intriguing. Yale isn’t located in New York or Los Angeles, in contrast to Geffen’s previous mega-gift recipients. And in a higher ed space dominated by alumni giving, Geffen didn’t attend the school. Yale is also very rich. This is all the more glaring, considering the school’s announcement came two weeks after MacKenzie Scott’s latest round of grants to colleges and arts organizations that, unlike Yale, don’t have a $31 billion endowment or an alumni network whose $141 billion net worth exceeds the GDP of Kuwait.

More mega-donors may eventually come around to Scott’s maverick style of giving. In the meantime, Geffen’s gift doubles as a playbook for donors looking to boost accessibility at elite institutions. While it’s common for Ivies to cover tuition for low-income undergraduates, the same can’t be said for graduate students, giving donors the opportunity to help schools attract more diverse applicants at a time when over half of the nation’s student debt load is from graduate school loans. Of course, Geffen’s gift also means that students from affluent families will also enjoy a tuition-free education.

“Yale was the right place to begin to change the way we think about funding arts education,” Geffen said in the statement. “Removing the tuition barrier will allow an even greater diversity of talented people to develop and hone their skills in front of, on, and behind Yale’s stages. I hope this gift will inspire others to support similar efforts to increase accessibility and affordability for arts education at colleges and universities across the country.”

How the gift came together

Geffen started his career in the mailroom at the William Morris Talent Agency before becoming one of the most influential players in the entertainment industry. He founded Geffen Records, produced numerous Broadway shows, and co-founded DreamWorks Studios with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994.

He attended and dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin, Brooklyn College, and Santa Monica City College, and even posed as a UCLA graduate in order to land his gig at the William Morris.

As it turns out, the lion’s share of his higher ed giving has flowed to his faux alma mater. In 2002, Geffen announced a $200 million unrestricted endowment for the School of Medicine at UCLA, which was renamed the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. In 2012, he donated $100 million to fund the full cost of attendance for up to 30 students per year. In 2019, he gave another $146 million for the full cost of 400 students. Thanks to his support, the percentage of UCLA medical students graduating without debt rose from 17% in June 2013 to 45% in 2019.

Geffen has also supported Spelman College and Morehouse College, and gave $100 million each to the Museum of Modern Art and the Lincoln Center, which was renamed David Geffen Hall in 2015.

His connection to Yale dates back to the 1978–79 academic year, when he led a seminar called “The Music Industry and Arts Management.” The New York Times’ Michael Paulson reported that the new donation came about as leaders were aware of Geffen’s higher ed and arts giving and considered projects that might appeal to his interests. While officials approached him about a gift, drama school dean James Bundy told the Yale Daily News that it was Geffen’s idea to make the drama school tuition-free. In hindsight, it was a logical proposal from a donor who made free tuition a hallmark of his support to UCLA.

Geffen’s gift, which makes Yale’s drama school the only institution of its kind to eliminate tuition for all degree and certificate students, comes 15 years after a $100 million gift from alumnus Stephen Adams and his wife Denise made Yale’s music school tuition-free.

Supplementing existing financial aid

Like the other Ivies, Yale provides substantial financial aid thanks to donors. In January 2015, it launched “Access Yale,” a $200 million, two-year fundraising campaign focused on aid for students at Yale College, the Graduate School, and its 12 professional schools. When the initiative ended a year and a half later, the campaign’s fundraising total stood at $285.8 million.

Parents earning less than $65,000 haven’t had to make a contribution toward the cost of their child’s education since 2010, and 86% percent of the graduates in the Class of 2018 left with no student loan debt.

But these figures don’t apply to the approximately 200 students at David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University, where tuition for the most recent academic year was $33,800. Many graduates will enter a low-paying field upon graduation, unlike their undergraduate peers who can expect a starting median salary of $72,000.

Cognizant of this fact, the drama school did offer considerable financial aid before Geffen’s gift. As of 2019, work-study employment, scholarship grants and living expense scholarships covered 90% of the cost of attendance over three years for the average student with demonstrated “high financial need.” That percentage dropped to 71% and 51% for students with “moderate” and “low” financial need, respectively. (The university’s press release did not mention the average debt load for drama school graduates.)

Geffen’s infusion of support will complement existing financial aid packages at the school. Students will still have to pay for living expenses, supplies and books, which amount to $22,268 per student, although Yale will continue to provide relevant aid based on demonstrated financial need.

“Free” is for everyone

Yale drama students are undeniably much better off than they were a few weeks ago. But in a piece juxtaposing Geffen’s gift with Scott’s latest round of grantmaking, Chicago Tribune culture columnist Chris Jones reminded readers that free tuition applies to everyone—“even for students from high-income families.”

Or to put it another way: Should donors be bankrolling an expensive graduate education for the children of intellectual property attorneys and investment bankers?

This talking point may sound familiar. In 2018, the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine announced it had raised $450 million of the $600 million required to cover the tuition of all its students. The problem, noted the Times’ Elisabeth Rosenthal, was that under the plan, a student from a wealthy family could enjoy free tuition at donors’ expense and go on to become an even wealthier private cardiologist in Miami.

“NYU took a shot but missed the mark, despite all the hoopla surrounding its announcement and the framing of its offer as generous philanthropy to the tune of $600 million,” she wrote.

An exportable model

Skeptics will view Geffen’s gift as misguided, as it provides no income thresholds and flows to a highly selective and wealthy institution that had already provided ample financial aid to students with high financial need.

But there may be an additional impact in the way such a gift shifts perceptions. Remember, we’re talking about Ivy League schools, where more students come from the top 1% of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60%. However generous its financial aid packages may be, a school like Yale can come across as an unwelcoming place to low-income students.

“We know, because people have told us, that there are potential applicants out there who think they could never afford graduate theater training at an Ivy League school,” drama school dean Bundy told the Times.

Speaking to the Yale Daily News, Bundy said he hopes that those two magic words — “free tuition” —will have a transformative effect by compelling students “to imagine themselves training here, as we can imagine them training, and that that will lead to an increasingly socioeconomically diverse student body that more truly represents the fabric of the nation and the world that we tell stories about.”

Geffen’s gift is the first act—pun, sadly, intended—in administrators’ larger plans for the drama school. Yale Daily News reported that as part of the school’s upcoming capital campaign, the officials are soliciting $65 million in funding to construct a new facility to bring students and professors under one roof.

Yale president Peter Salovey told the Times he’d like to see other graduate schools within the university system offer free tuition, especially in low-paying fields like nursing and public health where students can rack up significant debt.

“In general, what should be happening in higher education is an attempt to reduce the financial burden on individuals and families associated with undergraduate education and graduate and professional education,” he said. “I’d love to do this for other programs as well, but it will take the generosity of donors to make it happen.”

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