Here's the Not-So-Secret Ingredient Behind This School's Free Tuition Model?

After reading the press release from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music announcing that Board Chair Nina Baroness von Maltzahn made a staggering $55 million gift to the school, our reaction was two-fold.

First, and most obviously, "Wow, a baroness. That's cool." Maybe there were lots of baronesses floating around the philanthrosphere a century ago, but they're pretty hard to find these days. 

And secondly—and most importantly for our purposes, as we'll elucidate a bit further in a second—we were intrigued by how the gift will support the school's 88-year-old policy of a tuition-free education for students.

But let's first start with the baroness herself.

Born in New York City and now living in Uruguay, Baroness von Maltzahn joined the Curtis board of overseers in 2008 and the board of trustees in 2010. In 2014, she became chair of the board of trustees, succeeding H.F. Lenfest, a Philadelphia-based philanthropist whose recent forays in the field of journalism (among other things) may be familiar to IP readers.

Prior to making this gift, described by the institute as as one of the largest ever made to a music school in the U.S., Baroness von Maltzahn endowed faculty chairs, established news programs, and helped pay for touring expenses for Curtis students.

Which brings us to the mechanics of the gift itself.

The money will support the school's "strategic direction," which, according to the press release, "reaffirms Curtis's commitment to maintaining an unparalleled level of music-making and remaining tuition-free, and also articulates a new goal to train students to become advocates for music who engage audiences around the world."

Other components of this vision include further development of educational offerings, the creation of a robust alumni network, an expanded partnership with Opera Philadelphia and more robust community engagement.

But we'd like to specifically loop back to the tuition-free part. Just recently, we published a piece in our Higher Education vertical about a big gift, earmarked for funding scholarships, to Nashville's Belmont University. We applauded the fact that more kids would get affordable access to a college education, yet were nonetheless frustrated that funders aren't aggressively going after the root causes of skyrocketing tuition.

How does Baroness von Maltzahn's gift fit into this puzzle?

Well, for starters this gift doesn't exactly address the drivers of escalating tuition rates. If anything, the gift represents a kind of capital expense, whereby it will fund more programs that, over time, will grow in and in turn, need their own high levels of operational funding.

Then again, Curtis has been offering a tuition-free education since 1928, so what's it matter, really? If the school has the network and funding pipeline to carry on this tradition, why should anyone worry about downstream expenses?

If anything, perhaps the better question is what can other universities learn from this kind of model.

Don't get us wrong, Curtis starts with a structural advantage, as it serves a mere 175 students. (As a reference, Juilliard, a school that's been on the receiving end of our tuition-induced wrath, has an enrollment of 927). And so, just like we're reminded that you can't replicate Denmark's free health care system in a country of 320 million people, larger universities may have trouble scaling Curtis' model.

But that isn't stopping some from trying.

Stanford will now be free to all students from families that earn less than $125,000 a year. Princeton offers free tuition to parents who make less than $120,000 and free room and board to those who make under $60,000. Harvard and Yale make tuition free for families who make less than $65,000, while Harvard—sitting on a $36 billion-plus endowment that would make a state school weep with envy—asks those who make between that level and $150,000 to contribute between 0 and 10 percent of their income.

And so the replicable "model" for free tuition, complemented by increasing capital spending, can be summarized in two words: donor dollars.

As Curtis trustee Mark Rubenstein noted, the schools signature full-tuition scholarship policy has "kept the school at the forefront of the world's conservatories. However with no tuition revenue, it also means that the generosity of individual donors is of extreme importance. Nina has our profound thanks for her vision and support."

Who knows? Perhaps we're looking at a future where smaller, donor-funded private—and dare we say "elite"—institutions can afford to cut (or eliminate) tuition while public schools, reliant on finite tax dollars, well, can't.

Would that then make certain Harvard students the one percent of the 99 percent?