The Coming Melt-Down in Music Higher Education (and some hopeful solutions)

Seth Godin—bestselling author, one of the world’s leading marketing experts, and a personal hero—recently published the article The Coming Melt-Down in Higher Education (as seen by a marketer).  In it, he argues that academia may be an industry in peril in today’s new economy.  To support this thesis, he cites 5 major points:





  1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students
  2. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem
  3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege
  4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect
  5. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up

As someone deeply committed to helping higher education remain viable for years to come, Godin’s arguments are obviously troubling.  And even if most universities do survive, what are the implications of his claims for collegiate music programs? Will we be around for the next 10, 20, or 50 years?  As you read through the following points, consider how they relate to your institution.

1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students
Please note: Godin’s use of the word average does not speak to quality. Instead, the term means normal, standard, or un-differentiated.  Under this definition, most music schools are currently organized to give average educations to average students. 

Of course, many music programs are renowned for providing outstanding instruction.  That’s not in question here. (In another article, Godin argues that the opposite of remarkable is very good.)  As you read on, understand his perspective…something can be average even when its quality is superior.

Consider the near identical way most undergraduate music programs approach the following: 

  • Typical acceptance requirements. Admission is based on a performance audition, grades, SAT scores, and perhaps musicianship proficiency.  Few schools consider leadership potential, creativity, problem solving, collaborative and communication skills, or entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Typical selling points.  When recruiting, most programs market their private teachers first and foremost, followed by ensembles and facilities (when they are nice).  Few pitches emphasize differentiated experiences, curriculum, and philosophies. 
  • Typical majors. Classical performance, jazz performance, composition, music education, music technology, music business.
  • Typical ensembles. Orchestras, wind symphonies, big bands, choirs, standard chamber ensembles. 
  • Typical curriculum.  Private lessons, ensembles, core music classes (theory and history), specialty courses related to major.  Few programs require/offer significant education in areas like entrepreneurship, career development, advocacy, leadership, performance health, audience development and engagement, outreach, inter-disciplinary models, recording (except for technology majors), improvisation (except for jazz majors), teaching (except for education majors), arranging/composition (except for comp majors). 
  • Typical exit requirements.  Perform a solo recital or two.  Few require chamber recitals, internships, portfolios, community outreach, entrepreneurial projects, or career plans.

Typical approaches are not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes being really good at what you do is enough to attract customers (students) on its own, even if offerings are fairly typical. But in any market sector today, it is difficult to remain competitive if what you offer looks more-or-less like everyone else. 

Solution: Savvy music schools should seek their own unique identity, addressing questions like:

  • What makes our music school truly unique? 
  • How are the types of students we recruit different from the competition?
  • In what ways can we become local/regional/national leaders? 
  • What skills/biases/attributes/experiences will our graduates have that immediately separate them from alumni of other institutions?

Music schools that make the bold move of differentiating will undoubtedly lose some customers, particularly “average students” who just want to experience the normal paradigm.  However, if your unique benefits are valuable enough (and marketed effectively), it should not be hard to interest more than your fair share.  After all, you’re the only program that offers that.

2. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem
Godin contends that accrediting bodies encourage and reward schools that adopt mass market formulas, rather than encouraging them to discover their own voice.  By mandating requirements for all participating organizations, programs become homogenized. Most schools follow accreditation guidelines without question. 

Solution:  Last year, I was delighted to hear Sam Hope—the executive director of the National Association of School of Music—announce that NASM is not trying to tie the hands of its constituents.  “If you want to do something different, just propose it.  We are absolutely open to new possibility.”  This is great news.  So be brave!  If your school has imagination and something unique to offer, don’t let accreditation become your excuse.

3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege
Godin argues that since average programs have a hard time differentiating themselves, they rely on rankings by magazines like US News & World Report to justify their worth.  He also notes some of the arbitrary ways in which these rankings are calculated. 

Solution: If an external source ranks your school high, by all means, share this endorsement.  But don’t let it become your primary selling point.  What does being 38th best (or even #1) really mean?  Instead, determine ways in which you are an educational leader, and frame your marketing around those aspects.  Support all claims of excellence with actual examples of remarkable activities that are central to your mission and approach.  And if you don’t rank so high, use this as an opportunity to figure out what in fact makes you special.

4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect
[Many university programs] churn out young wanna-be professors instead of…leaders and problem-solvers. –Seth Godin

Most music majors hope to become professional musicians someday.  Yet programs typically focus the vast majority of their efforts on the musician part, with little attention paid to issues that may lead to professional success such as leadership, problem solving, creativity, entrepreneurship, advocacy, personal finance, business skills, or new opportunities in the arts.  Particularly in today’s troubled economy, where unemployment looms at around 10%, is it really ethical to mass-produce students without the skills necessary to earn a solid living? 

When there is career training, it is often geared towards orchestra and college teaching positions (at least for performance and composition majors).  But we all know that the vast majority of music graduates will not be able to secure full-time jobs in these fields, where supply far outstrips demand. While most parents want their college-bound children to pursue something they are passionate about, they are also becoming increasingly concerned about the economic potential of music as a career path. Are we effectively addressing those concerns?

Solution: This point, of course, is the inspiration behind my book, blog, and many presentations. I believe that there are unprecedented opportunities for entrepreneurial artists today. But to get there, we must train students differently.

There are many things music schools can do, both in and outside the curriculum, to better equip aspiring artists to reach greater success.  Required classes, electives, inter-disciplinary offereings, re-imagined requirements for existing courses, internships, career mentors, entrepreneurial projects, and career portfolios are all possibilities.  Better yet, schools can adopt an entrepreneurial culture, where creativity and problem solving are celebrated at every stage. 

I’m happy to share that many programs are making progress in this area, at least offering one or two career related initiatives (for more info, click here).  It may always not be enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.

A good starting place is asking what students will likely need to succeed in today’s quickly changing world.  Using those conclusions, determine how to best shape curriculum and program design.

5. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up
An undeniable reality. But the challenge for music schools is even tougher.  In many cases, tuition for music majors is higher than other degrees (to compensate for expensive offerings like private lessons).  And typical wages for music graduates are often low, making it difficult to make ends meet while repaying large student loans.  How much longer will students be willing to take on this kind of debt?

Solution:  Tuition is not likely to go down in the foreseeable future.  But there are two possible solutions:

  1. Increase the amount of scholarship awarded.  What really matters is the amount students pay, not the full tuition price.  However, most programs are already tapped out when it comes to awarding scholarships.  Increasing this relief is easier said than done, which makes the next point all the more important.
  2. Do everything possible to ensure that music graduates are equipped to earn sufficient incomes that justify their educational investment.  Medical students expect to accumulate high student loans, but earnings are regularly substantial on the other side.  While we can’t expect all music majors to compete economically with doctors, we can do more to prepare them to think like entrepreneurs, create profitable opportunities, and manage finances.
As we have witnessed in the recording, automobile, and housing sectors, past formulas for success may not last forever. Industries that fail to adapt to current realities are often unsustainable.  Undoubtedly, there will be dramatic changes to the higher education landscape in the coming years. 

Most music schools are in reasonable shape today.  But there is cause for concern in the medium- and long-term.  As more educational options become available (open-source technology, online programs, non-traditional educational models, etc.), students will become increasingly choosey about which institutions they attend, or whether to pursue traditional programs at all.  And as the economic downturn persists, students and parents are increasingly interested in paths that are economically viable. 

Over the coming decades, the music schools that thrive will be those that differentiate their offerings, cultivate entrepreneurial leaders, and best prepare students for professional realities. I sincerely hope that the majority of our programs will recognize this new reality and make savvy decisions before it’s too late. Let’s prove Godin wrong by employing the bold initiatives and visionary leadership necessary for both our institutions and students to succeed.

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