piano on stage in unoccupied concert hallFrom 2026-2031, the college-age population in the U.S. will decline sharply, about 15%, due to the reduced birth rate during the great recession.*

Combine that with competition from online learning, and numerous brick-and-mortar colleges are expected to shut down because of under-enrollment.

For higher education music schools, except for the most elite ones, the future may be especially dire owing to both the population factor and to changes in the economic value of their core offering: the traditional music performance degree.

The Value of Traditional Music Performance Degrees

During most of the 20th century, people who earned bachelor degrees in music performance could, by and large, find gainful employment in various fields. The inherent value of a college degree along with its relative affordability at that time meant that a degree in any subject could bring a sensible return on one’s investment. On top of that, around mid century, the job market for performers grew steadily.

None of that holds true anymore.

Although college graduates, in aggregate, outperform non-graduates in the employment marketplace, traditional music jobs such as full-time orchestra positions and singing roles have become scarce, and non-music employers increasingly demand tech, communications, and other skills from entry-level employees, competencies that traditional music performance curricula don’t directly address. In effect, many music programs resemble trade schools, yet the trades they teach have diminished, while the number of conservatory graduates has multiplied.

As a result, today’s music performance graduates appear significantly disadvantaged compared to their predecessors when competing for both music and non-music jobs.

Add in the skyrocketing cost of a college education, particularly at private schools, and one can argue that the economic value of a newly earned, traditional music performance degree has plunged because the price is higher than ever and the return on investment (ROI) hasn’t kept up (i.e., graduate earnings lag many other degrees).

To be clear, the intrinsic value of arts and liberal arts educations remains substantial, and I know that personally because I earned bachelor and master degrees in music performance, and I treasure the knowledge and abilities I gained, as do SNAAP survey respondents.

But for music colleges to attract enough full-time students to survive the impending population decline, and if they want to claim moral high ground, they should align with the realities of 21st-century economies so that music degrees become more and not less valuable.

“Today’s music performance graduates appear significantly disadvantaged compared to their predecessors when competing for both music and non-music jobs.”

6 Keys to Music School Survival

In the following paragraphs, I sum up six strategies for music schools to flourish amid the coming drop in student population, strategies I’ve refined during more than 35 years working in music higher education.

To discuss ways in which I might help your school explore and implement any of these ideas, feel welcome to contact me.

1. Track & Improve Outcomes

Unlike many university-level programs, which meticulously track and report on the career outcomes of their graduates, only a minority of music schools obtain and publish detailed outcomes data. Such an absence of data represents, in my view, a significant failing that can undermine the confidence of prospective students and their families as well as discourage support from funders.

For instance, a well-counseled high school flute student shopping for college music programs will want to know, and should easily be able to discover, how all recent flute graduates of a school fared. Similarly, wise donors,  grantmakers, and public funders increasingly expect data regarding how effectively a school is achieving its educational mission.

To obtain precise outcomes data, I advise music schools to implement first-destination surveys that meet the standards of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and that allow for fine-grained tracking by instrument and major (the SNAAP survey may not suffice). Then, I suggest that schools follow up with each graduating class with surveys at 2, 5, and 10 years post-graduation.

When surveys don’t show excellent outcomes, it’s an urgent signal for schools to renovate curricula and improve outcomes. Ideally, though, schools would update their curricula often to stay ahead of societal change.

“For music colleges to attract enough full-time students to survive the impending population decline, and if they want to claim moral high ground, they should align with the realities of 21st-century economies so that music degrees become more and not less valuable.”

2. Renovate Curricula

The curricular renovations we consider should be tied to evidence regarding educational strategies, employment outlooks, alumni outcomes, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

In the employment realm, NACE research reveals 8 career readiness competencies that graduates should acquire to be attractive to diverse employers. Music schools do well to consider those competencies when weighing curricular renovations aimed at improving alumni career outcomes because SNAAP data show that large percentages of music performance graduates work outside of the performance profession.

Returning to that flute example, only a tiny number of flute performance graduates will win full-time orchestra jobs. So, if flute performance curricula focus solely on the competencies needed to achieve that one unlikely outcome, then the vast majority of graduates will be underemployed and, I’d argue, under-educated.

Shouldn’t schools strive instead to ensure that all graduates are equipped with up-to-date competencies to succeed both within and outside of the contemporary music profession?

To make room in curricula for students to develop more competencies, schools can reduce the number of required music theory and history classes, the semesters of required ensemble participation, the number of required lesson credits, and so forth, depending on what makes sense for a particular institution. Plus, by incorporating online coursework, students can gain basic music theory and history competencies without spending as much time in traditional classrooms, releasing time for them to enroll in courses and internships to gain higher-order knowledge and skills along with the wherewithal to work as music educators, church musicians, arts administrators, technologists, and in other satisfying fields with robust employment outlooks. Plus, students interested in graduate educations in non-music professions such as medicine and law can rack up prerequisites.

Overall, when we trim requirements, we make room for students to pursue diverse possibilities for their educations, careers, and dreams.

But that’s just one simplified illustration. Curricular renovation isn’t simple, but it’s achievable when faculty, students, administrators, alumni, and funders build consensus around core outcomes.

“When we trim requirements, we make room for students to pursue diverse possibilities for their educations, careers, and dreams.”

3. Expand Degree Programs

Many music schools have grown their enrollments by adding degrees or minors in Music Industry Studies, Recording Engineering, Music Entrepreneurship, and other subjects beyond traditional music performance and education curricula.

Problem is, it’s costly to launch dramatically new programs because they require additional faculty, equipment, and space. If university enrollment projections anticipate budget shortfalls, funding for such innovations probably won’t be available.

To begin with, I encourage schools to expand programs using their existing faculty and resources. For instance, instead of only offering performance-minded students standard Bachelor of Music degrees, schools might design flexible Bachelor of Arts degrees that incorporate, among other things, required internships and field projects that strengthen students’ overall career readiness. The music performance level needed for entry to and graduation from BA degrees could also be lower than for the BM, opening admission to a broader and potentially more diverse student population.

Another way to expand programs, and thereby boost outcomes and revenue, is to offer non-degree certificates, complete with internships, that can achieve close to 100% job placement for graduates. Options include:

  • 1-year music ed certification for musicians who already hold bachelor degrees (students take a semester worth of classes during a condensed summer session and another semester of courses during evenings in the fall, completing a semester of intern teaching in the spring; faculty could include in-service music educators, especially alumni).
  • A 1-year certificate in church music whereby graduates attain jobs as church music directors
  • Other certificates devised in partnership with employers (e.g., in Arts Administration or Music Business)

4. Increase Retention of Freshmen

I’ve observed that undergraduate music programs, on average, lose 13% of freshmen to attrition, which shrinks institutional revenues and causes untold strain on departing students. Even so, increasing retention is the most straightforward, highest ROI move that schools can make.

Although some freshmen withdraw due to causes that institutions can’t prevent, many students leave because they weren’t adequately supported during their first year, which can disproportionately occur among first-generation and minority college students.

One proven way to ensure adequate support is to implement a particular kind of required freshman music seminar, one that meets once or twice weekly for all or part of the first semester, is taught by expert faculty members, and that arms students with the know-how to meet the demands of music curricula and college life.The Musician's Way book cover

The Musician’s Way functions as a core text for such courses, enabling faculty and students to readily explore vital music student success topics – practice and collaboration strategies, performance anxiety management, and much more. Such a seminar should concurrently cover academic integrity and campus resources.

Schools that implement such seminars achieve significant increases in student retention, GPA, and satisfaction as well as a reductions in time to degree. But only specific sorts of seminar designs and execution produce those results (contact me for more info).

“Increasing retention is the most straightforward, highest ROI move that schools can make.”

In tandem with a freshman seminar, schools do well to examine their academic advising structures. Typically, “advising” takes the form of box-checking – an administrator ensures that students take the courses needed to graduate on time. There’s little actual listening and counseling involved.

Instead, I recommend that qualified advisers not only manage course enrollments but also communicate often with students, especially with freshmen during their first semester, to learn about any academic, personal, or campus life challenges they may face and then provide support before troubles escalate. Studio faculty should also receive guidance to recognize and proactively respond to signs of student distress or underperformance.

“Many students leave because they weren’t adequately supported during their first year.”

5. Reduce Costs

Schools can reduce costs for themselves and their students in a number of ways without compromising quality, according to their missions, programs, and resources. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Increase the student-teacher ratio of some studio faculty by replacing private lessons in selected curricula with small-group sessions, supplemented by tutoring.
      • Groups sessions can take place more than once per week, increasing student-teacher contact compared to private lessons.
  • Use automated, asynchronous online courses for rudimentary subjects such as first-year music theory
  • To lower student costs and out-compete pricey schools, reduce the time to degree.
  • Automate aspects of registration, financial aid, grading, space utilization, commencement planning, and transcripts.
  • Incorporate for-credit internships that meet degree requirements, adding to students’ job readiness while reducing classroom staffing costs.

6. Hire & Train Wisely

Music schools located in cities with full-time orchestras characteristically hire principal and section players to teach part-time, and those faculty effectively prepare students for orchestra and military careers, making important contributions in that regard. But if schools hope to shore up their enrollments and achieve realistic outcomes beyond large-ensemble positions, they should additionally engage multi-skilled, full-time artist-faculty who can not only attract top students and teach high-level music-making but also lead innovative curricula that broaden students’ educations and career possibilities.

After hiring, all studio faculty should receive meaningful training in student success strategies, recruitment techniques, instructional technology, and so forth so that they’re able to excel as teachers and student recruiters as they participate in a school’s mission and sustainability. For that to be done effectively, though, schools need to recruit forward-thinking administrators who are equipped to spearhead faculty hiring and development efforts.

In sum, we should foster a team approach to student recruitment, education, and success that advances a school’s mission, enables faculty growth, and results in superior post-graduation outcomes for all students.

*  *  *

These six strategies represent key undertakings for music colleges to consider, but this list is far from comprehensive. Some additional tactics I recommend to attract more student applications include engaging alumni in student recruitment, standardizing virtual and on-campus recruiting events, increasing online marketing, adding recruitment pipelines, and boosting international student recruitment.

To discuss ways to implement these and other strategies at your institution, contact Gerald Klickstein to inquire about his consulting services.

*Population changes and the numbers of college closings will differ by region. The effect is expected to be greatest in the Northeast & Midwest and less in regions such as the Southwest, where ample immigration has occurred. See: Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, by Nathan Grawe (JHU Press, 2018) as well as an interview with Prof. Grawe.

Related posts
8 Ways to Build Sustainable Music Careers
10 Reasons to Pursue a Graduate Degree in Music
Are Conservatories Keeping Pace?
The Master-Apprentice Model Is Dead
Supply and Demand for Classical Musicians

© 2019 Gerald Klickstein
Photo via Pixabay