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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

"What-If Wednesdays" return with thoughts on Oberlin's recent announcement...

A provocative piece of news came out from Oberlin College recently, and it’s caused quite a stir within music higher education. The article, Oberlin Eyes Enrollment Swap, discusses a proposal from the Oberlin Board of Trustees to dramatically cut the number of music majors in the renowned Oberlin Conservatory – while adding the same number students to the liberal arts wing of this unique institution. The rationale: it will make this top-rate conservatory even more exclusive and competitive, while making room in the conservatory’s capacity to serve the large numbers of liberal arts majors who nonetheless want to be involved to some degree in music. Another rationale: music students cost Oberlin more, because they require more scholarship dollars to compete with other top conservatories; by enrolling fewer students, the college can either redirect those dollars in other strategic ways or save them altogether. Greater financial flexibility nearly always results in more efficient use of resources (financial and otherwise).

So why isn’t this a no-brainer? Well, for the Oberlin Trustees it would seem it was. But for outside observers it had the appearance of yet another attack on the fine arts, another instance of quality being pared back in the name of cost savings, and all the other familiar litanies of frustration with how our society devalues the arts.

But I don’t think this move by Oberlin amounts to these things. In fact, I see it as an act of responsible stewardship of one of our top conservatories. If the status quo was bleeding money from the institution overall, then you can bet that truly draconian cuts were sure to hit someday; being strategic and proactive now helps protect the integrity of the institution over the long run. I also think it’s an ethical response to the enormous glut of music school graduates currently being produced by literally thousands of institutions nationwide, from the tiniest and most exclusive of conservatories to the largest public universities. In fact, in the face of tightening budgets for higher ed and the relatively high cost-per-student of music programs, many music schools are being pressured to increase their enrollments – despite the very real problem of what all these music graduates are going to do once they graduate.

So this week’s What If provocative question is this:

What if music schools across the board embraced the Oberlin model?

I work at a large public university. Our College of Music has about 300 undergraduate students, approximately 45% of whom are performance majors, 40% are music education majors, and 15% are bachelor of arts students; the campus has asked us to grow our undergraduate numbers by about 150 students, and the assumption would appear to be that we accomplish that by building on our established strengths in performance and education. But what if we took a cue from the Oberlin model? What would it look like if we actually scaled back our signature programs – especially our performance majors – and instead created more non-major electives (great cash-positive mechanisms on a large campus), actively promoted our new music minor (ditto for being cash-positive and meeting a clear need for students interested in music but not majoring in it), and worked to create an innovative, interdisciplinary BA degree that would explicitly harness creativity for ends beyond those of being a professional musician? A smaller pool of performance majors would allow us to use limited scholarship funds to target the best students and better compete with our peers; a larger pool of paying students (whether that be via the credit hour bonanzas of non-major electives and minors, or via BA students who are attracted by the unique opportunities of our innovative degree) would provide a more stable, sustainable, and diverse set of income streams.

And while economic strategy is a compelling argument for making these changes, perhaps the most powerful reason to consider them is the increased impact on our institutions and communities. Within our campuses, more students are now engaged overall through elective courses and the minor – cultivating new generations of arts participants and patrons, and increasing the value our school brings to the campus overall. Within our communities, the quality of our music rises as our selectivity increases. And on the nationwide scale, if music programs from coast to coast adopted this strategy, we would be both cutting back on the massive glut of music graduates while collectively increasing the quality of those who do graduate.

I don’t doubt that my plan would result in a lot of disappointed students who’d hoped to major in music but are unable to get one of the much-reduced number of available slots at their chosen institution. But, at the risk of sounding harsh, I would say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In all but the very top echelon of the most exclusive music programs, the cold truth is that many music students probably don’t belong there. They’re certainly not going to have careers as performers. Programs like mine, (The Entrepreneurship Center for Music), thus have a dual role: equip some of our students for professional careers in music, and, prepare others for how they can use the many transferable skills developed through musical study for any number of other pursuits. If I had more of the former and fewer of the latter, my impact could be all the more significant.

But of course, all of this is more or less heresy in the world of music higher education. We’re all in an arms race mentality, each institution competing with its peers for the best students, the nicest facilities, the most distinguished faculty. And all those things cost money – lots of it. And so we’re competing for that, too. But what if we were willing to disengage from that endless loop of increasing scarcity? What if we could deploy the resources we have now to greater impact on our campuses, in our communities, and for society as a whole? Wouldn’t that make both economic and educational sense?

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