The Coming Melt-Down in Arts 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 arts 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 undifferentiated.  Under this definition, most music schools are currently organized to give average educations to average students. 

Of course, many arts 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, for example, 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 arts 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?

Arts 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 arts majors hope to become professional artists 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 traditional positions (i.e. orchestra and college teaching jobs).  But we all know that the vast majority of arts 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 arts 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 arts schools are in reasonable shape today.  They have enough students this year.  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 artsschools 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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  • GREAT POST! Seth’s hunches are spot on. (we are bog fans as well – see our blog from 2009; The current trend has us preparing future music educators by often using outdated methods and materials for jobs that quite frankly may not exist. Academia is slow to change and the music discipline often slowest of all.

    The way forward is through private enterprise and creative thinking. Entrepreneurial classes should be mandatory for future music educators as should technology and social sciences. Future teachers need to adopt technology to reach students far beyond a typical ‘band room’.

    My colleagues and I at are hoping that our modicum of success may at very least provide a starting place for future music educators. Regardless, a tipping point in the this direction can only be very healthy for our entire profession.

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  • Ron Jones

    Following is a draft that I would suggest focuses us on the obligations of the arts in higher education relative to what we could, should, must do for and with our students…honestly answered and acted upon, I contend that great results will result. Here is my October draft:



    Should the arts in higher education establish a comprehensive set of expectations the outcome of which establishes the value added resulting from the curricular experiences and preparation?

    Could the arts in higher education be bold enough to promise those who graduate from our programs a well articulated and appropriate set of outcomes?

    Must we in the arts in higher education focus our professional attention on both what to promise and then how to deliver on those promises?

    The answer to this set of should, could, and must questions may result in a resolve to do better at preparing our students; the answer to this set of questions may suggest the level to which we are willing to boldly answer the following questions in the affirmative and with conviction. While no arts program can completely accomplish all that is set out in the following, it is assumed that every arts program and every faculty member therein should challenge themselves and expand both quantitatively and qualitatively their resolve to better prepare those who successful navigate our various degree programs.

    The following questions reflect the spectrum of goals that arts in higher education suggest are the values that justify a student spending their money and time at our institution. Some questions and the implications of answering in the affirmative may demand significant changes in pedagogy and teaching strategies; others may only require modest revisions of what already is being done; and some may demand debate and resolve if positive outcomes are to occur. In general, however, the following is presented to challenge thinking, to ensure that we are more effective in what we promise, explicitly and/or implicitly to our students; and finally, the following is offered in the hope that through self-assessment and self-improvement we can position the arts in higher education as justifiable and value based.

    Our Graduate…
    1.Should, could, must the arts graduate not only be creative but also be experientially and conceptually understanding of the creative process?

    Everyone outside of the arts thinks that the arts are creative and we all know that they are but most people are quick to use the term without definition. Among us there is little understanding of the creative process and even less curricular attention to the pedagogy that increases and facilitates creative behavior (more often than not, our creativity and our manner of teaching creativity is guided by our intuitive and repetitive behavior than by a genuine understanding of the dynamics of the process that results in and contributes to the creative actions)…and we seem to be even less knowledgeable regarding cross-disciplinary experiences that fuel much of the post-education artistic/scholarly interests and creativity within the arts. Understanding and experiencing the creative process is essential…perhaps the most essential contributor to the education of our students.

    2. Should, could, must the arts graduate effectively communicate?
    Universities leave the development of communication skills up to the core curriculum, to the general education or liberal arts component of the curriculum, and to a few courses usually taken during the first two years. We know that those who can effectively and persuasively communicate, all things being equal, have a far greater chance at success; in many cases, however, our curriculum, our course syllabi, and the experiences we orchestrate for each of our students seems to give little if any attention to the essential, basic skill of effective written and oral communication. Not only do students need to have supervised experiences in speaking and writing but there must be attention to the various and appropriate functions of communications for the artist and arts scholar (e.g., marketing, PR, “selling” and persuasive communication, grant writing, critiquing, explaining, interpreting, etc.). And let’s not forget that our own visual and performing arts disciplines are forms of communication themselves and, thus, our students are deserving of even more specialized experiences and attention.

    3.Should, could, must arts graduates be experienced and even adept in and comfortable with other arts forms and the cultures that surround them?
    Multiple arts (using the word “arts” to capture architecture, design, visual, performing, and scholarship in each) exist in most universities (regardless of the administrative structure) but regardless of administrative structure the various arts stand as silos with shark infested moats surrounding so as to discourage, even scare others away. Seldom do our majors in one arts discipline have organized educational experiences that are the result of crossing over to other arts disciplines…at least at the intentional and instructional level. Leaving students to find their own cross-over opportunities and depending upon the accident of convenience or accident. And yet we all know that each experience beyond the boundaries of a discipline serves to add a new dimension, provide a new perspective, offer up new opportunities.

    4.Should, could, must we our graduates be prepared to “hit the pavement running” and with sufficient professional experience (actual and genuinely simulated) to ensure success?
    Whether designer, artist, or scholar the management of one’s professional evolution is the consequence of accident and luck or intentionality and strategy. Is it inappropriate or unreasonable for us seek to completely understand the disciplines into which our students graduate and through professional scans of the field and analysis of those disciplines construct curricula and other educational experiences/opportunities that can prepare each student to be more effectively step into their chosen discipline?

    5.Should, could, must our graduates be able to manage, to make informed decisions, interpret information, and maximize resource opportunities and implications, and build networks?
    More often than not, the academy gives only “lip service” and/or little attention to these fundamentals of surviving/prospering and, in fact, virtually no attention is given to the act of management (i.e., dealing with contracts, budgets, tax reporting, legal obligations and rights, marketing and promotion, etc.) of any type and yet we all know that failure during those first few years after graduation is more the result of management deficiencies than it is talent and discipline inabilities.

    6.Should, could, must our graduates be characterized as having flexibility, breadth, agility, and an opportunistic attitude if they are expected to be successful upon graduation?
    Graduates of most university arts programs have both an education and an experience that is too focused and too limiting. In many ways we ignore, or at least under-emphasize the importance of and our role in developing appropriate behaviors and skills which we know to be essential to the ultimate success of every individual. The real question here is not should the traits and skills exist but rather the extent to which we are willing to contribute to the development of them. The world in which our students graduate demands no less.

    7.Should, could, must our graduates be able to effectively write grants, make proposals, contracts, commissions, concept papers, artist statements?

    Many artists/scholars in this nation are actively engaged in the preparation of proposals, crafting grants, detailing contracts, proposing commissions; they find themselves writing concept papers and artist statements; and we know that what they write must be effective or there is a lessened probability of success. As educators we also know that given practice and guidance the quality of these writings can be immensely improved. Our manner of shaping and preparing our graduates apparently presumes these skills are acquired outside of our efforts or that magic will transform our students as they cross the commencement stage since we in the arts tend to ignore or only minimally attend to the need for students to exit our campuses with exceptional writing skills. With so much to teach and so little time, it is easy to understand why this is not a high priority and yet we know that a very real part of success post graduation is due, at least in part, to the ability to successfully craft and receive grants, funding support, etc.

    8.Should, could, must our graduates already be finding themselves in professional networks, graduating with opportunities already before them, phone numbers, contacts, and opportunities already established?

    Our graduates, be they artists, designers, or scholars, have an increased probability of success if there is a professional network waiting for them. Our professional networks can be described a multitude of overlapping circles of individuals each defined by sometimes no more than one quality in common but extraordinarily important to especially the young and aspiring graduate. Phone numbers and contact information, while of unquestionable value, represent only the evidence of networking. We must intentionally and systematically establish opportunities for students to experience and present themselves to a variety of networking opportunities so relationships can be established at ever increasing levels of significance. The business model is to exchange cards and describe services; for the arts it is alignment of styles, of philosophies, of sensibilities and that subtle difference takes time and intentionality on our part.

    11.Should, could, must our graduates understands the nature of the discipline, its current condition and climate, its opportunities, trends, and limitations?

    How many graduates take their first steps into their profession without having a sense of the “pulse” of the very discipline they have embraced? Are we confident that we, ourselves, have a sense of the pulse of the discipline to which we are preparing our students or are we relying on our memory, testimonials and hearsay; an occasional tangential experience? Each of us is a professional and no doubt we are very much aware of what is happening in our field (i.e., that very narrow slice of the larger field we label as our “discipline”). Few of us have the experience and opportunity to know the entire discipline and all its quirks and crannies but we can intentionally, if we wish, set out to keep more informed, more connected to the universe we claim to be preparing our students to successfully join.

    13.Should, could, must our graduates be able to measure themselves by their own performance?

    To an alarming degree our graduates are ill equipped to compete with themselves rather than others, to find value in collaboration within discipline relationships. Our graduates must consider themselves as their “competition” and they must see others as a network from which to receive support and to which to give of themselves. They must be self-critical, self-aware, and, thus, self-disciplined. Our students must have structured and guided exercises in setting goals and realistically assessing their own strengths and potential and “fit” within the discipline. To the extent we allow our graduates to leave our studios and classrooms with inappropriate or unrealistic understandings of their strengths and propensities (as well as their limitations and shortcomings) we are contributing to the magnitude of challenges that they will face.

    And We, the Faculty

    1. Should, could, must we be clear about what we expect for admission to a program in the arts and admit only those whom we know will receive full value from what we offer?

    Who we graduate is determined, to a significant extent and obviously, by who we admit. We are less than honest as we extend admission to those we know cannot excel or, put another way, we are a bit disingenuous when we admit students who we are not confident can “make it.” Applicants should not be admitted who do not have the experience and training, the background and talent, who do not reveal the tenacity, discipline, and drive to appropriately grow and merit graduation with validation to be a productive artist or scholar. Auditions and portfolio reviews, while informative, cannot be relied upon alone to predict success; we must articulate what we expect and then develop methods to effectively predict success.

    2.Should, could, must we do scans of our profession and incorporate into the curriculum understandings and experiences informed by those scans that will prepare graduates to deal with the professional world of tomorrow?

    Every graduate of our programs steps into the world of tomorrow but our curriculum, our pedagogy, and our attention often is not focused sufficiently on preparing them for the realities of even today; do we teach like we were taught, do we teach what we think is so base upon our current and past experience, do we “design” curricula remarkably similar to how it has always been while the “real world” is dramatically changing? We must constantly analyze our fields, identify change and potential change, and then construct new experiences that will prepare our students to respond and act accordingly.

    3.Should, could, must we ensure that all aspiring artists and scholars are guided to a significant level by those who “walk the walk,” not exclusively from those who can only “talk the walk?”

    Can graduates excel when their faculty often have abandoned their own disciplines or drifted away from active engagement in their profession. Can we expect our students to be successful, to be ready to step into the discipline, when we have lessened our own commitments, our own involvement, our own engagement, our own knowledge of the discipline? This is not to say that all who teach aspiring artists, designers, and scholars must be actively engaged in the very same way but there are clearly defined differences between what generally occurs in arts studios and classrooms at the high school, the community college, the liberal arts college, the research university, and the conservatory and professional schools. How is it that we can expect commitment to the discipline and stories about the discipline and evidence that we know the discipline unless we are engaged with the discipline? We stand as models to our student and thus we inspire though our engagement and our commitment and genuine understanding.

    4.Should, could, must we be supportive but truthful, encouraging but realistic as we guide students through the experiences we have established for them.

    Clearly we cannot disingenuously encourage our students to continue holding unrealistic, often misguided aspirations while allowing them to be oblivious to the disciplinary opportunities and experiences available to them within their own communities. More appropriate would be to encourage local sensitivities while growing national aspirations. We must constantly be committed to opening their eyes and framing their ambitions to consider and accommodate professional options (for example, career development workshops, guests from a continuum of positions within the discipline, etc.). In short, we must broaden their palette of choices and encourage them to maps their careers with options and alternatives.

  • Your insights are spot on David.

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