This is a slightly edited version of a post that I published in May 2016. I hope you find it useful.
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I was recently talking with several graduate music students about threats of underfunding or complete elimination of a music program or unit at a college or university by senior administrators looking for ways to save money. Such risks are real because music programs do tend to cost more to run than do many other programs: we have specialized equipment and our studio model of individualized lesson instruction is expensive.
I began thinking about these issues about a decade ago when the provost at one of my prior colleges considered eliminating a studio faculty line when a senior music professor retired. In higher education today, provosts routinely pull back faculty lines after retirements—it is one of the ways they can reshape priorities and programs. But for music programs large enough and of high enough quality to have full-time faculty covering most, if not all, studio areas, the loss of the one studio faculty line for a particular instrument (e.g., the one trombone or the one viola faculty position) undermines the quality of the whole organization because each studio feeds into the overarching ensemble superstructure of a serious music program.
I’ve also been involved in campus-wide budget development and campus-wide program review, which included conversations about resource reallocation. The reality is that for many smaller colleges and universities today, budgets remain very tight, and music and arts programs take on the appearance of “low hanging fruit.”
Here’s the catch: I am not going to make the case to save a music program on the merits of the arts generally or of music specifically or of student well-roundedness in the abstract. Arguing from the “inherent value” of the arts or the quality of your specific program is pointless in this situation. If your president or provost believed in the inherent value of the arts (not to mention the value of a well-rounded, liberal arts education), you would be having a different conversation! They would be looking for other cost saving measures or efficiencies, or they would be hitting the pavement to find more donors committed to the arts in higher education.
My argument takes as its starting point the belief that your only chance of winning this debate is with data that demonstrates that eliminating your music program will not generate the hoped-for savings!
Let’s begin with some basic financial numbers. Assume we are teaching at a mid-sized, private liberal arts university of about 4,500 students. We’ll call it Presbyterian College of the West, and with 4,500 total students, it is not unrealistic that it would have 150 music majors. On a cloudy Monday morning, the chair of the music department let’s her faculty know that PCW’s provost is considering closing down the music program. It is too expensive, and resources are needed elsewhere.
So let’s investigate the potential cost-savings by considering the basic financial data: At most small- and mid-sized colleges and universities, the single largest cost in an academic program
is usually its fixed faculty salary commitments. Assume 150 music majors are being instructed by about 20 full-time music faculty. According to recent national data, for faculty in the arts, the average Associate professor salary at masters-level institutions is $63,438. (https://www.higheredjobs.com/salary/salaryDisplay.cfm?SurveyID=32). Assume a 35% add-on for benefits, and for 20 music faculty, PCW is spending around $1,712,826–a tidy sum of money that could be saved if PCW’s provost carries through with his plan to close down the music program and eliminate the majority of those music faculty lines.
Furthermore, for the sake of the argument, and to be as “generous” as possible in terms of assumed savings, let’s also factor in staff costs. There are probably 6 full-time staff working with 20 music faculty and 150 music majors faculty (assuming a 1:25 ratio between music majors and music staff). If the average staff salary is $48,000 and total compensation with benefits is about $64,800, then PCW is spending $388,800 on staff in the music program. Lastly, we’ll assume that the rest of the music unit budget runs to about $250,000 per year and covers remaining adjunct salaries, equipment repair and purchase, and production costs. The total expenses for the music program would thus run to about $2,351,626 per year.
At the same time, the average annual tuition at four-year, private colleges is currently about $32,405. Average room and board adds about $11,516 to the annual bill (see http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/average-published-undergraduate-charges-sector-2015-16). If most music majors at PCW are getting about a 50% tuition discount (which is not unrealistic today, especially at private colleges), and if only half of the music majors are living on campus, then PCW would be collecting about $3,294,075 from 150 music majors. Now do the math: for a savings of $2,351,626 in music faculty, staff, and other costs, PCW risks a net loss of tuition and room revenue totaling $942,449.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “Why assume all that tuition and room and board revenue will be lost to PCW just because it shuts down its music program?”
The answer is simple, though it may be hard for some senior administrators to accept: Music majors—at least in my experience at four different higher education institutions—choose to become music majors and THEN select and apply to target colleges with the studio faculty, ensembles, and music degree programs that they wish to pursue. Most do not choose a college or university and then enroll there, regardless of whether or not there is a (quality) music program.
In other words, music is not a “landing” program; music is not a major that students stumble into once they arrive on a campus with which they have fallen in love. This certainly does not happen on campuses with serious music programs that require auditions of its prospective students.
Music is a “destination” program.
So if PCW closes down its music program, its potential music majors won’t suddenly decide to come to PCW anyway but become nursing majors or psychology majors instead. No, those young musicians will decide to go to one of PCW’s regional competitors.
Furthermore, many of the current music major are going to expect that PCW “teach out” the music major until most—if not all— currently matriculated music majors are finished. (PCW’s state may even require such a “teach out” period.) Depending on PCW’s president’s tolerance for lawsuits, threatened or actual, the teach out might take four or five years. That length of time minimizes whatever savings might come from closing down the music program and delays when those savings actually hit the university’s financial bottom line.
Five years is a long time – long enough to move through a national or global business cycle, with all of its impact on demands for certain types of majors, and long enough for a college presidency to run its course.
OK, so if the reality of the financial data does not scrap the plan to close PCW’s music program, how about football?
If PCW’s president is trying to reallocate money from music and the arts or “low performing programs” to fund other programs that could “raise the profile of the university,” then athletics is certainly on her mind.
But if the music program is eliminated, there will be no marching band. And if a marching band already exists to support an existing football program, what will the booster organization think (and do) when the marching band program begins to erode and the football experience is diminished?
You cannot sustain a substantive marching program without a core of strong players from the music major.
So far in our scenario, cutting the music faculty and program has resulted in a net tuition loss because music majors (potential and current) will begin to go elsewhere. And the boosters are upset by the loss of their beloved marching band program. But here’s the next major problem: What will PCW’s administration do with that empty music building?
PCW’s provost is not going to just start having biology or chemistry labs in an un-renovated music building that—let’s be honest—is likely to be old and outdated if the music program has been struggling! Science laboratory buildings today require modern and sophisticated ventilation systems and ample electrical systems to power expensive equipment, things that will probably be missing from PCW’s music building built in ca. 1965.
And your music building classrooms are not going to suddenly host an overflow of humanities classes that do not need a lot of specialized equipment. If music is struggling on PCW’s campus, chances are the humanities are in much worse shape in terms of numbers of majors in those programs.
And PCW’s music building is most certainly not going to become a dormitory. Colleges and universities do not win today’s “amenities cold war” with renovated dormitory spaces! No freshman will want to live in a refurbished music practice room on an interior hallway with no windows!
So not only will the music building require massive amounts of investment to make it useful for something other than music, PCW’s president and provost will have…. tons of unused pianos to unload! In other words, there will be even more assets that have now become useless.
Cutting the music program ultimately saves very little because tuition revenue will typically outpace faculty and other instructional costs until the ratio of full-time music faculty to music majors (at a private college or university) reaches about 1:5. The exact ratio depends, of course, on a particular institution’s tuition rate and its “discount rate,” that is, the amount “returned” to students in the form of scholarships. PCW’s music major enrollment would have to drop to about 107 students before tuition revenue and unit costs (including faculty and staff salaries) balanced out.
It would be far better for PCW to make a renewed financial commitment to its music program in an effort to attract more tuition-paying students to use the facilities and equipment in which the institution has already invested. Granted, to get ahead financially, the music department would have to hold the line as best as possible on additional instructional costs. But as a moderately sized college, PCW’s budget would benefit from even as few as five or six more music majors.
In closing, here are a few more questions that music department chairs or concerned faculty members should be able to answer at a moment’s notice if and when talk begins about cutting into or eliminating the music program:
How many students matriculate into the music major, then drop the major but stay at the college?
How many students audition, are not accepted into the major, but still come to the college to participate in music ensembles?
What is the exact percentage of students overall who participate in music ensembles each year?
The answers to these questions may provide further evidence of how the quality of the musical life at your institution draws students to and keeps them coming to your college or university.