The State of the College

By
Lesley Mahoney

With greater student retention, an uptick in the quality of applicants, new facilities, and hugely successful online courses, Berklee’s vital signs are healthy. This prognosis comes from president Roger H. Brown in his April state of the college address.

Social media and Berklee Online are spreading awareness of the college. As well, Berklee recently auditioned on 146 days in 53 locations and has become more selective in the students accepted. The quality of applicants is up with increasing percentages of incoming students placing into upper-level classes. For example, 48.3 percent of students in 2013 placed out of introductory ear training, as compared with 32.8 percent in 2008.

Now that the 160 Massachusetts Avenue building is open, Berklee will rehab its neighbor at 150 Massachusetts Avenue. Plans include creating a glass façade for the first floor—thanks to the suggestion of former board of trustees member and architect Janet Marie Smith. President Brown noted, “It will be more open, there will be more signage to make it more obvious to [passersby] that this is part of Berklee.” As well, the old cafeteria will be repurposed as a rehearsal space for orchestras, big bands, and large ensembles. 

On other fronts, Berklee is growing and improving the programs that make it tick. Master’s applications have increased 40 percent at the Valencia campus, which offers four graduate programs. Boston will introduce graduate degrees in music therapy and performance in 2015 and a music education master’s in 2016.

Meanwhile, Berklee Online is burgeoning. “Online education used to be very controversial,” Brown said, “now it’s mainstream. Fortunately we started our own online school over 10 years ago. Now, we’re the world’s largest music school online.” This fall, Berklee will become the first nonprofit music institution to offer online bachelor’s degrees.

Brown also highlighted MOOCs (massive online open courses) created through Coursera and edX—including one developed by professor George Russell Jr. with direction from Berklee’s Ear Training and Harmony departments. “It’s for accepted students who have less musical literacy,” Brown said. It offers a taste of often intimidating subjects before students arrive, and has 39,000 enrollees so far. “We can now say, ‘Before you get here, take this course—it’s free.’” Nearly 650,000 people have taken Berklee’s MOOCs, and almost 16,000 have taken one Berklee edX music business class alone. Trends indicate that those who enroll in free online courses will go on to paid courses through Berklee Online. 

Other initiatives include “Amp Up NYC,” a partnership between Berklee, Little Kids Rock, and the New York Department of Education to offer some 60,000 students in 600 urban schools an expanded music program.

Brown also noted Berklee’s biggest challenge. “Our major weakness is affordability and student indebtedness related to the cost of being here,” he said. “We’re trying to bring that number down by encouraging students to borrow less, giving them more financial support, and discouraging some students from enrolling if it’s clearly unaffordable for them. That’s the hardest of the three to do.” 

Brown proposed promoting no- and low-cost options such as free online courses and YouTube instructional videos. Then City Music, paid online courses, and Boston campus enrollment could follow. 

“The ultimate answer is not to have a one-size-fits-all approach where everyone is expected to spend eight semesters at the physical campus,” he said. Enhancing and exploring articulation agreements with partner schools and restructuring the diploma program to allow completion in less time are other possibilities. 

“We will need a multifaceted approach over the next five to 10 years. Imagine if we could make private music education more affordable and accessible. Then we could really cement our role as the leading institution in contemporary music.”