No Longer a Degree Deferred

Students leave college without graduating for a variety of reasons. Berklee Online’s Degree Completion program offers them a road back.

May 8, 2020

When A. David Ucci left Berklee in the spring of 1994, he was six credits shy of graduating. But the music production and engineering student was offered an opportunity he couldn’t pass up: an assistant engineering position at the Hit Factory on West 54th Street in Manhattan.

The Hit Factory was exactly that, the studio that had churned out chart-toppers for Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Whitney Houston, and many others. The shop garnered 41 Grammy nominations—just in the year Ucci was hired.

A. David Ucci

“If you looked on the back of your records, you saw a lot of Hit Factory,” says Ucci, who was recommended for the job by Bill Scheniman, the then-chair of the Music Production and Engineering department.

Still, the decision was hard to make. Ucci would be leaving school, but he was also leaving behind a small production company he had formed with other Berklee students, and asking his girlfriend—now wife—to join him. Nevertheless, he left.

“Sometimes in the artistic world, timing is really important—you get an opportunity, and it might only come once,” he says. “If I hadn’t gone and done that, I think I would have regretted it to this day.”

Berklee doesn’t want its students to regret anything. That’s why it has built up a robust online education program offering 47 certificate programs, nine undergraduate majors, and three graduate degrees. Berklee Online also offers something specifically for students like Ucci: Degree Completion. In the program, Berklee staff work closely with former students to create an individually tailored path to graduation. Students earn either a Bachelor of Music or a Bachelor of Professional Studies, depending on how many credits they completed on campus.

“You can be a drummer on tour and finish your degree,” says Jeanine Cowen B.M. ’96, a film scoring professor who helped create the Degree Completion program when she served as vice president for curriculum and program innovation. “When the call comes, you should absolutely take that opportunity.”

Helping Alumni Finish What They Started 

Berklee Online students come from more than 140 countries and include famous musicians, major recording studio producers, and leading music business executives. The first online Degree Completion student, Larry Oppenheimer, graduated in May 2015. Since then, the program has grown organically, mostly by word of mouth; to date, 238 students have earned their degree through it, and 277 more are working toward one. The program has expanded so quickly that last year Berklee Online hired a full-time Degree Completion specialist to analyze transcripts for former students who are interested in finishing their degree.

“It goes back to our mission,” says Carin Nuernberg, Berklee’s vice president of academic strategy. “We want to serve students and really position them to have sustainable careers in the music industry and performing arts: How can we help you finish what you started?”

Of course, not everyone is leaving Berklee for jobs at places like the Hit Factory. Some students withdraw from the college because of circumstances entirely outside their control—health problems, family obligations, or a lack of finances. Others don’t immediately see the value of a degree. Pedro Ito was working as a professional musician in Brazil before he came to Berklee in 1999 at the age of 24. He loved being on campus: “I got in touch with styles of music that I never imagined,” he says. “Arab music, Indian music, Greek music, music from the Balkans.” But he was less fond of the liberal arts and classical music requirements he needed for his degree.

“I was already playing a lot and traveling,” he says. “I didn’t have the patience for it.”

Instead of finishing school, Ito built his career as a musician and music teacher, first in Boston and later back in Brazil. Eventually, however, he found himself limited by his lack of a degree.

“I had some invitations to teach in universities, but you have to have the titles,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how good you are.”

After enrolling in the Degree Completion program, Ito finished his degree in 2019. He’s now considering graduate school.

Dylane York also found herself stymied without a music degree. A pianist from Orlando, Florida, she started at Berklee in the fall of 2011 and stayed for two years before she had to leave for financial reasons.

Dylane York

“It felt kind of like a dream shattering,” she recalls.

Back home in Florida, York eventually earned an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in communication. But she was frustrated with herself for not finishing at Berklee, and, even though she had always worked in music—as an accompanist, a music director, and a private instructor—she found herself constantly explaining to potential employers why she didn’t have a degree in the field.

In 2017, she went to the Berklee website to see if she could earn “something legit.” When she emailed to ask about certificate programs, Mark Hopkins, a senior academic advisor, called her that same day to tell her she could finish her degree instead.

“I clearly remember that day because I texted my mom and said, ‘I might be able to finish my degree from home,’ and she was ecstatic,” York recalls. “It was awesome.”

Around the same time, York applied “on a whim” for a music teaching job that required a bachelor’s degree, preferably in music.

“Because I was finishing my music degree, they offered me the position,” she says. “It made a huge difference.”

High Level of Engagement

York, who graduated in 2018, says the personal feedback she received from her online professors was so “amazing” that she would often redo her assignments just to implement their advice.

In general, university faculty and administrators sometimes battle a perception that remote learning is somehow less rigorous or meaningful than traditional classroom learning. But that’s a false dichotomy, Berklee Online professors say.

On-campus and online classes each offer advantages, depending on a person’s preferences and personal and professional commitments.

Online classes are designed to allow a high level of engagement between faculty and students, says Professor Kenn Brass, former chair of the Professional Music Department. Brass, who has online students from all over the world ranging in age from 18 to 67, offers internet “office hours” three times a week.

“I do one at midnight because it’s 8 o’clock somewhere,” he says, laughing.

Anita Fearon

Anita Fearon studied under Brass when she was a Professional Music student on campus between 2008 and 2012. In her last semester, she missed the final exam for her Conducting 2 class to be with her mother, who was ill. Fearon was so close to finishing her degree that she walked in Berklee’s commencement ceremony. But, even though she always intended to, she never returned to make up the conducting credit. Despite her many accomplishments—the Jamaican-born Fearon finished in the Top 10 on NBC’s The Voice in 2014, performed at the White House in 2016 as the Caribbean American Heritage Month Musical Ambassador, and released her first album in 2018—she never felt good about not finishing what she’d started.

When she was on campus, Fearon remembers Brass pointing out a filing cabinet where he kept the names of students who had not been able to finish their degree.

“That visual stuck in my mind,” Fearon says. “And then, somehow I ended up in that cabinet.”

In 2018, with Brass’ help, Fearon enrolled in the Degree Completion program to retake Conducting 2 (she got an A). When she received her official degree in the mail, “I cried,” she says. “It felt really, really good.”

Brass says he “pushes the envelope” for his students “every chance I get.” He knows from personal experience that college isn’t always a straight line from start to finish; it took him seven years to earn his bachelor’s degree from Governors State University—mostly on weekends and through correspondence courses—because he was gigging and raising a child at the same time.

“Baby literally needed a new pair of shoes, and I had to work,” he says.

‘A Total Roadblock’

For Ucci, who spent a couple of years at the Hit Factory before building a career in business, not having a degree didn’t seem like a problem for a while.

“It wasn’t a positive or a negative,” he says. “No one ever said, ‘Where’s that piece of paper?’”

However, after he worked his way up to general manager of Guitar Center’s flagship store near Fenway in Boston, eventually overseeing annual sales of $13 million and managing nearly 50 staff members, he began to find it difficult to advance.

“It was a total roadblock,” he says. “The person I was on paper and the competency level I had in the job setting were wildly different. And that needed to be fixed.”

After finding the Degree Completion program, Ucci took five classes online and one—Conducting 2—on campus (a fellow student’s roommate was Ucci’s employee at Guitar Center).

Online classes offer a major advantage for people who have full-time jobs or families or both, like Ucci (he and his wife, a nurse, have three sons). Berklee classes are asynchronous, meaning the content and lessons can be accessed at any time and don’t have to be viewed live.

As a Berklee Online student, Ucci says he would “race home to wolf down dinner” before heading up to his music room to work on his assignments. Often, he would be joined in his lessons by his youngest son, who plays the baritone sax.

“It turned into family time,” Ucci says.

(Debbie Cavalier, senior vice president of online learning and continuing education, will publish two children’s booksMy Dad is Going Back to School and My Mom is Going Back to School—in August to promote the idea that a parent’s education can be, as she says, “a family adventure”; all proceeds from the books go to the Berklee Online Undergraduate Degree Scholarship fund for B.P.S. students.)

After Ucci graduated in 2019, he left Guitar Center for a director of sales position at a boutique retail wine chain, a position he wouldn’t have even been eligible for without an undergraduate degree. Now, he’s applying for M.B.A. programs.

Ucci is still a musician at heart—he practiced two hours a day before he enrolled in the bass classes he needed to complete his degree just so he could “compete with 20-year-old kids” again—but he’s a business professional too. And finishing his degree through Berklee Online means his career options are no longer limited by a decision he made to follow his dreams more than 25 years ago.

That’s exactly the point, says Nuernberg.

“Education should be a lifelong endeavor,” she says. “I’m really proud of the fact that we’re helping students figure out that path to completion. It could take you six years or 60; we just want to make sure we’re giving you the tools to complete your degree.”

This article appeared in the spring 2020 issue of our alumni magazine, Berklee Today.

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