Enrollment Growth Amid a Shrinking Student Population

  • Issue: Volume 63, No.1
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2023.63.fr.11586


From 2026 to 2031, the college-age population in the U.S. will drop about 15% due to the reduced birth rate during the Great Recession (Grawe 2018). Combine that phenomenon with competition from online learning, and numerous brick-and-mortar colleges are expected to merge or close owing to insufficient enrollment (Horn 2018). Actually, as shown in Figure 1, undergraduate enrollment peaked in 2010 and has declined sharply since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (Fischer 2022). For many music schools, future enrollment could prove especially problematic not only on account of demographic, post-COVID, and online learning factors but also because of material changes to the economic value of music performance degrees.


Figure 1: U.S. undergraduate enrollment at four-year and two-year public and private degree-granting institutions, 1985-2020. Source: U.S. Dept. of Education, via Fischer 2022. Preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center points to an additional two-year enrollment decline totaling 4.2% from 2020-2022 (NSCRC 2022).

The Value of Music Performance Degrees

Although college graduates outpace non-graduates in the employment marketplace (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2022), performance jobs such as full-time orchestra roles have waned (VanWaeyenberghe 2013), and non-music employers increasingly insist on advanced technology, communications, and other skills from rookie employees (National Association of Colleges and Employers n.d., “What Is Career Readiness”), competencies that prevailing applied music curricula do not necessarily cultivate. Furthermore, Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) data indicate that 77% of arts graduates have freelanced or been self-employed (SNAAP n.d., “snaapshot”); yet, “SNAAP survey data have long and persistently revealed that arts school graduates are dissatisfied with their entrepreneurial, business, and financial preparation while in school” (Frenette and Dowd 2020).

In effect, traditional applied music programs resemble trade schools, but the trades they teach have diminished while the number of graduates has burgeoned, swelling the applicant pools for dwindling performance opportunities (VanWaeyenberghe 2013). As a result, 21st-century applied music graduates appear significantly disadvantaged compared to their predecessors when vying for music and non-music jobs. Add in the bloated cost of college (Kerr and Wood 2022), together with graduates’ meager earnings (SNAAP n.d., “2015, 2016, 2017 Aggregate Frequency Report”), and one can contend that the economic value of music performance degrees has plummeted.

Even so, the intrinsic value of music training remains substantial, and SNAAP surveys confirm that alumni treasure the abilities they gained in school (SNAAP n.d., “2015, 2016, 2017 Aggregate Frequency Report”). But for music colleges to enroll enough students to withstand the impending population decrease, and if they want to claim moral high ground, shouldn’t they renew their applied programs so that music degrees become more and not less economically valuable?

Six Recommendations to Boost Enrollment & Value

1. Track & Improve Outcomes

Superior alumni outcomes bolster a school’s recruiting position because prospective students and their families can reasonably anticipate positive returns on their educational investments. A practical way to track outcomes is to implement first-destination surveys that meet the standards of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE n.d., “First-Destination Survey Standards and Protocols”). Then, schools should poll alumni again five and ten years after graduation. SNAAP participation is beneficial, too (SNAAP n.d., “Benefits”). When surveys expose unsatisfactory outcomes, it is an urgent signal for schools to update their programs.

As an illustration, given that few applied graduates win full-time orchestra jobs or sustain themselves as managed soloists, if curricula restrictively focus on the competencies needed to realize those improbable outcomes, and many conventional curricula do, then most young alumni surveyed will be underemployed and, arguably, under-educated. With judicious curricular modifications, though, schools can empower graduates to prosper in multiple music and non-music domains.

2. Renovate Curricula

Curricular renovations should stem from analyses of alumni outcomes and feedback, occupational outlooks, institutional resources, enrollment projections, and competing programs. After determining a curriculum’s target competencies and outcomes along with corresponding assessments, schools can then map out courses and internships accordingly.

For instance, SNAAP data show that music graduates commonly work outside of the arts (Frenette and Dowd 2020, Table 5). To strengthen alumni employability, therefore, faculty might rethink course content and curricular requirements to foster the universal career readiness competencies validated by NACE (NACE n.d., “What Is Career Readiness”). Amending accredited programs entails concerted effort, of course, but when schools unleash applied majors to experience wide-ranging classes, workshops, and internships—notably, paid internships (Frenette et al. 2021)—students gather the wherewithal to successfully pursue employment, entrepreneurial activity, and graduate study in varied fields (NACE 2019).

3. Expand Programs

Instead of introducing costly new degree programs, schools may be able to grow their offerings by means of existing resources and channels. For example, a university that confers online Bachelor of Arts degrees but not in music subjects could weigh launching online BA degrees in piano, guitar, composition, or music industry studies, all with internships.

Another strategy is to grant professional certification in disciplines with high job placement rates. Schools might initiate music education or church music certification tracks for applied undergraduates or equivalent one-year postbaccalaureate certificates in which students complete coursework in the summer and fall followed by an internship in the spring.

4. Increase Retention of Freshmen

Although some first-year students withdraw due to unpreventable causes, many move on because of inadequate support, which disproportionately occurs among first-generation students (Schelbe et al. 2019). To heighten retention, at minimum, academic advisors should repeatedly connect with freshmen and their teachers to discern problems and enlist aid before troubles escalate.

Concurrently, a weekly freshman music seminar taught by expert faculty can arm students to meet the demands of music school and college life. When the Music Department at UNC-Charlotte implemented such a fall-semester seminar, using my book The Musician’s Way as the core text (Klickstein 2009), they achieved dramatic upswings in student retention, satisfaction, and GPA (Grymes 2011).

5. Recruit Efficiently

To recruit students efficiently, aside from building up merit scholarship reserves and otherwise addressing affordability, music programs do well to identify high-yield populations, form diverse recruiting pipelines, communicate regularly with potential applicants, and process applications and scholarship offers promptly. Studio faculty may additionally be trained and funded to optimize recruiting results among differing students and in distinct contexts.

For example, faculty workshops at festivals, high schools, community music schools, and on-campus summer sessions routinely establish pipelines, as does faculty involvement in music organizations and online communities. In tandem, on-campus and virtual open houses expedite interactions between applied faculty and prospective students. Colleges might also intensify digital marketing and seek international students in locations with active alumni. For more recruiting ideas, see Manning et al. (2019).

6. Hire & Train Wisely

Enrollment and quality-enhancement initiatives ideally spring from collaboration between faculty, staff, and leadership. When searching for new hires, therefore, committees should craft comprehensive job descriptions and then methodically vet candidates to discover those who will bring energy and expertise to such initiatives.

Lastly, since DMA curricula seem not to prepare graduates to carry out key responsibilities of studio faculty (Klickstein 2021), applied teachers typically benefit from training not only in student recruitment and retention techniques but also teaching and learning practices, inclusion, career development, and institutional governance such that they buoy a school’s commitment to full enrollment and successful outcomes for all students.



Fischer, Karin. 2022. “The Shrinking of Higher Ed.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 12, 2022. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-shrinking-of-higher-ed.

Frenette, Alexandre, and Timothy J. Dowd. 2020. “Careers in the Arts: Who Stays and Who Leaves?: Executive Summary.” Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, Spring, 2020. https://snaaparts.org/findings/reports/careers-in-the-arts-who-stays-and-who-leaves.

Frenette, Alexandre, with Gillian Gualtieri and Megan Robinson. 2021. “Growing Divides: Historical and Emerging Inequalities in Arts Internships.” Strategic National Alumni Project, Spring 2021. https://snaaparts.org/uploads/downloads/SNAAP-Special-Report-Inequalities-210301_2021-11-09-220850_gmjl.pdf.

Grawe, Nathan. 2018. Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Grymes, James A. “Building Student Success through First-Year Music Seminars.” Panel Presentation, College Music Society National Conference, Richmond, Virginia, Oct. 22, 2011.

Horn, Michael B. 2018. “Will Half Of All Colleges Really Close In The Next Decade?” Forbes, Dec. 13, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2018/12/13/will-half-of-all-colleges-really-close-in-the-next-decade/.

Kerr, Emma and Sarah Wood. 2022. “20 Years of Tuition Growth at National Universities.” U.S. News & World Report, Sept. 13, 2022. https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/see-20-years-of-tuition-growth-at-national-universities.

Klickstein, Gerald. 2021. “Faculty Job Qualifications vs. DMA Curricula: Part I of Equipping DMA Candidates to Win Tenure-Track Jobs.” College Music Symposium 61, no. 1. https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2020.61.1.sr.11515.

Klickstein, Gerald. 2009. The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Manning, Dwight, David Feurzeig, Donald George, Maura Glennon, Patrick Hoffman, and Mihai Tetel. 2019. “Recruitment and Retention in the Applied Music Studio.” College Music Symposium 59, no. 1. https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2019.59.sr.11426

National Association of Colleges and Employers. 2019. “Employers Play Key Role in Career Readiness, Competency Development.” Accessed August 8, 2022. https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/employers-play-key-role-in-career-readiness-competency-development/.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. n.d. “First-Destination Survey Standards and Protocols.” Accessed August 4, 2022. https://www.naceweb.org/job-market/graduate-outcomes/first-destination/standards-and-protocols/.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. n.d. “What Is Career Readiness.” Accessed August 4, 2022. https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 2022. “First Look Fall 2022 Enrollment (As of September 29).” Accessed October 25, 2022. https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/.

Schelbe, Lisa, Martin Swanbrow Becker, Carmella Spinelli, and Denesha McCray. 2019. “First Generation College Students’ Perceptions of an Academic Retention Program.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 19, no. 5: 61-76. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v19i5.24300.

Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. n.d. “2015, 2016, & 2017 Aggregate Frequency Report: Recent Graduates.” https://snaaparts.org/uploads/downloads/Reports/SNAAP-151617-Recent-Grads-Aggregate-Report.pdf.

Strategic National Arts Alumni Program. n.d. “Benefits.” Accessed August 9, 2022. https://snaaparts.org/participants/benefits.

Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. n.d. “snaapshot.” Accessed August 8, 2022. https://snaaparts.org/findings/snaap-shot.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2022. “Education Pays, 2021.” Accessed August 8, 2022. https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2022/data-on-display/education-pays.htm.

VanWaeyenberghe, Brandon. 2013. “Musical Chairs: A 28-Year Study of the Supply and Demand of Orchestra Musicians in America.” SSRN. https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2361771.

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Last modified on Sunday, 04/06/2023

Gerald Klickstein

Gerald Klickstein founded the Music Entrepreneurship and Career Center at the Peabody Conservatory in 2012, which he led until 2016. From 1992-2012, he taught at the UNC School of the Arts after serving on the music faculties of UT-San Antonio and Michigan State University. Currently an independent consultant and scholar, he is the author of The Musician's Way (Oxford, 2009).


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