Know Your Niche: Berklee Set out to Be the MIT of Music; Now the Trick Is to Keep the Focus without Straying

By Hornfischer, David | University Business, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Know Your Niche: Berklee Set out to Be the MIT of Music; Now the Trick Is to Keep the Focus without Straying


Hornfischer, David, University Business


They come from all over the world, guitars and other instruments in hand, and a love of music in their hearts. Numbering over 1,000 this past fall, they are the entering students of Berklee College of Music in Boston. They are here because, frankly, there is no other place most would rather be. Founded as a jazz school by MIT graduate Lawrence Berk in 1945, Berklee is the world's Largest all-music college. With now over 3,700 music students, about a third of whom come from outside the U.S., Berklee defines the term "niche school." Although Berklee students can earn a bachelor's degree in music carrying the same accreditation status as that of a top liberal arts institution, most are here because they envision a career as a professional musician. And while our students take about a quarter of their courses in liberal arts, the courses are pertinent to their music. Here students build the foundation for their careers via numerous music-related majors--from performance and writing, to several music-technology-related disciplines and even music business and music therapy. Berklee research shows that about three-quarters of our grads do in fact find a career in music, earning near three quarters of their income from music in the first five years after graduation.

Berklee's niche is that of a "music city," with resources including sound-isolated practice modules equipped with drum sets or pianos; classrooms equipped with MIDI racks that enable faculty members to access a variety of online music materials and resources; recording, film, and synthesis studios with state-of-the-art gear; record shops; and music equipment and other music-related stores and services.

STICKING TO CORE VALUES

Importantly, along the way we have resisted the temptation to broaden our program to include subjects such as dance, video production, or classical music. And we didn't allocate funds to build an elaborate student center. Instead, we have focused on our core strengths, keeping in mind what realty attracted students to Berklee in the first place: a unique concentration on music. Under the leadership of Lee Eliot Berk since 1978, Berklee was the first music school to offer guitar as a principal instrument, music synthesis and songwriting as majors, and recently add majors in music business and music therapy.

The faculty consists of more full-time teachers than most other music schools, and Berklee's financial aid program is merit-based, with about 80 percent of aid allocated largely on the strength of applicant auditions and subsequent performance at the school Tuition at the college is about 20 percent below that of other private music schools--a tong-standing practice made possible by economies of scale (Berklee is about five times larger than most conservatories), a disciplined approach to cost control, and revenues from a large summer program.

FISCAL REALITIES

That said, we still have to deal with the fiscal realities of our niche. Music instruction is expensive, involving many small classes and private instruction. Instruction cost, therefore, takes a greater percentage of operating costs than other colleges of our size (based on a NACUBO survey). But small class size and personalized attention is a primary attraction for a student whose primary life focus is music. Offsetting cost strategies that are consistent with a school whose focus is on music rather than traditional college programs include: a smaller library (the focus is music rather than books), use of nearby hospitals and clinics rather than expensive and duplicative on-campus medical facilities, equipment loan programs with many leading music vendors, an urban setting (no landscaping costs), and an absence of athletic facilities. …

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