US News & World Report recently came out with its highly anticipated annual ranking of colleges and universities. Now that music schools are no longer separately ranked by the Report, I tend to view this list with even greater bemusement than I once did. Sure, I look to see how Eastman’s parent institution, the University of Rochester comes out (tied for #33 this year) and how the Princeton vs Harvard contest for 1st place played out. But then I can’t help but ask myself – so what? What’s in a ranking anyway? And how do they help you, the college-bound student, find the best schools for you?
Music schools might consider themselves lucky to be in a ‘niche market’ in which we don’t breathlessly anticipate a single high profile national ranking. But I am often asked how Eastman ranks among other music schools. I’m also sometimes surprised when I ask applicants why they chose to apply to Eastman and they quickly say “it’s one of the top-ranked music schools!” It’s true – there have been more recent listings in which we’ve done very well. But compared to US News & World Report, many of these other rankings lack any sense of analytical rigor. That might seem a strange thing for me to say as the admissions director of the “#1 ranked music school” according to uscollegerankings.org. But I can’t figure out for the life of me who is behind this ranking. Although they list their “methodology” here, it’s not clear how they are measuring things like “teaching quality,” “median salary of graduates,” and “alumni.” Clearly on this list, reputation counts for a lot, but does it go beyond that? The 2011 Fiske Guide to Colleges listed Eastman as one of the top undergraduate music program (that listing is not available online). And we were the “hottest music school” in 2008 according to Kaplan/Newsweek. That was gratifying, and we appreciated the recognition of our arts leadership curriculum. According to the BestSchools.org, we’re #11 among the top 20 conservatories this year. This ranking, by a recent University of Michigan graduate, seems sincere in its intentions, but shows no evidence of any quantitative methodology, and reeks of the anecdotal. In his own words, his ranking is “one man’s evaluation” (a quote taken from the comments section, which is as far as he goes in answer to the question, “what exactly are the criteria?”).
Although there is no single high-profile ranking that all music schools aspire to dominate, these other rankings still infect the world of music admissions, and unfortunately cause some confusion. Two recent examples are USA Today’s ranking of ‘music colleges’ (not to be confused with ‘music schools’ or conservatories, apparently) and Musical America’s “Guide to Music Schools,” which I should hasten to clarify is a listing of advertisers and not a ranking.
In the case of the former, the methodology seems clear, and the list confirms this. These are universities that offer music as a subject that can be studied, and it is a formidable list of higher education institutions with strong reputations. But most of the schools on this list don’t offer the professional degree, the bachelor of music. So if that is the degree you are seeking for your undergraduate studies, this list doesn’t help you at all.
In my circles, more buzz was created by Musical America’s “Guide.” I found this to be especially disheartening since there is no guidance provided by any research or expertise in higher education. Musical America functions primarily as an industry directory for performers, artist managers, and presenters of classical music. Many schools are listed as venues and presenters since we have performing arts series. I often read their articles about the classical music industry. But their readership consists mainly of industry insiders more than parents, teachers, and prospective music students. The result of their ‘pay to play’ approach is an alphabetical listing of schools that prioritizes those that chose to purchase ad space and expanded profiles. All of the information provided in the profiles comes directly from the schools. It’s my hope that this listing will be as inconsequential as I believed it would be when I chose not to purchase a listing for Eastman.
So let’s get down to it. If you can’t rely on rankings, how do you know which schools are “the best” for you? And as Eastman’s dean of admissions, don’t I think that Eastman is the best school ever? Well, maybe, but here’s what I can tell you with absolute certainty: Eastman is the best music school for the students who will be successful in our curriculum and thrive in our environment. And this is true of any of the many excellent schools that are out there.
There is no shortage of good music schools with excellent, even “world-class” faculty, impressive facilities and performance halls, and extensive performance opportunities. A number of schools can claim these things to various degrees. But we should also be able to demonstrate what separates us from each other. Unearthing these distinctions will enable you to discover the “best” school for you.
Since no one is going to compile a personalized top-ten list of best schools for you, honing in on your list will require some work on your end. Asking yourself these questions might help get you started:
- What kind of environment am I most likely to thrive in? Music schools come in many shapes and sizes. There are stand-alone conservatories, conservatories and music schools that are part of a college or university, urban campuses, small town or rural settings, etc.
- What sort of academic experience do I want to have outside of my lessons, ensembles, and the practice room? How challenged do I want to be in my liberal arts requirement? Am I someone who will take the absolute minimum requirement, preferably in classes populated by other music majors taught by adjunct teachers who realize I’m more focused on something else? Or do I want to take my academic classes in a college or university setting where I’ll be ‘swimming with the other fish’ in a more challenging academic environment? This might help steer you toward a stand-alone conservatory or toward a conservatory or music school that is part of a liberal arts college or university.
- Who do I know who has attended a music school? Are there music school graduates teaching in my school? Have I talked with them about their experiences, and why they would or would not recommend certain schools for me?
- Do I have access to music school representatives via college fairs, info sessions, or online forums where I can ask questions about environment, culture, course offerings, etc., and the all-important question: what distinguishes your school from other music schools?
- Undoubtedly your private teacher, ensemble director, and/or school music teacher should have recommendations based on their experience. Often these recommendations are based on a strong sense of loyalty to a particular teacher and it might be more or less about a school as a whole. So just be sure when you have this conversation you push a little into the question of why your teacher thinks a particular school is a good match for you.
- Cost is, of course, a source of major concern for most families. But my first piece of advice is to assemble your list of ‘best schools for you’ without including cost as a factor. Then, revisit your list and ask yourself if you have included schools that you know will be financially within your reach. The truth is, you won’t know what each school will actually cost you until you have been admitted and have an offer in front of you. Many schools have merit-based scholarships and each school considers need differently. Some schools will focus on meeting demonstrated need first, and others will be more merit-driven. Many fall somewhere in between, meeting need ‘selectively’ based on the applicant’s merits, but also the enrollment needs of the school. I urge you not to exclude schools based on ‘expected cost’ alone.
Once you’ve honed in on a list of schools of interest, do everything you can to familiarize yourself with the places, the people, and the offerings of those schools. In a perfect world, this would mean visiting each school. Geographic or financial restrictions may limit your ability to do this, of course. So pick and choose your most important visits, and communicate with admissions offices to fill in any gaps. Find out when school representatives might be near you. Can the school recommend an alumnus in your area who might be willing to meet for coffee (your treat!) and share his or her experience? Does the school offer an online forum for talking with admissions people and/or current students or faculty? Is the school and/or its students engaged in social media, and can you connect there and get a sense of the community, student life, etc. through Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, etc.? Is a faculty member from the school visiting your area in the near future?
Also remember that as a music applicant you will ultimately have the opportunity to audition on-campus at many of the schools you apply to. Take advantage of that visit to try and engage with current students, observe a rehearsal, etc. You will be auditioning schools as much as they are auditioning you.
So the next time you see me, please don’t ask me how Eastman ranks among music schools. Instead, ask me what distinguishes us, and then expect a lot of questions about you. That’s a conversation I look forward to having, and it will be the subject of my next post.