Tuesday, March 19, 2013

To be major or minor (in music)?

But seriously ... once you're done groaning ...

Should young musicians headed for college or university be encouraged to major in music?

This is a question that's been bothering me.  After all, I did go to a good university, did major in music, got a master's degree, paid off my debt, and lived to write about it.  It's clear that there is nothing like a university music school to train a young artist, and it's also clear that university-level music study provides incredible advantages, some of which aren't obvious until you've been away from the university for some time.

But it's been a long time since I was a university student, and in the meantime the economy has changed.  Music school tuition has risen, wages have not.  For a good music school you are now looking at between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.  There aren't many entry-level music jobs that pay that well; in fact, there aren't that many entry-level jobs that pay that well, period.  So if you're borrowing any substantial fraction of that money, you have a problem.

Many have seen this as a reason to counsel students to major in "practical" things, such as finance, law, or medicine.  Once you have the resources, they argue, you can study whatever you want.  The argument did make some sense, at least up until 2008 when shockwaves went through the financial world.  Suddenly people who did major in finance, people who had good jobs and thought themselves secure, were out on the street.

I'm certainly not up-to-the-minute on the outlook for financial careers, nor do I want to dissuade any would-be finance majors.  But while the advice to major in something with obvious practical applications still has merit, as the list of viable career options shrinks the calculation changes.   Today's students are forced to take increasingly risky gambles that the degree they receive will, one day, allow them to pay off the cost of attaining it.  Those who lose the bet face financial ruin.

If you're going to have economic difficulties, would you rather be facing them as a result of having spent four years intensely involved with something you loved, or as a result of something you were doing only because you hoped it would make money for you ... but the money never came?

Since writing the above, I've realized that the situation is actually much more complex than I allowed for.  It's not an all-or-nothing decision, for one thing.   For another, there really aren't guarantees for anyone.  For a third, people change, and so can the pursuits they enjoy.

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