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  • Writer's pictureIlan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

Buying Ed

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

As a student, you might feel that your tuition is your way of purchasing your education, and you would be correct, but only partially.

First, I would be remiss if I did not mention that on average only about 10-20 percent of students pay tuition in full and up front, depending on where you get your information when researching your blog post. In other words, the “sticker price” is just that.

Second, universities have several sources of income, from state and local government funding, to private gifts, research grants, facility rentals, parking and traffic enforcement, housing, and a few other smaller sources.

What is interesting about all this is that most of the funding resources listed above are restricted. In other words, these funding sources must be used for a specific purpose and are given with that in mind. In contrast, student’s tuition funds are not restricted, allowing university administrators to spend it as they see fit.

Notice, btw, that I left out college sports. I did so simply because university athletics do not generally generate revenue after accounting for the cost of running those programs. There is a lot of information about university athletics available from credible sources online, so I think it’s best I stick to my area of expertise and interest.

So given that the two large sources of revenue, government funding and tuition follow the students, and are the most flexible in their use, there is an inherent interest on the part of the University’s administration to maximize the number of students enrolled in general, and for the largest number of credits possible. That makes the students THE major profit center in this business model.

The tension for music schools is obvious; on the one hand more students means more resources to spend on the program, it's faculty, and administration. On the other hand, the resulting one-on-one classes, i.e. applied instrumental lessons, are incredibly inefficient from a financial point of view.

This leads to a situation where when considering the institution's financial interests, it's favorable to have as many students attend as possible, while working to keep the cost of private lessons as low as possible. This situation can be exacerbated by the needs of large ensembles to be, well, large. In my mind this is a good thing! The large ensemble experience is an important part of the university experience, and provides many specific training opportunities to future members of the music field.

That said, in the wrong hands, and at the wrong institution, one can see potential issues arise as well. The need to staff large ensembles can lead to a lowering of standards, and that in turn can cause the bending of rules when it comes to the students. Examples can be admitting students who are not at a level of ability to perform the ensemble’s repertoire, admitting students to large ensembles that are not music majors, sometimes ahead of music majors, unreasonably large time commitments for the number of credits given by the university, pressure on faculty when it comes to grading and disciplinary issues in order to keep students around and happy, and unethical recruiting practices, just to name a few important ones.

One can sum up this version of a music school like this. In this scenario, from the student’s perspective, there’s no reason to work when everybody gets treated similarly regardless of effort, and from the teacher’s perspective, it can become important to rely on good evaluations (while plugging one’s nose) simply for job security.

So, while I feel and certainly hope my ethics have been more-or-less solid throughout my higher education career, nobody’s perfect, so thinking about all this is an opportunity for me to revisit my own experiences. I get paid PER STUDENT, so questioning ME is important! In doing so I am working on a list of questions that are helping me, and hopefully yourself as well, clarify the issues at hand. So at the risk of ending with a cheesy cliffhanger, look for Questions for Teachers and Students (and maybe some administrators too), coming soon to a blog near you!

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