The Corner


Struggling Colleges Should Look to the Conservatory Model

A teacher arranges members of the St. Molaga’s School Choir before they compete in the annual Feis Ceoil music competition in Dublin, Ireland, April 2, 2019. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters)

Many colleges across America are on thin ice, as enrollments drop, red ink accumulates, and people doubt that their programs offer much of lasting value.

In today’s Martin Center article, Professor Abraham Unger of Wagner College argues that such schools would do well to consider the success of music conservatories as they contemplate their future. Unger, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, notes that conservatories are weathering the storm very well. Conservatories, he writes, “don’t follow the standard liberal arts prototype most Americans think of when conjuring up an academic and social image of college. That’s precisely why conservatories might be one of our best resources at this sink-or-swim moment in higher education.”


Most importantly, conservatories make their students focus on a definite course of study from day one, unlike most colleges where students can rather aimlessly drift around taking a smattering of general-education courses that they seldom have much interest in for the first year or two.

Unger observes, “Students enter conservatory with a major from their first day, such as the instrument in which they specialize. This doesn’t mean that if they find they love another field, perhaps music composition instead of an instrument, they cannot switch majors. But, there is a concentration from their first semester that lends meaning and direction to their work.”

Many young Americans have little direction in their lives, and colleges play into that with their poorly focused curricula. For that reason, lots of students drop out, having learned little but having run up some debts that will be hard for them to repay.

Wagner’s administration has embraced Unger’s thinking. He concludes, “At Wagner College, there is evidence this strategy works. While we have not required a major for entering students, our interdisciplinary curricular commitment to civic engagement, in terms of ongoing partnerships that take various forms (such as student research think tanks or volunteering with community organizations all under a cohesive rubric called ‘The Wagner Plan’) has helped us hold steady, even during the pandemic. While there are always adjustments to be made, our anchor in community work offers clarity of institutional mission and resolve in our pedagogy and purpose.”

Something for other college leaders to think about.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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