Enrollment in music lessons at Grinnell has declined by about 50 percent over the last few years to the lowest level on record, a trend attributed to the cost of the lessons in a struggling economy.
“What has happened is that we experienced a dramatic decline in enrollment since the economy went south in 2008,” said Jennifer Brown, Chair of the Music Department. “[We] are at our lowest level ever, as far as my records go back. We have 169 people enrolled for music lessons.”
Currently the price of the lessons ranges from $305 per semester for weekly hour-long group lessons to $655 for weekly one-hour individual lesson at the advanced level. Included in the price is free rental of a practice instrument, if necessary, and usage of storage lockers as well as practice rooms. Even though this price is fairly low compared to other colleges, it is still too high for many students to afford.
“At these other colleges where the fees are higher, they have more opportunities to not have to pay the fee and so the kinds of support they get from the department itself but also from the college [differs],” Brown said.
The music department currently offers only two merit-based scholarships by audition: the Curd Award for incoming students and the Hill Award for all students. Music majors in their third and fourth years are also able to take half-hour lessons at no extra charge. The Department has a small amount of money available for need-based assistance and the financial aid office aids students with the fees by increasing their loan amount as long as they are eligible.
“That for me is one of the great problems, that we don’t have much of an opportunity for students who have financial need,” Brown said.
“Last year I actually paid [the lesson fee], but at the end of last year I got the Hill Scholarship, which pays for half an hour for the whole year and, on top of that, I also get music major credit,” said music major Ana Ovtcharova ’15. “So currently I am getting that significantly reduced but I would want to be taking other lessons as well.”
Despite the indicators that cost is affecting the enrollment, Brown also acknowledges that there could be other factors involved, as there are also fewer students who opt for the various free ensembles.
Brown considered the possibility that current students are simply less interested in classical music. But she noted that the enrollment is low in non-classical instruments as well, such as bagpipes and the banjo. There is only one student enrolled in banjo lessons this semester.
“I looked at as much information as we had about what previous musical background [the incoming class] had and these students are playing violin, double base, trombone, whatever, normal classical music instrument,” Brown said. “They are not all doing garage bands and whatever, they are being trained in the kind of things that if they were to continue from high school when they get here they would find many attractive options. But I think the real problem is the financial situation.”
The solution is not as easy as simply decreasing the lesson fee so that more students can afford to take lessons. The fee goes directly to the instructors, most of whom are part-time and commute from outside of Grinnell to teach. If they are teaching only one or two students, the instructors themselves might not be able to break even.
“So we’d like to be able to raise the amount of money that is going to our faculty,” Brown said. “But we can’t do that because we can’t charge more money to the students because they will vote with their feet and just not sign up for lessons. I’ve been trying to meet with various people in the administration to try to find some resolution to this problem and I am optimistic that things will change. I don’t know how quickly it will be, but something has to give because this situation is unsustainable.”