Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Music School Rankings hysteria!

(Originally written in March 2012, updated March 2013.)

Hello world!

I've taken a long break from blogging, for reasons that I'll delve into on a future blog. I do anticipate a return in the not-too-distant future, but I'm coming out of hiding for a one-off post.


A mysterious list materialized last year, from a site unimaginatively titled "uscollegeranking.org." It included a list that was similar in its lack of imagination (though quite creative in the Engrish category): "Top 30 America’s Best Music Schools and Colleges Ranking in 2010."

The list caused a bit of a stir (Why is this school so high? Where is that school? This school is above that school? etc etc.) Even more curious was that the methodology was missing. They now have a general "ranking methodology" page, which assigns a percentage to various criteria...many of which aren't helpful/accurate in assessing the strength of a music program. They also note that they borrow from a variety of sources, with US News & World Report being the first source listed. Still, lots of discussions and debates were spurred by this random posting on this random page.

I happen to be a self-created follower/expert/connoisseur of Music Programs. Without going into a long ramble (I'll save that for my book!) I had *no* idea how the college game worked as I was leaving high school, and I had no idea how the graduate conducting game/Kabuki dance worked as I was finishing my undergrad. It turned out that most (all?) of my friends/teachers/mentors/colleagues didn't really know much, either. Of course, specific people knew specific teachers at specific schools, and people knew general things about the big-name schools, but that was it. So, ever since I started grad school, I've eagerly soaked up every bit of information I can get about schools. (In fact, I got a detailed lowdown on NEC's voice program this past weekend, which filled in a long-standing gap in my knowledge base!) I then eagerly (and long-winded-ly) counsel and advise anyone and everyone who comes to me looking for college advice, and I've had a ridiculously awesome track record at helping folks get in to GREAT schools. It's not that I'm some crazy savant...it's just that few (if any?) really delve into the topic the way I have over the years.

Why do the rankings matter in the first place? Many folks react to these lists with derision or feigned indifference, saying "these lists are pointless" (or something else to that effect.) While this topic is one of my big soapbox issues, my big manifesto will have to wait for the proverbial book I'll be writing in a few decades! Here's the short of it: it DOES matter. Here are a few, non-controversial bullet-points as to why:

1) Rankings affect enrollment. Strong, confident students will be more likely to apply towards the top of the list, and less-confident folks will aim lower (or aim completely off of the list.)

2) Quality matters. I'm purposely avoiding dangerous waters in explaining this one...I'll just say that all music degrees are not created equal. Stronger schools have a stronger faculty base, and have higher standards/expectations which will lead to higher results. Also, the stronger the students are, the further the students will grow. The magic of music (as well as the arts in general) is that you always become a product of your environment; better environments almost always lead to better students. (I know there are exceptions, individuals that had bad experiences, etc etc...a more detailed discussion will have to wait for a later time.)

3) Reputation matters.

Speaking of reputation, does anyone know how USN&WP did their music school rankings in the past? They sent a survey to deans and prominent music teachers at schools around the country. So, the music school rankings from US News were based solely on reputation. To my knowledge, 1997 was the last year that US News did a music school survey (Several Eastman sources cite a 2004 ranking, but I wasn't able to find it in a database text search; I'll head to the library this weekend to check for sure.) Does anyone know why US News stopped ranking music schools? According to a few sources I spoke with ages ago, many survey recipients simply didn't return their surveys!

So, this 2010 list was quite an event! I don't want to give away the punchline just yet, but here's the "new" 2011 list, according to uscollegeranking.org:

1 University of Rochester (Eastman School of Music) NY
2 Indiana University-Bloomington IN
3 Juilliard School NY
4 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor MI
5 Curtis Institute of Music PA
6 New England Conservatory of Music MA
7 Northwestern University IL
8 Oberlin College Conservatory OH
9 University of Cincinnati OH
10 University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign IL
11 Yale University CT
12 Florida State University FL
13 Manhattan School of Music NY
14 University of Southern California CA
15 Johns Hopkins University (Peabody) MD
16 University of North Texas TX
17 Cleveland Institute of Music IL
18 University of Texas-Austin TX
19 Arizona State University AZ
20 Mannes College of Music NY
21 Rice University TX
22 University of Colorado-Boulder CO
23 University of Wisconsin-Madison WI
24 Ohio State University OH
25 University of Hartford (Hartt) CT
26 San Francisco Conservatory of Music CA
27 SUNY-Stony Brook NY
28 University of Kansas KS
29 University of Miami FL
30 Boston University MA

The first red flag is that the ONLY difference from 2010 is that Michigan and Juilliard swapped places. Of course, there are FAR more red flags. Here are a few:

1. Rice! Rice has aggressively hired some of the top orchestral musicians across the country to build one of the best music schools in the country.

2. Colburn! Colburn is the "Curtis of the West," and is easily in the top 30, which leads to

3. USC. Still a great school, still top 30, but many students choose Colburn over USC.

4. There are several schools that have slipped over the past 10 years, but those specifics will have to wait for my book.

So, remember how I said I'm a big follower of music schools? Well, I knew what was up the moment I saw the 2010 list. Allow me to post the 1997 (!!) list from US News and World Report, which (to my knowledge) was the final list they published:

1. Univ of Rochester-Eastman School of Music (NY) 4.9
2. Indiana University-Bloomington 4.8
2. Juilliard School (NY) 4.8
4. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 4.7
5. Curtis Institute of Music (PA) 4.5
6. New England Conservatory of Music (MA) 4.4
6. Northwestern University (IL) 4.4
6. Oberlin College Conservatory (OH) 4.4
6. University of Cincinnati 4.4
6. University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign 4.4
6. Yale University (CT) 4.4
12. Florida State University 4.3
12. Manhattan School of Music (NY) 4.3
12. University of Southern California 4.3
15. Johns Hopkins University-Peabody (MD) 4.2
15. University of North Texas 4.2
17. Cleveland Institute of Music (OH) 4.1
17. University of Texas-Austin 4.1
19. Arizona State University 4.0
20. Mannes College of Music (NY) 3.9
20. Rice University (TX) 3.9
20. University of Colorado-Boulder 3.9
20. University of Wisconsin-Madison 3.9
24. Ohio State University 3.8
24. University of Hartford-Hartt (CT) 3.8
26. San Francisco Conservatory of Music 3.7
26. SUNY-Stony Brook 3.7
26. University of Kansas 3.7
26. University of Miami 3.7
30. Boston University (MA) 3.6
30. Michigan State University (MI) 3.6
30. Temple University (PA) 3.6
30. University of Maryland-College Park 3.6
30. Westminster Choir College (NJ) 3.6

The uscollegerankings list is a complete, shameless, 100% ripoff of a 15-year-old list from US News! No methodology, no research, just a straight-up 211! Even worse, they didn't bother to show the ties in score- they just listed them in order (and chopped off MSU, Temple, UM, and WCC, which were also tied for 30th!)

So, the uscollegerankings site is useful for anyone who wants to know how music schools were thought of back in the 90's. It still generally reflects where a lot of great music-making is happening, but it misses the boat on the current landscape. That said, the least this mystery site could do is post that they are stealing directly from an old source.


So, the mystery site has a brand-spankin' new list for the 2012 year. What has changed since 2011?

1    University of Rochester (Eastman School of Music) (Same)
2    Juilliard School (up 1)
3    Curtis Institute of Music (up 2)
4    New England Conservatory of Music (up 2)
5    Indiana University-Bloomington (down 3)
6    University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (down 2)
The rest of the list is exactly the same, except one addition and one subtraction:

7    Northwestern University (same)
8    Oberlin College Conservatory
9    University of Cincinnati
10    University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign
11    Yale University
12    Florida State University
13    Manhattan School of Music
13    Berklee College of Music (New!)
15    University of Southern California
16    Johns Hopkins University (Peabody)
17    University of North Texas
17    Cleveland Institute of Music
19    University of Texas-Austin
20    Arizona State University
21    Mannes College of Music
22    Rice University
23    University of Colorado-Boulder
24    University of Wisconsin-Madison
25    Ohio State University
26    University of Hartford (Hartt)
27    San Francisco Conservatory of Music
28    SUNY-Stony Brook
29    University of Kansas
30    Boston University
...and U of Miami, ranked 29, was bumped from the list.

We already know that this website is a sham, as it is plagiarizing a list that was published 15 years ago. Here are the 'new' problems with this year's list:

-UNT and CIM tied at 17? What a coincidence! The 1997 USN&WR list had them exactly tied for 17th as well!

-For the 3rd year in a row, the schools ranked 7th-30th are in the *exact* same order, except for the addition of Berklee, and the subtraction of U of Miami.

-Speaking of Berklee, there's a reason that school was never included in the USN&WR lists. That would be like including USC's film scoring program (a great program!) in a list of top composition schools, or including Juilliard's Theater program on a list of top 10 Music Theater schools (which happened on a LOLworthy list I saw today!)

Plus, all the things wrong with last year's list are still problems this year. The omission of Colburn, and the low rating of Rice, confirm that this list is based on outdated material. The fact that #s 7-30 have remained UNCHANGED for three years show that no actual methodology is being used. Hell, the fact that no methodology is even listed on the website shows that no methodology is being used! Double-hell, the fact that the 2010 list is EXACTLY THE SAME as the USN&WR list from 1997 shows that no methodology is being used!

Also, a handful of schools have emerged over the past 16 years that are definitely stronger than some of the names on that list. And, one of the top 30 schools above was recently on the verge of major restructuring, and perhaps even disbanding!

So, as I mentioned in my original post from one year ago, this list is a good representation of many of the strong music programs in the US, as they are all solid programs. In terms of an actual ranking, however, take it with a huge grain of salt...there are some clear errors on the list.


  1. Thanks for the insights, Vince. I'd be interested in your own ratings of, say, a top 20 schools list.

  2. thanks Vince. I'll pass this on to some more advanced students in the youth symphony. this is wonderful knowledge that everyone should have!

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