The Berklee College of Music will next year become the first nonprofit institution to offer fully online accredited bachelor’s degree programs in its field. Since the online degree can only replicate so much of going to college in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, it comes with an incentive: It costs 60 percent less than a residential degree.
The move is unusual among colleges that offer both online and in-person versions of the same programs -- not simply because of the academic discipline, but also because of the substantial online discount.
Berklee’s online degrees are more than a decade in the making. The college began to offer individual noncredit courses about 11 years ago, and later bundled those courses together in certificate programs. The college has also published free content through YouTube , BitTorrent and its Berklee Shares portal , and provides massive open online courses through Coursera  and edX . The two 120-credit degrees  launching in fall 2014 -- music business and music production -- represent the next gradual and logical step, said Mike King, chief marketing officer at Berklee Online.
“It’s something that people have been asking for ... since we started offering single online courses. It’s taken us a while just to move in that direction,” King said. “Over all, our goal is to be able to provide a range of different options no matter how people want to experience Berklee’s curriculum.”
Berklee Online students starting next fall will pay $14,500 in tuition, compared to the $36,514 residential students pay this year (the cost of attendance for the 2014-15 year has not yet been set). But online students also save on optional charges like room and board and health insurance, which can tack on another $20,000 to the bottom line. When factoring in indirect costs like books, transportation and living expenses, the gulf between the two degree options widens to nearly $45,000. Put another way, 120 credits online could cost less than what a student pays for one year on campus.
Aside from eliminating the optional charges, the lower cost reflects Berklee's assessment that -- for these programs -- online isn't identical to in-person.
"There are things that the physical school has that we don’t,” King said. “There’s an infrastructure that happens at the physical school. If you were to come into Berklee, we’re walking by all these practice rooms, we’re walking by Studio A and Studio B -- all of those things do not exist online.”
Another intangible missing from the online school is the atmosphere. “There are plenty of reasons to come for a residential experience, not the least of which is being surrounded by 4,000 musicians every day,” said Jeanine Cowen, Berklee’s vice president for curriculum and program innovation. “There’s just no feeling like being on campus every day.”
Online collaboration tools and music software -- Berklee uses a heavily modified version of the course management system Moodle -- can emulate parts of the residential experience, King said, “but there are very real things happening here at Berklee that are very positive that we can’t do online.”
The online degrees therefore cater to musicians whose careers prevent them from moving to Boston. Applicants with professional experience can submit their portfolios and receive up to 30 prior learning credits.
“The sweet spot for this online degree are the people who have professional careers, and they’re looking for a way to extend their capacity,” Cowen said. “So they’re not looking for the quad, as you will, but they’re looking to study with these fantastic faculty members.” (Note: Cowen later clarified that Berklee does not have a quad.)
Faculty is one element shared by both arms of Berklee. Most of the instructors in the online school also teach residential courses, Cowen said.
Berklee Online settled on music business and music production due to demand, as the college has seen the number of applications to those programs almost quadruple in the past decade. There is nothing massive about the online degree programs, however. The inaugural cohort will be capped at 300 students.
The two programs were not chosen because they are easier to teach online than vocal performance, for example. In fact, King said guitar is the most popular of Berklee Online’s certificate programs.
The New England Association of Schools and Colleges will conduct a full review of the online programs in spring 2016. Degrees in arrangement, orchestration and performance are “definitely in consideration,” said Carin Nuernberg, Berklee Online’s dean of continuing education, but the expansion plans hinge on a positive review from NEASC.
Berklee faces sparse competition in the online space. The for-profit Full Sail University, which also offers a bachelor’s degree in music production , is one of few rivals. Its program is priced at $11,200 a semester -- more expensive than Berklee -- but only lasts for five semesters. A spokeswoman for Full Sail said the university has yet to see Berklee's entry into the market impact its application numbers.
"I think there are a lot of people who say ‘Well, how can you teach music online?’ ” Nuernberg said. “Developing the curriculum for a degree program is not something easily done -- it’s years of investment. I think those two pieces together may make anyone skittish.”