Ahhh, this question. It’s not just a question I get asked a lot – it’s one whose answer I agonize over, because really, it’s almost impossible to evaluate yourself objectively enough to decide. It should be a decision tree-style examination of yourself, your skills, and your ambitions. As a student of Berklee (one year) and Sonoma State University (enough years that I should be a doctor), I’ve attended both a prestigious private music college and a public university’s music program, as well as taking private lessons for many years and teaching them for a living, so I have experience with different styles of music education.
There is no simple answer that I can give you, except to say that it has a lot less to do with the school, and a lot more to do with you. There are many intuitive musicians who learn by listening to recorded music and watching others play who would wither in an academic classroom setting and waste their money and time, and many academic types who need this kind of structure to push their understanding of music to the next level (and vice versa – many intuitives don’t progress beyond their own self-imposed boundaries). This dichotomy is far from the only facet to consider, but it’s a big one.
Here’s my biggest piece of advice for you when considering your musical path: if you think that you’ll get everything you need to become a musician from your college experience, you are dead wrong. Music school is a resource for you to grow beyond what you can do by yourself, and if you’re not already going hard in the paint in your chosen field of study, there’s not a whole lot a professor can do to get you to where you want to be. If you’re not at least a little bit of a self-starter, your teachers are going to become babysitters holding your hand instead of guiding your musical journey. You need to be actively pursuing your own education – teachers don’t go out of their way to help you get where you want to go if you’re not also putting in the work at home, or you haven’t done enough on your own before getting to school. I am telling you this from my own first-hand experience trying (not hard enough) to get the most out of my university education. I was a jazz studies major for several years, despite rarely listening to much jazz or going to jazz shows or hanging out with jazz folk. I still consider it one of the best musical decisions I’ve made to study jazz, because it exponentially increased my understanding of music and allowed me to get to the next level as a musician, but I missed out on an enormous part of it by not going at it on my own.
Music school is many things – a community of like-minded individuals, a repository of information, an outlet for creativity – and you’re paying for all of them, not just the time you spend in the classroom. You have to think of classroom hours as more of a way of keeping you on track and guiding you than giving you all the information that you need. You’ll get a lot of information from them, to be sure – if you’re not, you might want to reconsider your choice of schools. But most classes only run an hour or two, and you can’t get enough of the experiential learning that is crucial to becoming a complete musician. Like Indiana Jones once said, “If you want to be a good archeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library!”. Just because he said it in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t make it any less true.
This might put it into better perspective for you: most of the people I attended music school with are not musicians for a living. This is anecdotal evidence, and should be treated as such, but you can be sure that if you don’t approach it with strong intention, your music degree will be worth as much as an art history degree. Most musician jobs (aside from teaching music) don’t give two golden shits if you have a degree or not. The music industry is a meritocracy, and you are judged solely on your ability and what you can actually deliver – you can’t just hold up your diploma at a concert and get applause, or score a movie soundtrack with it. I use the information I learned in music school every single day in my job, but most of the people I graduated with are either not using it at all, or are music teachers (which I also did for a long time) – there’s nothing wrong with being a music teacher or professor (it’s crucial that these jobs exist), but if everyone who went to music school only went on to teach at music school, then no one would actually be playing/writing/composing music, just endlessly recycling concepts that never get used.
The shortest answer to the question is that it’s only worth it if you make it worth it – you need to take advantage of every facet of your music program, and dive in face first to the full experience of being at music school. You might not know if you’re a good candidate for music school until you actually get there, and if it turns out that you’re not, you’ve already wasted some money. I will say this for sure though – you can easily be contented with your level of musical knowledge and ability, which basically leaves you wallowing in ignorance, terminally wandering the same musical corridors, not knowing the treasure troves that await you (I like to call this “Yngwie Syndrome”. Sure he’s spectacular at what he does, but the man hasn’t musically progressed since he was 19). There’s know way to know what there is to know until you know it, so you have to just have faith that it’s there to be had, and it’s as close to infinite as makes any difference, so you can literally never be bored.
If you figure out that you’re not cut out for music school, do not lose heart. We live in the age of unlimited free information, and if you are serious about studying music, you can learn 100% of everything you learn at music school for free on the internet, at the library, and by taking individual lessons from private instructors. Frank Zappa hated formal education, but took his musical study VERY seriously, and filled out his impressive musical knowledge on his own. You can be like Frank, and if you’re the intuitive type rather than the academic, then you need to start transcribing music you want to learn to play, researching the concepts that interest you, and doing the legwork to get your understanding of music beyond what you need to do what it is you want to do. The idea that you need to attend an institute of higher learning to attain some holy crystal skull of knowledge is as ridiculous as a person swinging through the trees with an entourage of monkeys. You can’t get the same experience of being involved with a group of your peers on a campus full of opportunities, and meet people to collaborate with in the same way as you can in music college, but you can save an incredible amount of money which you can put towards furthering your career in other ways, and while your friends struggle to pay off their student debt, you can be earning money in your field that you owe no one.
I’ll add that I believe it was very worth it for me. The things I learned in my jazz theory and ear training classes have given me the tools to be a far better musician than I was, more knowledgable than many of my peers, and allow me to still have deeper musical experiences every day. I learned a huge amount of things I didn’t even know there was to be learned, or couldn’t see what was important about them at the time, and if I’d tried to go about it on my own, I would have missed them entirely. I also, however, wish that I’d taken some music business classes while I was there – and if you intend on going, you should 100% not miss that if you possibly can. It’ll save you so much time and headache you wouldn’t even believe it.
So what you need to do when considering the path before you is the most important factor: yourself. Do you need the structure and opportunities for collaboration that music school provides, and can you become engrossed and involved enough to make it worthwhile? Or are you a self-structured, disciplined type who can dig in and find what you need from the modern world of overwhelming amount of information? I can’t answer that question, but I hope with the info I’ve given you, you can answer it for yourself.