Survival of the Proactive

Small-college leaders share how their institutions have attempted to ward off enrollment crises before they happen.

January 28, 2019
 

ATLANTA -- Change -- the inevitability of it, trying predict its contours and get ahead of it -- was on the minds of many who attended the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting here last week. The news of Green Mountain College’s closure only heightened interest in proactivity among institutional leaders, especially leaders of the small, private, less selective colleges that are canaries in the change mine.

And while sharing their struggles isn’t always comfortable for campus leaders, a number of meeting panels highlighted what colleges have done to address potential threats to their survival.

Strategies included shrinking enrollments to become more selective, going co-ed and revamping the curriculum within an ambitious time frame. In all cases, panelists emphasized the importance of communication, lest rumor and mistrust derail goodwill efforts at change. The phrase “culture trumps strategy” also came up more than once.

“We are acting to get ahead of what we know are demographic challenges for liberal arts colleges nationally,” said Ron Cole, provost and dean at Allegheny College, following a panel he co-led on leading collaborative change for the sustainable future of small, private institutions. “We are choosing to be smaller and more selective, being true to our mission and ensuring that our curriculum is relevant to the economic and social needs of our time. We believe this to be acting from a position of strength.”

Case Study No. 1: Allegheny's Strategic Shrinking

Allegheny was founded in 1815 to provide access to education on the then northwest Pennsylvania frontier. It continues to fulfill its access mission with a Pell Grant-eligible student body of about 35 percent. And it was doing “all right until we weren’t,” Cole said during the panel. That was in 2014, after a decade of expanded recruiting and suddenly “inconsistent” enrollments.

In 2017, Cole said, the college’s Board of Trustees had a winter retreat and ordered a “reboot” of the college’s current 10-year strategic plan. So in the summer of that year, about 50 members of different campus groups met to study issues of enrollment and access, programs and facilities.

The outcome of those cross-campus meetings? A decision to “strategically recruit fewer students” with “goal of becoming a smaller and more selective institution,” starting with the 2018 recruiting cycle, Cole said.

While he was reluctant to share a precise new enrollment target, Cole said the peak 2,100-enrollment target will shrink by several hundred over 10 years.

To help recruit and retain fewer students with a higher academic profile, Allegheny added majors in business and men’s lacrosse and women’s field hockey teams. Faculty members cut or collaborated on courses where possible, to reduce what Cole called the "proliferation" of the catalog. The board also invested in infrastructure.

“This is not something institutions can cut their way out of,” he said. “We have to invest forward.”

To prepare for needing fewer faculty members in light of a smaller student body, Allegheny’s board also approved a retirement initiative. Cole said that was the “ethical” route, and that it's proved effective, with appropriate numbers of faculty members from across disciplines applying.

Cole described the process as trying but rewarding, and joked that his campus has moved through the stages of grief, from “outright denial” to close to acceptance. Key to success was communication, he added, saying that he spent hours meeting with each department or program chair at different stages to discuss it. He also met with the Faculty Council, and continues to meet with faculty interviewees to let them know that Allegheny is in the process of rightsizing. 

“I've learned one thing as an administrator, that people don’t like surprises,” he said. “And in the absence of communication, assumptions and rumor drive the narrative.” Beyond that, Cole advised those present -- mostly deans, as the session was sponsored by the American Conference of Academic Deans -- to “understand that culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Culture had a few snacks on my strategy.”

Case Study No. 2: Chatham Admits Men

Chatham University, also in Pennsylvania, faced enrollment woes in its undergraduate college within the last decade, too. While its co-ed graduate programs were thriving, the incoming class at the all-women’s undergraduate college had dwindled to fewer than 100 in 2008 -- about three times smaller than the graduate student body.

“With an undergraduate population of less than 400, was that really a viable experience for the students?” asked Cole’s co-presenter, Jenna Templeton, vice president of academic affairs at Chatham. There were additional questions about the viability of the financial model, in which graduate programs subsidized undergraduate ones by about $5 million annually.

Templeton explained that Chatham has a history of changing, from providing access to women in the 1860s, to building the work force in the mid-20th century, to offering more graduate and professional education in the 1990s. So Chatham in 2013 began a new process of self-reflection, to consider its financial outlook and its future -- both as a women’s college and a college at all. (Chatham's graduate programs were never at risk.)

The college convened a faculty reading group, starting with senior professors, namely those who were awarded tenure before the college ceased awarding tenured positions 20 years ago. The university’s Board of Trustees also developed a study group. Both were given different scenarios to consider, including the closure of the undergraduate college and its going co-ed.

Templeton said the college is part of a Pittsburgh-area consortium of institutions, and so men have in fact attended Chatham undergraduate courses for many years. And, of course, men are on campus for the gradate programs. Still, there were concerns about shifting the balance toward a co-ed college forever and what that meant for Chatham, she said.

Such concerns were aired at alumni town halls, student gatherings and blogs, which the university sponsored in an attempt to increase “buy-in” and “connection” to the eventual decisions to pursue a co-ed path. Templeton said that while older alumnae tended to prefer going co-ed to losing the college forever, some younger alumnae -- particularly a group who hadn’t planned on enrolling in a women’s college and were pleasantly surprised by how much they benefited from it -- were vocally opposed to enrolling men.

By the time the board approved coeducation in spring 2014, however, Templeton said, the college and its faculty had taken steps to protect the women’s-only legacy, such as by creating a Women’s Institute and passing statements on equity in the classroom.

By fall 2015, the college had reworked its general education curriculum for the transition and prepared to welcome men. Templeton said that incoming classes since that time have increased to 350 students. The college has added eight men's sports. Retention has improved.

Like Cole, Templeton said that change couldn’t have happened without dedicated faculty members, including a professor who was appointed to dean of undergraduate innovation for the transition, prior to his retirement. Communication and the involvement of all campus constituencies were paramount.

“Transparency is key," she said. 

Case Study No. 3: Dominican’s Breakneck Gen-Ed Reform

Curricular reform is commonplace, but what makes Dominican University of California’s story unusual is the timeline: in just one year, it overhauled its curriculum to achieve a new student-faculty ratio, and to eliminate requirements that students saw as barriers to completion and double majoring.

The original plan was to put that curriculum into place within a year, but Dominican -- having found that design is as important as adoption -- is now taking another year to adopt the changes. (At the same time, Dominican also was working to incubate a coding degree with an outside entity.)

“We are not in fiscal crisis -- we wanted to do this before we were,” said Nicola Pitchford, Dominican’s vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, during a separate panel that discussed the campus's approach to change. Still, Pitchford said, “We were doing way too much. It was a matter of fiscal responsibility. We were running way too many classes and could not economize without changing the curriculum.”

So Dominican convened a summer working group in 2017 to jump-start the process. The group was given much latitude, but was told that the new faculty ratio had to be 14 to 1, more in line with Dominican's institutional peers and more sustainable than the campus's current ratio 9 to 1. 

In the fall, Dominican formed a curricular oversight committee to lead the change. It soon became apparent that a systems and operations group was needed, as well, to lead the adoption of the curriculum -- and not just for the faculty, but for admissions and recruitment teams.

Using a recent update to Dominican’s honors program as a guide to reform, faculty members and administrators involved in the project proposed a 36-unit core curriculum, instead of the college’s previous 45- to 46-unit general education curriculum. Pritchard said that the “exploding carrot” for faculty buy-in was the opportunity to move to four-credit courses from three, meaning fewer course preparations for the standard 12-credit-hour teaching load. The “exploding” part? Courses had to be redesigned to align with that new configuration.

In the end, the curriculum overhaul entailed 22 revised majors, 19 minors, seven graduate programs, four new minors and a new applied computer science major. Despite that amount of work, 85 percent of the faculty approved the new core curriculum last academic year.

Mary Marcy, Dominican’s president, said after the session that the overhaul needed to realize financial savings and provide students more room in their schedules, as well as stay true to what's known as the Dominican Experience. That means that every student will have an integrative coach, signature work, an experience of community-engaged learning and a digital portfolio, she said, adding that high-impact teaching practices are particularly important for Dominican's ethnically and economically diverse student body.

As for the challenges many small colleges face, Marcy said, “It’s extremely helpful to learn from each other as we undertake these changes.”

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