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Scarcity and Blended Learning: Pushing Back on Saint Benedict
September 17, 2012 - 9:00pm

We learn in Kevin Kiley's 9/14/12 article "Bigger Picture, Smaller Numbers" that Saint Benedict’s president, MaryAnn Baenninger, has pursued a diminished enrollment / higher tuition / lower discount strategy rate to bring expenses in line with income.

Saint Benedict has been able to improve the bottom line by lowering the number of students accepted, which has the impact of increasing selectivity and improving the college's tuition pricing power. By being more choosey, Saint Benedict can admit cohorts of applicants that are more motivated (and perhaps better able) to pay closer to the published tuition prices.   

Smaller classes and more revenue, what's not to like?

Two things concern me about the strategy that Saint Benedict is pursuing.

1. Higher Tuition: We know as educators that we have a responsibility to do everything possible to improve learning on our campuses. But do we have a similar responsibility to try to bring tuition costs down? At Saint Benedict tuition has gone from $26,530 in 2007 to $34,308. In a few years Saint Benedict has gone from a school with an average tuition for private nonprofits in Minnesota, to a school that is 6 percent above the state's average. This rise in tuition has been accompanied by an increase in how much each student actually spends to attend the College, again owing to the increased pricing power derived from an increased scarcity in enrollment slots.

2. Less Opportunity: Not only are students paying more to attend the College of Saint Benedict, fewer of them now enjoy this opportunity. From 2008 to 2013 enrollment dropped from 2,090 to 2,027.  If the policy to keep small entering classes continues then  total enrollment can be expected to drop even more.   Should we think about those 63 young women, and more going forward, whom might be a wonderful fit for Saint Benedict but will never have the chance to join that community?   

Taken on its own the decisions of Saint Benedict are of little importance to a higher education system that enrolls something more than 20 million students. But what worries me about Saint Benedict is how the institution could be held up as a role model. 

Ideas are contagious, and the conclusion that the most efficacious route to fiscal probity turns on greater scarcity could have disastrous consequences.

Policies that artificially restrain the supply of higher education, in the face of strong demand, seems to me akin to enacting 10 acre zoning restrictions on new homes and claiming that the resultant disappearance of affordable housing is a positive outcome.

The most disturbing element of the Saint Benedict story, at least for someone working in educational technology, is that the decision to "get smaller" seems to rest on the (false) assumption that more students must equal lower educational quality. 

Kiley writes that:

"For several reasons, Baenninger said, growing the college wasn’t really an option ... many of the savings from growth would be minimal, Baenninger said, while the drawbacks – a less intimate feel, the cost of new instructors and facilities – would be great."

I believe that higher ed in general, and Saint Benedict in particular, can maintain small classes and an intimate environment by moving towards a blended model of education. 

Keep the face-to-face learning, but supplement these residential courses with asynchronous online offerings.  

Achieve a higher utilization of scarce lab and classroom space by scheduling less residential class sessions per course, but more courses.   

When an institution of higher learning gets to a point where they look on the hiring of new faculty to support increased enrollment as a negative, as purely a cost rather than an investment, you know that the long-term prospects of that institution are not bright. 

Faculty are the core of a college's value proposition, and a university is the ultimate knowledge organization. 

Blended learning can lower many costs per student, specifically the costs of classrooms and labs, but these saving can and should be re-invested back into the faculty and back into the learning team (which includes librarians, learning designers, media specialists, and technology professionals).

Every educational technology leader should be developing plans for blended learning that will increase enrollment, increase revenues, decrease tuition, and improve instructional quality. We should not succumb to the same temptation as Saint Benedict.

Do you have a seat at the leadership table at your institution to talk about blended learning?


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