Proof That Colleges Adapt, and a Prod for More Change

A report from the Council of Independent Colleges shows how dozens of small private institutions have changed programs or structures -- and aims to spur consideration elsewhere.

March 28, 2018
 
Cover of “Innovation and the Independent College: Examples From the Sector,” from the Council of Independent Colleges

At a time when small private colleges face intensifying financial, enrollment and other pressures, two seemingly contradictory things are both true: many of them are experimenting with meaningful changes, and more of them may need a push to do so.

A report released today by the Council of Independent Colleges tries to contribute on both fronts. The report, “Innovation and the Independent College: Examples From the Sector,” contains dozens of examples of ways that some of the group’s 700-odd members have altered or expanded their offerings or structures to increase revenue, cut costs or otherwise strengthen their financial positions.

At the same time as it tries to make the case that colleges are already changing, the report aims to provide a “guidebook” for institutional leaders who want to push for more change and may need help creating a “climate of receptivity to change,” Richard Ekman, the group’s president, said in an interview Tuesday.

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Groups like CIC have to walk a line in discussing the financial sustainability of their members. At a meeting of presidents of the council’s colleges in January, in the wake of an increased number of closures and contemplated consolidations, the perceived need to change business models was more urgent than in recent years.

The council held eight workshops across the country in 2016 and 2017 to discuss how colleges can make changes to remain relevant and continue to grow. The results of those sessions form the basis for the report, which groups innovations into eight categories: athletics, career connections, community engagement, consortial arrangements, cost containment, curricular reform, new academic programs and new student populations.

Containing costs is perhaps the most obvious way to ensure an independent college's survival, but it's hard to do. Cutting staff is often the chosen fix, but colleges should ideally look elsewhere, Ekman said. Hilbert College, in Buffalo, N.Y., for example, formed a health and benefits trust with several nearby colleges. The plan stopped health insurance bills from increasing during a time of hikes in health care costs between 2009 and 2016. In addition, colleges can form consortia with nearby institutions to save money, the report suggests. For example, universities can share one vendor for software, hardware and even office supplies. The Colleges of the Fenway -- a group of six institutions in Boston -- collaborate on security, intramural sports, performing arts and other activities. Students can also cross-register in classes and share an identification card.

The report urges colleges to create new academic programs, incorporating emergent fields of study, such as genetics, nanoscience, behavioral economics, gender studies and digital animation. Cybersecurity is a new area of study that some independent colleges have capitalized on. Edgewood College, in Madison, Wis., introduced a new graduate program in sustainability in 2016, underscoring its interest in social change.

Independent colleges should also develop new curricular structures and teaching methods to stay relevant, according to the report. For example, Goucher College recently introduced a new general education requirement to equip students with tools useful in the changing work force. The integrative interdisciplinary program, Goucher Commons, is “built around inquiry-based learning,” according to the report. The course teaches students skills in three areas to “make them ready for the jobs of the future” -- writing, data analytics and foreign language and culture.

Ekman said he hopes the report can give campus leaders specific ideas for how they might grow, cut or otherwise change. But the report's most important contribution, he said, might be emboldening trustees, administrators, faculty members and all those responsible for giving "fresh thought about the future of their colleges," and building a more receptive climate on their campuses for meaningful change to occur.

Will that be enough to protect the financially vulnerable colleges among his group's members, which Ekman on Tuesday pegged at 10 to 15 percent of the total?

"Who knows for sure?" he said. "But it can help."

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