Lafayette Taps College Access Program Leader as President

Lafayette College steps out of the box by choosing College Advising Corps leader as its next president. The hire comes as the private college seeks to ramp up financial aid and grow its student body.

May 20, 2021
 
Courtesy of Lafayette College
College Advising Corps CEO Nicole Hurd will start as Lafayette College's president July 1.

In 2005, Nicole Hurd was the assistant dean and director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of Virginia who launched a pilot program to try to help underrepresented, low-income and first-generation college students navigate applying for financial aid.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation supported that effort, which early on was called the College Guide program. The program sent 14 UVA graduates into rural areas with college-going rates below the state’s average.

A decade and a half later, the program has grown into a stand-alone nonprofit organization called the College Advising Corps that’s headquartered in Chapel Hill, N.C. It counts more than 800 of what it calls near-peer advisers serving students at almost 800 high schools across the country. Hurd still leads the organization as its founding CEO.

College Advising Corps has notched some high-profile fundraising successes, including a $20 million unrestricted gift from Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft. The organization’s supporters say it significantly increases the chances that the high schoolers it works with will apply to college, be accepted and apply for scholarships.

But Hurd will be leaving the CEO role at the nonprofit to lead a liberal arts college. She was announced Wednesday as the next president of Lafayette College, a private liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania on the New Jersey border.

The move might seem an unorthodox step for both Hurd and Lafayette.

Lafayette is hiring a so-called nontraditional president -- one who didn’t rise through the ranks of the academy before working her way up through administrative roles and perhaps the provost’s office before landing her first position as a college president.

Hurd will go from leading a 15-year-old organization with an annual expense budget of less than $30 million to a nearly 200-year-old institution that tallies more than $174 million in operating expenses annually. Lafayette’s endowment is valued at nearly $840 million -- 135th largest in the country by total and worth an estimated $320,000 per student, according to data from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

A ‘Traditional-Nontraditional’

Yet in some ways, Lafayette is smaller than the organization Hurd is leaving. College Advising Corps counts hundreds of thousands of students served, while Lafayette enrolled just under 2,500 full-time-equivalent students in the fall.

But Lafayette’s next president has many of the skills needed to lead a private liberal arts college in an era of changing expectations and student demographics, both she and the college board chair who oversaw her hiring say. And Hurd says the step will allow her to dive deep into supporting the same student groups she focused on at the College Advising Corps.

“It’s come to me that part of the work I wanted to do was really spend time making sure that the students we support in high school are supported through college,” Hurd said. “Lafayette has a liberal arts education and engineering. That combination is very powerful to me.”

Robert E. Sell, the chair of Lafayette’s Board of Trustees and the chair of its presidential search committee, doesn’t even view Hurd as a nontraditional president. She is a religious studies scholar with a Ph.D., she has high-level experience at the University of Virginia, and the nonprofit organization she founded and led requires a deep understanding of higher education and the high schools from which it draws students, he said.

“She’s a traditional-nontraditional, if you will,” he said. “She didn’t spend 25 or 30 years going through the academic ranks of an institution. That would be a traditional kind of process. She, though, has spent time in the last 15 years partnering with different institutions and learning those institutions, understanding those institutions, seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

Partnering with different constituencies is a key skill for a college president.

“She developed that board at the College Advising Corps,” Sell said. “She knows how to work with that board, and she knows how to work with the public. She knows how to work with institutions. So she’s demonstrated quite clearly the ability to work with different constituencies.”

Hurd can also point to overlap in her position as CEO at College Advising Corps and another chief duty for a college president: fundraising. The press release announcing her hiring by Lafayette credited her with securing more than $90 million in recent years for College Advising Corps. The nonprofit has also received grant funding from AmeriCorps, meaning she’s led an organization that receives federal funding.

College Advising Corps will search for a new chief executive. Hurd will remain on its board, she said.

“We’ll do a national search for a new CEO, but I think we’re all very excited about the future,” she said. “The reality is this is a very important time to talk about college access, coming out of the pandemic.”

College Advising Corps’s founding board chair, Bloomberg L.P. chairman Peter Grauer, congratulated Lafayette for recruiting Hurd.

“Nicole has shown remarkable leadership, resourcefulness, and insight, single handedly changing the face of higher education,” Grauer said in a statement. “Lafayette College, you have recruited an extraordinary leader, innovator, and a woman of great character.”

Lafayette’s president since 2013 has been Alison Byerly, who is becoming Carleton College’s president. Under Byerly, the college in 2016 launched what it billed as a 10-year strategy to increase the size of its student body, drastically increase its financial aid budget and add faculty positions.

College leaders were targeting 2,900 students as its eventual sweet spot and had been growing at an appropriate annualized rate, according to Sell, its board chair. An unsettled admissions year during the pandemic broke that trend, with many members of the college’s fall class deferring admission. But a large number of those deferrals put down deposits this May, and Sell expects growth to resume in the fall.

The college went from enrolling 2,550 total students in the fall 2016 semester to 2,662 in 2019 before dipping back down to 2,514 in 2020.

Lafayette has been expanding its recruiting territory. Hurd brings the experience to help it continue geographic and socioeconomic expansions, Sell said.

“We’ve had extensive discussion on increasing applications: more effective enrollment techniques, creating greater access in communities that haven’t necessarily been part of our profile in the past,” he said. “She’ll bring maybe a little finer point to that, and I think she brings also a view that there are things Lafayette can do to bring more of its own muscle, relative to creating an even greater and inclusive, welcoming environment.”

One issue leaders at relatively small, private colleges encounter when they try to expand recruiting and enroll more students from low-income or diverse backgrounds is expense. Those students often cannot pay as much in tuition as students from some colleges’ traditional recruiting grounds. That means discounting tuition or finding new sources of financial aid. Those things can be easier said than done for the vast majority of private colleges, which frequently post already-high sticker prices and cannot rely entirely on their endowments to fund operations.

Lafayette’s tuition, fees, room and board totaled about $71,000 in 2019-20 before taking into account financial aid, up from about $63,000 in 2015-16.

The college has been putting more and more toward financial aid in recent years. It increased student financial aid from endowed funds by 16.7 percent to $9.1 million between 2015-16 and 2019-20, according to operating data posted for its bondholders. Financial aid from institutional funds grew even faster over that time period, by 43.8 percent to $45.7 million.

Hurd starts July 1. She said she will spend her first year listening and learning. But she sees much to like in the strategic direction Lafayette already has in place.

“I’ve been looking at all these different parts of the country and seeing all this talent,” she said. “My dream, whether that talent was in the Rio Grande Valley or California or rural Missouri -- the idea is, shouldn’t every student have access to a Lafayette education, have access to a place like it that is developing a new generation of leaders? I think that commitment to financial aid, that commitment to growing the faculty and student body was all so incredibly compelling to me.”

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