Private Colleges Need a New Agenda

To avoid closure or merger, they must begin to think differently, argues W. Kent Barnds.

January 2, 2019
 
 
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Starting now, private colleges need a new formula for progress.

Most private colleges across the country are facing significant challenges in the coming years, due to demographic shifts, an inability to grow net revenue and a growing demand for larger and more urban colleges. But the threats are much greater for certain colleges: those with an obsession with what so-called aspirant colleges are doing as well as those that are, for a variety of reasons and realities, paralyzed into inaction.

To avoid closure or merger, colleges must begin to think differently. They will need to abandon their obsession with U.S. News & World Report rankings and aspirant institutions, stay away from short-term gimmickry, and wean themselves from the destructive formula of tradition + ambition = progress.

The leadership of private colleges -- board members, presidents, vice presidents, provosts, faculty members and administrators -- needs a new agenda. Here are some ideas.

Operate more like a start-up. Private colleges should operate more like start-up companies than the cumbersome bureaucracies they are. Let’s face it, colleges already have a sluggish business cycle, with one or two entry points and an operating quarter that slows, if not stops completely. We can’t afford to make it worse with yearlong task force studies and painfully slow changes and transitions.

An article I read recently, addressed to start-ups that had lost their culture, offers some ideas that are applicable and doable for private colleges. Those ideas include: staying abreast of trends, making experimentation part of the culture, empowering employees to take action, fostering creativity, hiring a diverse team and making decisions quickly. Those are not the terms typically used when describing colleges and universities.

But while it may be messy at times, it’s the sort of thing we need to see more of in higher education.

I worked with a college recently that is constantly experimenting with its curriculum in interesting ways. It should embrace that experimentation as a core value and use it as a way to invite students and faculty members into a really cool environment. Private colleges need more of such creative and quick action, and they should adopt many of the values of a start-up culture.

Fully embrace the teacher-mentor model. Private colleges have long emphasized the teacher-scholar model in an effort to convince the public that they have serious scholars teaching undergraduate classes. It has been a way to take a swipe at major research universities, implying that their scholars don’t teach undergrads. It’s also been a means to convince faculty members that they can continue to pursue serious academic scholarship at a small, private college. Such messages are somewhat accurate. But they have perpetuated the idea that the education private colleges provide is different but not better.

Meanwhile, new research about the influence of a mentor on student and graduate success, along with plenty of alumni feedback, should convince us that we should change our model to that of teacher-mentor. That is an area in which we can distinguish the type of education we offer, and there is no way that our public competitors can poach this message. Fully embracing that model and hiring, rewarding and promoting teacher-mentors will be crucial to private colleges’ future success.

Be bold when identifying what students can’t do at a flagship. Private colleges should become more direct in describing how they are different, and better, than the regional and flagship public universities that absorb so much of the mind share in most parts of the country. We should double down on the transformative learning we know happens at our institutions because of our teacher-mentor model and the customized experience our students enjoy. We need to be prepared to provide the public with real information about what we offer most of our students compared to cheaper alternatives.

If six in 10 of our grads study abroad compared to two in 10 of theirs, we should highlight it. If seven in 10 of our students graduate in four years compared to five or six in 10, we should make it known. If our average class size is 20 and theirs is 80, we should shout it out. And if three in 10 of our students are athletes compared to one in 10 at the larger institution, we should remind people. Those of us at smaller colleges need to showcase what we do better.

Emphasize placed-based teaching and scholarship. Many colleges across the country have used their location to develop a reputation for excellence. Land-grant institutions in the Midwest have strong programs in agriculture. Some small colleges in New England are known for their programs in sustainability and conservation. American and Georgetown Universities have a lock on politics and government, as does the University of Southern California on film.

Private colleges also need to grow where we are planted. We need to ask: What natural resources can we draw upon? What corporation, organization or industry is here to stay, and how can we study and teach about every conceivable aspect? How has our area changed, how will it change in the future and what areas of study are relevant today?

Also, how do we incentivize scholarly activity around our location to bring greater attention to the college? How can we use what surrounds us to create a compelling reason for students to want to study here and for professors to choose this place to develop and share their expertise?

Private colleges need to think creatively about leveraging our location and what it offers in regard to teaching and learning. My college has the Upper Mississippi Center, mobilizing faculty and students to carry out real-world projects that address social, economic and environmental challenges for local communities.

Double down on your hometown. Private colleges should cultivate, nurture and steward their hometowns as though they are their biggest donors, because your hometown probably deeply appreciates the value and stability you bring to the region. So don’t complain about “the townies.” Embrace the people in your community and invite them in. Engage them in conversations about how you can support each other and thrive. If they need college-educated workers, help steer your grads to local positions that honor their achievement and ambitions and that will fulfill the community's needs.

In short, help the community where and how you can. The Village at Hendrix College offers a good example of a mixed-use architectural project that blends the campus into the northern edge of downtown Conway, Ark., to extend and enhance “everything positive that Hendrix College is and aspires to be.” Make your hometown an ally, a partner, an advocate, and central to what makes your college amazing.

The next 10 years will be difficult for all higher-education institutions, the elite and the rest of us. The pressures facing most private colleges aren’t going to go away and will require a significant change in how we do things. We have to think differently if we are to thrive in an environment that depends more than ever on student enrollment, success and outcomes. Private colleges can’t wait for other types of institutions to lead the way. We will flourish only if we replace the dangerous formula of ambition + tradition = progress with a formula that actually works today.

Bio

W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president for external relations at Augustana College in Illinois.

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