The Business of College

By Jeremy Cunningham
April 14th, 2016

I recently attended a winter meeting for a small, private college.  As with most institutions, the school is continuously reassessing its programming to maximize financial viability.  Currently, It offers a healthy amount of online coursework.  The school articulated a vision of technology and their future that was both ironic and refreshing.

I expected to hear all sorts of rhetoric about maximizing the use of online course work.  The internet offers economies of scale that have never existed before.  It can reduce overhead for a college and allow them to offer appealing, flexible classes to students across the country.

Yet, this institution is pursuing a different mission.  There is no question they plan to continue their online offerings.  Yet, they are concurrently seeking to establish a stronger campus identity.  They have recently built dorms, offered more classes on campus, and held events which attempt to unite the student population in a physical meeting space.  These decisions felt antiquated until they explained the rationale.

Successful institutions have an identity; part of identity is a sense of place.  At this time, students can seek higher education from any number of schools.  The marketplace is full of certification programs, quick paths to higher degrees, and various other sources of advancement.  Schools that want to stand out need to have more to offer than programs.  They need to have a sense of self and present that self to the students.  At the close of the speech, the speaker discussed maintaining the online offerings as a means of funding a small, outstanding campus experience.   This experience would feed a sense of identity, which would feed enrollment in both campus and online programs, which would enable continued improvements in the college experience.

In an age where technology is trumping most decision making, this conference left me reassessing how the landscape is changing.  For someone from a traditional college background, it was refreshing to hear of investments into a campus experience.  Furthermore, it was ironic to see a path to success that wasn’t just about getting leaner and more efficient with technology.

As educators know, school is an extremely personal decision for students.  It involves a sacrifice of time, money, friends, family, and a host of other opportunities.  In a day and age where there is an endless amount of higher education being offered, it’s important to consider that though the medium has changed, the students have not.  They have many of the same needs that studetns have always had.  They need to feel valued, and they need to feel encouraged; they need to have purpose, and they need to be guided.  Most of all, they have chosen to pursue something greater than what they are, and they want that something to matter.  All the programming changes in the world should be considered through this lens.

At times, education seems consumed with technology.  Consumed not only in the sense of applying it throughout the system, but actually overtaken and broken down by it; ed-tech can feel like TECH-ed.  Visions that consider the whole experience are exciting for traditionalists.  I have no idea if the vision works; but its irony refreshed me.

In an age where online education is being heavily advocated for, I found this feedback loop to be an ironinc idea.  Instead of simply rushing forward into the digital age, schools must consider the psychology of their students.

About the Author:

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College and Cleary University where he teaches composition and communication coursework. He also teaches English at Mason High School. He holds degrees in literature and education from Miami University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University. Outside of work, Jeremy dedicates his time to his wife, Darcie, and daughter, Ruby.

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