Slow to change
Undoubtedly, many institutions will try to apply Band-Aids to bolster enrollment without making fundamental changes in their business models. One of the most recent college closings, Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon, provides a harrowing challenge to that thinking.
Marylhurst, a small liberal arts college, had added adult programming and an online MBA in recent years to replace declines in its traditional student body. In the face of competition from large institutions such as Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University and without changes to its core programs, the university could not sustain overall enrollment and was forced to close. This mimics that pattern at Mt. Ida.
Both regional universities and small colleges must rethink their underlying business models. For too long, traditional core programs have been unprofitable at many of these schools. Financial viability has been maintained only through the addition of adult and online programming or auxiliary services while traditional programs have remained unchanged. As the Mt. Ida and Marylhurst closures reveal, this is a dangerous strategy.
What options are available?
Several strategies come to mind. First, colleges can pursue administrative collaborations that could potentially reduce their cost structures. Prior to the Mt. Ida closure, Mt. Ida and Lasell College (also in Newton, Mass.) had combined safety, information systems, and other services. In upstate New York, small liberal arts colleges have developed similar collaborations resulting in substantial cost savings.
Second, states can become more strategic in developing coordination and control of regional universities. The Maine public higher education system is headed in this direction. Ultimately, the merger of institutions may be necessary. A first step could be to follow the Penn State model of merging two-year institutions into nearby four-year ones.
Administrative cost savings and the merger/elimination of current programs, however, do not get at the fundamental challenges posed by declining enrollments. Changes must be made in traditional programs. We need to rethink the linkage of traditional programs to regional economies and to develop pathways from these programs to long-term careers and to attractive job placements at graduation. This will mean eliminating some traditional majors while creating interdisciplinary majors. Rhode Island’s Bryant University requires all business majors to have a minor in the humanities or social sciences and for humanities and social sciences majors to minor in business. This approach should be considered by many more universities.
Similarly, technology in instructional design cannot be merely an added expense of instruction. We must focus on changing instruction to a model that increases learning and reduces costs. Foreign language instruction is a good example. Language-instruction companies have developed extremely effective technology-based language-acquisition programs. Universities, for the most part, continue to teach language as it always has been. At many state universities, language instruction is minimal—few languages are offered and, for those offered, instruction is available at only the introductory level. In this day and age, we must offer a wide range of languages at all of these institutions; students should be able to develop mastery. This can be done with technology—it cannot be done with traditional face-to-face instruction.
Targeting a different demographic
While the number of traditional aged students enrolling in regional universities in New England will decline dramatically in the next 10 years, this does not mean that the total number of potential students is in decline. Adult students who have some college but have not completed bachelor’s degrees represent a growth opportunity. Furthermore, the New England economy is in desperate need of the skills that these individuals could bring to the marketplace with properly designed degrees or certificates. These students are not, however, going to return to traditional college campuses to take traditional academic programs using traditional instructional delivery models.
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) already figured this out and offers online and low-residency programs designed for adult students and focused on areas of significant job growth. What SNHU has accomplished in changing the university culture is more important than its program offerings. SNHU has developed a campus-wide perspective that adult students are the new normal, allowing the university to conceptualize everything from degree programs to admissions to student services with the part-time working adult student in mind. The college did not just add on adult programs; it reworked its educational model.
The storm clouds for New England public higher education are quite dark. “Business as usual” will likely result in many more “Mt. Idas.” On the other hand, a strategy that focuses on both new student populations and revising old educational models could provide exciting new opportunities for transformed universities.
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