There’s nothing like the hangman’s noose to focus the mind. For many small private colleges and public regional comprehensives, tough times lie ahead.

The cost, demographic and revenue challenges that these institutions currently confront aren’t going away. Although it’s unlikely that large numbers of colleges will close in the short term, many will experience chronic budgetary shortfalls that can result in a death spiral if incorrectly handled.

Underresourced colleges and universities face both short-term and long-term challenges. The immediate challenges are the most obvious, though we don’t yet know their severity.

Many colleges and universities are experiencing sharp enrollment declines, as some students defer enrollment and others drop out or transfer to cheaper institutions or those closer to home. To sustain enrollment, many institutions must discount tuition, increase financial aid and shoulder the costs of operating online and safely reopening their operations, even as auxiliary and ancillary revenue evaporates.

Compounding the short-term challenges are worrisome long-term trends: declining numbers of high school students in many parts of the country, saturated master’s degree markets, mounting competition for international students and the ever-rising costs of compliance, financial aid, student services, technology and personnel.

Nor is there an obvious panacea. Both cost-cutting and the pursuit of new revenue streams are exceedingly difficult.

Still, this isn’t the time to throw up our hands or simply hope for the best.

Susan Resneck Pierce, the president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, recently argued that too many institutions have responded to the current crises by focusing on tactics rather than strategy.

Of course, calls for strategic planning often induce groans from faculty members. The political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg likens strategic planning to Voltaire’s description of the Holy Roman Empire (“neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”). He quipped, “Neither strategy, nor plan, but waste of time,” lacking metrics, benchmarks, budget or timetable.

In today’s fraught context, however, vision, tactics and strategy are all necessary.

What I’d like to suggest in this posting is an outcomes-focused strategy that small colleges and regional comprehensives might consider.

Your existing and prospective students (and their parents) view a college education largely as a path to a stable, secure and rewarding career. Let me lay out five ways that your institution might address that concern.

1. Clarify and promote your institution’s identity.

Generic won’t cut it during our current crises. Every campus claims to have a picturesque campus, world-class faculty members, rigorous and engaging academics, a storied history, and a vibrant campus life.

In today’s strongly competitive environment, every college and university needs to spell out its value proposition and ensure that its programs and course offerings and student experience align with this vision.

Among elite institutions, their identity is obvious. It resides in the campus’s culture and traditions. But for everyone else, it makes sense to identify distinctive market niches that will attract students, foster a sense of alumni pride and differentiate the school from its competitors.

Typically, colleges position themselves in terms of focus, attributes, amenities, price or quality.

I’d urge at-risk campuses to place a much greater emphasis on outcomes. If they’re strong, tout them. If they’re not, you need to fix the problems ASAP.

Recent educational research has uncovered a stunning reality: the stark differences in retention and graduation rates and postgraduation outcomes among institutions with similar resources and student demographics.

Common explanations for these disparities — such as geographical location or local culture — generally prove inadequate. The real difference clearly lies in institutional policies and practices, faculty dedication to their undergraduates, and student engagement and sense of belonging.

Let me be clear: branding and marketing are no substitute for sound business practices. Still, an institution that can tout a record of student success, defined by time to degree and postgraduation employment and earnings outcomes, is going to be most successful in attracting students.

2. Liberal arts institutions need to speak directly to student and parents’ financial concerns.

A 2015 opinion piece by Brandon Busteed of Kaplan called on institutions to drop the term “liberal arts.” “Putting the words ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ together is a branding disaster,” he declared.

His claim is grossly exaggerated, but it is certainly the case that interest in the humanities appeals to a shrinking segment of students. Euphemisms like “the practical liberal arts” or “the applied liberal arts” don’t help. Nor does the claim that an art history, classics or philosophy degree provide transferrable skills highly valued by employers.

Show, don’t tell. The most effective approach is to demonstrate, if true, that your students graduate faster and at a higher rate than students in other programs; that they acquire good, meaningful jobs; that their salaries rise substantially over time and that many continue on to graduate or professional school. Show how liberal arts majors open doors.

It also makes sense to embed skills badging, career-aligned certificates and certifications into the curriculum. And remember: a liberal arts focus does not preclude instituting high-demand majors such as arts and technology or emerging communications or sustainability into the curriculum.

3. Become much more student-centered.

What does it mean to be student-centric? It means prioritizing student engagement, support and success along every dimension.

Ask yourself: Is your campus acutely aware of and responsive to student needs? Is the academic experience engaging and well supported? Are student services easily accessible and proactive? Do advisers, faculty and support staff take genuine responsibility for student success?

A defining characteristic of a student-centric institution is that students feel a strong sense of belonging. Check your campus surveys. Do they reveal frequent interaction with faculty and classmates, high teaching evaluations, responsive support offices, and a strong identification with the campus? If not, it is essential to tackle student dissatisfaction.

4. Consider pursuing underserved markets.

The most obvious markets are community college transfer students and working and caregiving adults. Here, it’s important to face up to a stark reality: it is not enough to pursue these markets; serving these students well requires an institution to adapt, often in unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable ways.

Transfer students need a dedicated orientation, rapid turnaround in credit evaluation, guaranteed access to essential courses and preferred majors, and dedicated advisers and a support center, not to mention adequate financial aid. Returning adults generally need online career-aligned degree programs or shorter-term professional certificate and certification programs and access to credit for prior learning. Repaying or reducing adults’ prior college debts might also make sense.

5. Reimagine the college experience and make it a key selling point.

The college experience — casual socializing, parties, concerts and attendance at sports events — is among higher education’s most alluring attractions. No one can say with any assurance if or when the more traditional college experience will return. Without that experience, it’s not at all clear why one would prioritize one school over another, unless it offers an impressive reputation or particular value.

Therefore, institutions need to figure out how to create a college-going experience that is especially compelling. Let me suggest ways that your campus might redesign the college experience and place a greater emphasis on career preparation.

The academic experience: At the lower-division and general education level, consider placing students in career-focused cohorts, learning communities, or metamajors. Also, considering integrating a career-preparation component into select lower-division classes. Students would be asked to identify their interests, skills and aspirations and learn about high-demand skills and employment trends. You might also ask students to learn about a specific career field by interviewing someone working in that area.

Academic enrichment: Make it easy for students to acquire high-demand skills and consider incentivizing this by offering skills workshops, skills badges and career-preparation certificates. Consider noting these accomplishments on the students’ transcripts.

Undergraduate interest groups: Create cohorts that share a common career focus, whether this is business-related or focused on health care, preprofessional or technical. Then tap alumni, businesspeople and practitioners to interact with the students, in person if possible, remotely if necessary.

Make your communication requirement more career-focused: You might do this by ensuring that students create and deliver a professional presentation, draft a grant application or write an article for a campus publication. The goal is to have students write in ways that mimic real-world practice.

Make independent and team-based research experiences more widely available: Offer training in research methods and statistical analysis, followed by individual or group projects that might be laboratory based but can take many other forms, whether conducting research in archives, analyzing statistical data, conducting interviews and focus groups, or undertaking various field or clinical observations.

Formalize the job-preparation process: With students increasingly fixated on finding a job, it makes sense to create a step-by-step bridge-to-career program, in which students explore potential career paths, acquire relevant skills and work experience, learn how to articulate their skills and accomplishments, build their résumé, develop professional network, create a portfolio of projects, and launch a job search.

Offer leadership training: Offer students training in formulating budgets, supervising teams and managing projects. Increase leadership opportunities on campus and show students how to translate leadership experiences into employer-sought skills.

Expand internship, service learning and study abroad opportunities: If the current crisis has revealed anything, it is the possibility of imagining educational experiences unencumbered by traditional constraints. Take a look at how leading study abroad offices have innovated: offering courses with faculty at foreign universities, virtual tours of foreign cities and museums, remote global internships, and international networking opportunities. It’s also possible to offer remote internships and service learning experiences that are scalable. Projects might include assisting a nonprofit with social media or a website, helping a small business devise a business plan or conducting a market analysis, or undertaking usability testing for software code for a start-up.

Temptations to cut costs will be intense. But if cost-cutting erodes the student experience or the institution’s reputation, any cutbacks will likely backfire. Eliminating programs, reducing career services and other student supports, or increasing reliance on adjunct faculty are likely to be perceived, with justification, as signs that an institution’s future is in peril.

We know what prospective students want: a bridge to a career. Let’s do our best to meet their needs.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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