New Opportunities for Independent Higher Education in the American West

In last week’s blog, we spoke about the need for America’s colleges and universities to come together in new configurations to create efficiencies and economies of scale.

While acknowledging the many reasons not to proceed, we argued that the drive to hold down sticker price, competition with each other and from for-profit and accredited online courses, adaptive use of new technology, and shifting consumer preferences intersect to effectively call the question. Fundamental to these realities, however, is a basic assumption that opportunity – dramatic and sustainable — exists for those who can see the forest from among the trees.

Geography plays a role. Published statistics this week showed that one out of every three counties in America is losing population, either to growing urban areas or more generally to the South and Southwest.

For the Sun Belt, the solution of how to support growing numbers of students seeking access to two-year and four-year college degrees had always relied upon the ability of growing state coffers to support increasing college going populations by expanding or opening new campuses. In a state like California, the numbers are daunting. At the same time, however, the deep recession has spurred sharp cutbacks and encouraged new legislation to embrace untested online experiments. Further, the growth of college-going student populations throughout the Sun Belt has overwhelmed institutional capacity.

This unmet demand provides significant opportunity for educational providers. Media attention will likely focus on how quickly courses offered through groups like Coursera will be granted accreditation. For-profit ventures will pick up some of the slack. True to their mandate, public colleges and universities will do what they can to recover from the deep cuts and expand their offerings and services. But these efforts will not be nearly enough.

Crisis breeds opportunity. For independent colleges and universities now wrestling with stagnant local demographics, caps on comprehensive fees, new technology driven competition, and outdated financial models that fail to support institutional vision, the great recession opened a new door. Throughout the Sun Belt, independent colleges can fill an educational delivery gap that is true to mission, expands new demographic markets, and improves the bottom financial line.

It’s not that colleges and universities have not already looked to tap into more favorable demographics. Many of the large Eastern research universities have opened branches in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Some smaller institutions with excellent reputations like Emerson College in Boston, for example, have focused on programmatic connections with film and media in Los Angeles. Others have responded to requests from Sun Belt cities and towns who desire more educational opportunities to serve their citizens and as a springboard for economic growth.

The key for independent colleges and universities will be to re-imagine how they might deliver educational services. One roadblock will be how to finance and manage the development of a distant, off-site location to serve students not traditionally part of their current admissions classes. Second, and perhaps more significant, will be how to change internal cultural perceptions about resources that might be diverted from the core educational enterprises. The argument will need to be developed carefully and structured as a mission-supported, revenue-producing vehicle to increase opportunities for faculty, students and staff.

There are ways for independent colleges to think about how to meet national education and workforce demands by re-envisioning program and pedagogy beyond the college gates. It begins by forging close alliances with Sun Belt business, cultural and civic leaders. If the re-imagining is to be successful, it must first reflect the host community’s sense of self, social and economic trends, demographic analysis and aspirations. The question should be how an established institution, with accredited programs, can meet unmet need.

Once both sides agree on a common vision, agenda, goals and metrics to measure success, financing can come from a variety of sources. For the independent colleges analyzing demographics and considering expansion, it is critical that their leadership think about how they can spread risk through new combinations and partnerships. Is it possible for a consortium of Eastern or Midwest independent institutions to come together to meet educational needs in the Sun Belt by differentiating programs and services into a comprehensive package? Are there ways of working with local and state governments, industry leaders, local private donors, and others to diminish these costs further?

Independent higher education is overwhelmingly concentrated east of the Mississippi River. The growth of the Sun Belt paralleled, however, the rise of public higher education fueled by state support now diminishing. The new reality calls for fresh approaches. With the programs and delivery mechanisms already in place, independent colleges have a unique opportunity to serve new student populations and meet national educational and workforce needs. If the right combinations of institutions, program strategies, and cooperative partnerships across the board can be developed, new program strategies they inspire can emerge throughout the Sun Belt. It will take imagination, coordination, cooperation and time.

In the end, the question will be: Is independent higher education robust and entrepreneurial enough to seize the opportunity while it still can shape its future?

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