Tradition and Innovation: Essential to Small Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 1)

At The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) Presidents Institute this past January, the theme was Leading Wisely: Linking Tradition and Innovation. The conference “explored ways presidents can tackle today’s unprecedented leadership challenges with a mix of time-tested solutions and new approaches.”

CIC’s focus on ways for leadership at small and mid-size liberal arts colleges to explore linking tradition and innovation makes great sense. And I would go further and argue that the leadership of regional liberal arts colleges that do not embrace the mission and traditions of their institutions, while exploring ways to serve a more diverse student body, diversity writ large, will have an increasingly difficult time meeting enrollment goals in the future.

There are several interrelated issues that should be concerning the leadership of many regional liberal arts colleges and universities. For example, demographic shifts that have reduced the number of high school graduates in many regions of the country, the economy and slow recovery from the Great Recession, increased competition from out-of-region public institutions that are looking for new sources of revenue, and the widespread perception of families that students must laser-focus on a major or degree that will lead to a well-paying career right after graduation.

Some have been predicting a shakeup of small regional colleges. David Greenstein, the provocative Director of the Postsecondary Success Strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stated in a December posting to Inside Higher Ed, “I have spent the last year talking with chancellors, provosts, faculty, policy makers, and education technologists. Pretty much all of them recognize that higher education is at a tipping point, and that it will soon look nothing like it does today, except perhaps at a few ivy-covered, well-endowed institutions.”

Greenstein’s remarks, especially when it comes to the role of technology in education innovation, may have to be taken with a grain of salt, as the focus and strategy, or some would say agenda, of the Gates Foundation when it comes to higher education is clear: “sophisticated technology-enabled teaching and student advising tools” are the solution.

However, Greenstein is not the only voice of warning. Articles continue to be published with headlines such as, Private Distress, Enrollment Woes, Enrollment Collapse, as well as the recurring reports from Moody’s on the state of tuition revenues for public and private education. A recent post on Inside Higher Ed reviewing a 2013 Moody’s tuition revenue report, quoted the report as saying the “’…institutions most at risk are regional public universities’ and ‘smaller private colleges lacking a well-defined niche.’”

The executive summary to WICHE’s 8th edition of Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates, reports that 23 states should anticipate dwindling (15% or more) or slowing (5-15%) production of high school graduates through 2027-2028, and another 5 states that will have a manageable (less than 5%) decline in graduates.

“While there is considerable variation among states, broad regional patterns are evident. In general, the South and the West are most likely to continue to see growth, while the Midwest and the Northeast can expect the greatest shrinkage.”

The Great Recession has certainly affected small liberal arts colleges in several ways, but primarily by making it more difficult for families to send their child to a traditional, residential, liberal arts college.

With high tuitions (even after discounting), family discretionary income going down, and private or federal PLUS loans more difficult to obtain, many families cannot find a way to cover the gap between institutional, state and federal financial aid and the cost of attendance. Or, they are reticent to take on significant debt to obtain a degree.

As the number of high school graduates decreases, and it becomes more difficult for those who are graduating to afford a traditional college education, many colleges, private and public, are expanding their admissions region to try to meet freshman enrollment goals. As state appropriations decline, (for example, MA spending on public higher education has decreased 31% between FY2001 and FY2013), many public institutions are looking to out-of-state students as a source of tuition revenue.

Tyler Kingkade reported for the Huffington Post, “States have long been slicing away higher ed appropriations, which has declined nationwide since 1985…However, there’s only so much they can raise tuition. Now state colleges are increasingly looking for non-residents, who pay a tuition bill sometimes as much as three times higher than in-state residents who are subsidized by state dollars.”

However, all is not dire. There are numerous examples of how small regional liberal arts colleges are looking at the challenges outlined here and seeing opportunities. And the continuing work of CIC and other organizations, such as, ACE and AACU, in framing the challenges and exploring solutions, is helping as well.

In part II, I will review strategies that small regional liberal arts colleges are using to link tradition and innovation.

One thought on “Tradition and Innovation: Essential to Small Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Tradition and Innovation at Small Liberal Arts Colleges: Part II—To Stand Still is to Go Back | Academe Blog

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