What’s “Secret Sauce” of This Small, Private College’s Success?

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

Writing in a recent front-page story in the Boston Globe, Deirdre Fernandez reported that Merrimack College “has recalibrated its approach to move away from the traditional liberal arts offering – and the strategy is working.”

Ms. Fernandez noted that Merrimack is among a handful of small private colleges that have avoided drastic financial steps, despite changing demographics and the consumer revolt against high sticker prices. She argues that Merrimack’s success is exceptional, especially in the highly competitive admissions market in the Northeast.

Merrimack College studentsIn fact, Merrimack’s enrollment has increased by more than 60 percent from 2300 students in 2011 to 3,780 students last year. The college expects its second largest first-year enrollment in September.

I should offer a disclaimer that I am a Merrimack graduate and have served both as a trustee and the chair of the Board. But that having been said, what happened at Merrimack is illustrative of the broader changes that must occur across higher education.

Focus on Tech and Health Science Programs

Ms. Fernandez rightly attributes much of the enrollment growth to the College’s determination to aggressively support programs in health science, business, and engineering to reflect the steady growth of these sectors as foundational pillars in the Boston “eds and meds” high and biotech economy.

Fernandez argues that this represents a move away from the humanities toward more practical education that serves the workforce needs of the Boston region.

Sophisticated Financial Aid Targets Right Students

Ms. Fernandez also reports that Merrimack has worked extraordinarily hard to develop a sophisticated financial aid model, targeting the right students rather than simply the best scoring ones:

“The effort has become so sophisticated that the College uses an outside consultant and computer algorithms to dole out financial aid, ensuring that students who visit often and want to come to the school get more money, instead of simply offering the biggest scholarships to students with the best grades who are weighing several options.”

The Globe article suggests that the redefinition of the college’s product – in this case, attention to academic program differentiation – enabled Merrimack to emerge from the pack of other good schools working to define their future.

Strategic Allocation of Resources to Boost Enrollment Growth

But the hidden story behind the obvious lessons that Merrimack provides on enrollment growth is that its leadership of trustees, faculty, and administrative staff determined what resources they had to use, where investments made the best sense, and how to tie issues such as enrollment growth to strategy.

It’s much more complicated than what even the most significant financial aid modeling could provide.

The transformation begins with leadership. When Merrimack College sought a new president in 2010, its Board consciously made a determination to seek the right person for that moment in the College’s history, choosing a senior Northeastern University official, Dr. Christopher Hopey, as its new leader. What attracted the search committee to Mr. Hopey was the range and complexity of his experience, a successful track record in growing programs at Northeastern, and a clearly articulated vision of where a tuition-dependent college should head in its service market.

The new president also understood the need to build on Merrimack’s sense of self, appreciated the limits of the cards that were dealt to him, and could execute, assess, and modify the combination of people, programs, and facilities that Merrimack must have to become a sustainable college.

The Board of Trustees also looked hard at itself, determined to keep its noses in but fingers out of the tent. First, the board established what it needed to know and then looked at what it did not know.

The college’s new administration found a rare combination of external in-residence expertise, new hires, and consultants who built from the Augustinian traditions that shaped Merrimack’s traditions, pushing aside the inertia that defines so many college campuses.

Merrimack moved quickly to support its newly differentiated programs. But what’s missing from the Globe article is that while Merrimack ramped up professional programs tied to the regional economy, it remained true to the core tenets of the liberal arts. Students still graduated with an ability to speak, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting.

This combination of the liberal arts tradition washing over its professional programs is Merrimack’s equivalent of the “secret sauce” that separates the College from its peers.

Ultimately, the lesson from Merrimack College is similar to that learned from other colleges and universities that took off as they differentiated themselves. Examples include Elon University, SUNY Geneseo, and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo although the circumstances are different on each campus.

The cold fact is that there is no simple strategy to build sustainable growth on a college campus. The solution instead begins with an understanding of who the institution is and how the pieces fit together.

While on the Merrimack campus not too long ago, I ran into the women’s basketball coach – also a former colleague from an institution where we had both worked. Without prompting, she spoke passionately about how she loved working at Merrimack because she felt the momentum that the changes had made possible each day.

That’s the best success metric for any college in the end. The right kind of change builds momentum. You know it when you feel it.

This article first appeared on the blog of The Edvance Foundation

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