C&B Notes

Just Starting to Worry? May Already Be Too Late for Some…

The post-secondary education model continues to be challenged, with colleges and universities beginning to fully recognize the difficulties ahead (which have been further highlighted by the increasing public discourse about student loan debt and the potential problem it presents to graduates, particularly in tough job markets).  As explored in the appropriately titled article “Starting to Worry,” which appeared in a recent issue of Inside Higher Ed, Smith College (to their proactive credit) undertook a strategic thinking project entitled “The Futures Initiatives” to try to grapple with the changes on the horizon:

“The report — which outlines a series of studies the college is undertaking — talks about reconsidering not only the financial model of the institution, but also the types of students the women’s college attracts, ways it can move beyond the residential campus model, and how it goes about delivering instruction.”

As the article spends most of its time directly addressing, many of these challenges are particularly acute for private, liberal arts colleges:

“In the past year, presidents of several elite liberal arts colleges have questioned whether the financial model underpinning their institutions — one relying on high tuition costs and student aid paying for expensive instruction and residential life on beautiful campuses — is sustainable over the long term.  They have also begun to question whether the education they offer, with small classes, relatively rigid schedules, limited course and major offerings, and intense academic rigor, is going to continue to appeal to students.

“The model — if it’s not breaking — it’s showing signs of age,” said Richard Kneedler, former president of Franklin and Marshall College…”

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When Sewanee’s vice chancellor, John M. McCardell Jr., announced that the university would be dropping its tuition — then just over $46,000 per year — by 10 percent, he cited the fact that the university was losing admitted students to top-tier public universities with lower sticker prices, rather than other liberal arts colleges. “More and more families are telling us that they are basing their decision on price,” he said in February.  He said the current economic trends for liberal arts colleges are “unsustainable” and could represent “a slow death scenario.”

The Smith College report and Richard Kneedler summarize the situation well:

“While the cracks in the financial model are discussed most often, Smith’s report also notes that the college needs to begin thinking about new ways of delivering its education.

“An undergraduate education, once commonly undertaken in nine-month ‘academic years’ over a four-year period on a college campus, will become more discontinuous, self-schedule and customized,” states the Smith report. “Driven in part by the high cost of residential college education, students will seek to combine study at public universities, community colleges, online (often for-profit) institutions and residential colleges — and amass credit for these varied experiences.”

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Kneedler applauds colleges like Sewanee and Middlebury for taking steps to get ahead of the disruption that he says will eventually come their way, even if they’re not facing any immediate financial danger. “Their biggest concern should be complacency,” Kneedler said.  “In a troubled economy, they’re doing arguably quite well, and when you’re in that position it’s easy to be complacent and think that you don’t need to change.  But others are going to adapt.  This is a fast-changing environment.  If you fall behind it’s going to be harder and harder to catch up, and one day you could wake up and you could be in serious relevance trouble.  Economic certainty and security could work against creativity in the upper echelons.”

As a postscript, we could not resist pulling this nugget out of the article:

“One of the topics that will be hotly debated over the next few years is just how strongly institutions like Smith should cater to what students want — be it educational delivery methods or residential life — in an effort to attract them. “Just because that’s what the market wants doesn’t mean we have to deliver that,” [Alexandra] Keller [a professor of film studies and member of the Faculty Council at Smith] said.”