When the president of Sweet Briar College, a small women’s liberal arts college in Virginia, recently decided to close the 114 year-old institution, it sent a shockwave through higher education. Commentators have attributed this action to a variety of factors, including the “increasing irrelevance of the small liberal arts and ‘bible’ colleges.” Others have suggested that such schools are now in a “death spiral,” the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” or, the “first domino to fall.”
Such metaphors are overblown and the specifics need to be discussed. While a 2012 Bain Report did point out that many colleges and universities have business models that will NOT sustain their operations long term, it did little to spell out actions that could lead to alternative outcomes. Perhaps, we should also question whether this singular event is all that significant in a country with more than 7,000 accredited institutions of higher education and a “normal” closure rate of five to six per year.
As the home of Educators Serving Educators (ESE), a non-profit consulting and solutions provider, Excelsior College has had the opportunity to assess the operations of a growing number of smaller institutions, and to assist them in developing new approaches to the delivery of instruction; market expansion; and student enrollment.
While some of ESE’s client institutions could be characterized as struggling in some essential areas, this is not the case for all. Many have effectively repositioned themselves through deliberate processes of research, analysis, and fundamental change in both curricula and student recruitment. Others, including most of ESE-supported schools, have elected to better serve existing students, while also attracting new ones, via online and post-traditional programs.
The most significant difference between the struggling schools and those in control of their future is the awareness of the need for change – sometimes in very profound ways. This is not easy.