When Lori Varlotta took over as Hiram College's president in the summer of 2014, the institution was plagued with problems that have long bedeviled small liberal arts colleges nationwide.
Hiram, which is located in a northeastern Ohio village, along with its peer institutions, have suffered from spiraling enrollments. That's due in part to students' waning interest in the liberal arts coupled with shrinking endowments and growing competition in higher ed.
Varlotta championed what she believed would be an innovative fix to these issues. She and the college's senior leaders have dubbed it "the new liberal arts," a vast curriculum shift that blends Hiram's liberal arts legacy with more scientific and technology-focused programs.
They didn't stop there.
In September, the college announced that beginning in the fall of 2020 it would slash its posted tuition price from $37,710 annually to $24,500, a 35% reduction. The new price includes mandatory fees but not room and board, which runs just under $10,000 a year, according to Varlotta. Concerns from parents and others that the college was unaffordable led to the cut, she said, adding that Hiram's discount rate is in the high-50% range for first-time students.
That's slightly above the average tuition discount rate for those students across all private nonprofit four-year colleges last year, 52.2%, as tracked by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
The deal gets sweeter. In an offer unique across higher ed, students can enroll in two summer classes for free. That could help them graduate early, add another major or catch up if they have fallen behind in their studies so they can finish their degree on time, Varlotta told Education Dive in an interview.
A "generous six-figure gift" from an alumna who asked to remain anonymous also lets the college add paid, on-campus internships for 100 students, Varlotta said.
"It's more than a tuition reset, it's a new tuition model. Hiram is out front in terms of changes we need to make," she said. "We have not been stifled by the liberal arts challenges, but proactive and creative in how we deal with it."
The transformation has been marketed as edgy and exciting, designed to attract not only students matriculating from high school but also adult learners who need to learn new skills or gain a credential, Varlotta said.
But more than anything, these changes are born out of necessity, to preserve the college's financial health and ensure its long-term survival.
The population of potential adult students is of particular interest to Hiram, she said. After one tumbledown residence hall closed, college officials didn't make plans to renovate it because they weren't sure whether they wanted to attract traditional students or more adult learners going forward.
Although the institution has pulled in significant new alumni contributions, enrollment has been stagnant. (Around the time of her arrival, the college collected between $4 million and $5 million in donations every year, and in the last four years, it has reached $10 million annually.)
Roughly 1,200 students are enrolled at Hiram, and about 150 of those are adult learners, Varlotta said.
The transition, astoundingly rapid for academe, has been far from smooth. Part of the process included moves to cut the college's $30 million operating budget by more than $1 million. Six faculty positions were cut as a result, including two tenured professors. Thirteen employees had already been laid off in 2016.
Generally, tenured faculty members can't be fired unless an institution has declared financial exigency, which suggests it is at immediate risk of closure. But Hiram officials did not make that declaration before the layoffs, so professors feared for their jobs, said John McNay, president of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the state branch of the faculty union, in an interview with Education Dive.
"We have not been stifled by the liberal arts challenges, but proactive and creative in how we deal with it."
President, Hiram College
Hiram's AAUP chapter scrambled last year to reconvene, though its members have not met in a year or so, Varlotta said. Hiram faculty members declined Education Dive's request for an interview submitted through AAUP.
The state AAUP stepped in publicly to defend the professors because it was concerned about the potential for more tenured faculty to be laid off without the college demonstrating that it was in a fiscal crisis, McNay said.
"We think it would have been worse if we hadn't been involved," he said in a phone interview. "They moderated their plan toward the end, in part because they listened to their faculty."
Still, the new measures face scrutiny.
For instance, in 2017, Hiram announced its Tech and Trek program, which provides full-time students with an iPad and encourages them to step out of the classroom and document the world, including the winding hiking trails and fauna around campus.
Though the iPads were covered by a $2.1 million donation, and AAUP appreciates creative learning strategies, "it looks bad" to its members following the faculty layoffs, McNay said.
"Too many of our universities have upside-down priorities and get sidetracked on shiny things," he said.
Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University English professor who writes extensively about higher education and the liberal arts, told Education Dive that institutions such as Hiram need to reinvent themselves given that cornerstone liberal arts majors such as English and history are in rapid decline. A 2017 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found English degrees conferred to students fell by 17% over a three-year period.
Traditional studies should be preserved, but adding vocational programs to the mix behooves these institutions. Hiram has launched programs in computer science and integrative exercise science, disciplines far removed from the liberal arts.
"If you want to expand the curriculum to more utilitarian fields of study, I have no problem with that," Bauerlein said.
The mood among faculty is improving as Hiram presses forward, Varlotta said. Tenured professors presented to the board of trustees last week, and during that meeting they indicated they were more satisfied than a year ago, she said.
"We were a community under strain," Varlotta said. "You can't go through any type of downsizing and reinvestments and not be a community that is in stress ... but people are starting to see the fruits of our collective labor."