Mary Marcy is the president of the Dominican University of California and the author of "The Small College Imperative: Models for Sustainable Futures," forthcoming from Stylus Publishing.
The health of small independent colleges and universities is receiving increasing attention from both the higher education press and the general media. It is attention that seems to assume all but the most wealthy institutions are either in, or on their way to, hospice care.
Given the recent high-profile closures and the issues facing well-known colleges, such as Sweet Briar and Hampshire, this is understandable. But, like any story of an emerging trend, it merits deeper analysis.
This is why I took a brief sabbatical from my responsibilities as the president of a small independent university. I used the time to understand in more depth the emerging trends causing these important institutions to face such existential threats, and considered the responses that some independent colleges and universities are using to craft a more hopeful future.
It was an enlightening experience, aided (ironically) by the support of a much more well-resourced institution than those I was studying; my sabbatical included three months as a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. The results of that research were encouraging, if not straightforward.
While the challenges facing independent colleges and universities are receiving new attention, the issues are not news to these institutions. There is a decline in students of traditional college-going age, and those that are in the traditional age group are nontraditional in other ways — more likely to be first-generation, financially challenged and ethnically diverse. The business model for independent colleges has not recovered from the Great Recession, and most campuses have seen tuition revenue flatline. In recent years the demand for the traditional liberal arts has significantly declined, while online degrees are challenging the business model.
My research did not focus in-depth on these well-documented trends. Instead, it focused on the many ways small colleges and universities are responding to the challenges. A framework outlining their approaches is included in my forthcoming book on the topic. Not all of the efforts by these campuses are working. But there are consistent themes in their more promising innovations.
The most successful are responding to the needs of current and emerging students, not the students that attended decades ago. This may seem simple, but it is not. Most small colleges were created to serve students who were 18-22 years old, able to attend college full time, likely middle class or above, and predominantly white.
Today's students (and the demographics suggest these trends will only strengthen) are much more likely to be working at least part-time, are increasingly from ethnically diverse backgrounds, are often the first in their family to attend college, and just as often are Pell-grant eligible (indicating a high degree of financial need). And there is another problem: There are simply fewer students, another trend that will likely increase in the coming years.
Some campuses are responding to these changes by becoming minority-serving institutions. More than a change in nomenclature, campuses such as California Lutheran University and Trinity Washington University have added specific programs to respond to ethnically underrepresented students. California Lutheran University has become a Hispanic Serving Institution, a status that has led to grants supporting new Latinx hires and new programs that support student success. Meanwhile, Trinity, located in Washington, D.C., has dramatically expanded its African American enrollment to serve its region, and changed its curricular strategy away from open course selection to a scaffolded course sequence that provides a clear pathway to a degree and, ultimately, to a career.
Other campuses (including my own, Dominican University of California) are fully integrating research that identifies the most effective practices for student success.
For example, at Dominican all of our undergraduate students, regardless of their major, have an integrative coach. More than an advisor, this individual assists students in navigating college and career, guiding them toward reflection and opportunities such as internships, study abroad, double majors and minors, and options for life beyond college — opportunities that may not be obvious to students who are the first in their family to attend college, or who may be working 20 hours a week.
Agnes Scott College, in Georgia, also embraced best practices, developing a program that provides leadership training and study abroad experiences for all students. Both of these campuses undertook major curriculum reform to adapt to a changing student profile and provide space for responsive practices.
While the challenges facing independent colleges and universities are receiving new attention, the issues are not news to these institutions.
Some institutions are aligning their programs, and sometimes even their locations, more closely with the needs of their region. Chapman University in southern California has developed a process for adding programs and sites based on a thorough analysis of community needs in specific professions. It is currently developing a new site that will focus exclusively on the health sciences, an underserved need in the region. Utica College, in upstate New York, has developed a robust online curriculum, which provides some ballast for its relatively remote location.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the initiatives underway at independent colleges and universities. The headwinds are real, strong and not abating. But while the challenges may be new to much of the general public, they are not a surprise to many in the sector.
The result is that many new ideas and creative approaches are fully into the implementation stage, enough so that we can learn from their development, and be encouraged that independent colleges, so crucial to the larger higher ed ecosystem, have the capacity to adapt and remain viable in this challenging era.