Last month I joined the Teagle Assessment Scholars at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. I’m new to this group but it’s been around for more than a decade, drawing applicants from all over the country. Many participants work at private liberal arts colleges, a lot like Franklin Pierce itself.
Over the course of the meeting, I was repeatedly impressed by how urgent assessment is for colleges like Franklin Pierce. They need to explain, quantify, and demonstrate learning not just for quality control and accreditation, but also to protect their very survival.
I’m as pained as anyone by the broken higher education business model, but cushioned by working in the public sector, on tax money, in a blue state. My job is relatively secure.
But for most of my colleagues last month, that’s not the case. Their institutions are on shakier fiscal ground. Three weeks after we met, Marygrove College in Michigan announced it was closing its undergraduate programs, for many of the same, entirely financial reasons.
First, there’s pricing. The smaller privates charge tuition lower than their headline-making counterparts in the Ivy League, but fees are still high and rising fast. So even though they’re relative bargains, few families can afford the sticker price. And so, to stay in business, these less-famous privates cut further, offering deep discounts to the majority of their students.
Demographics can make this worse. Most colleges are regional, and some parts of the country face a dwindling pool of college-age recruits. Along with New Hampshire, we had colleagues from the states of New York, Maine, and – yes – Michigan. In these places, purveyors of baccalaureate education undercut each other to maintain a viable share of a shrinking market.
On the cost side, they face the same pressures as other businesses whose raw material is people: rising cost of labor, rising health and retirement obligations, and a product – personally facilitated intellectual development – that just doesn’t lend itself to automation or outsourcing.
Against this background, about 20 of us gathered for a two-day exercise imagining a financially sane college of the future.
Organized by the Wabash Center of Inquiry, the meeting had as its centerpiece a diabolical Excel spreadsheet, whose elegantly linked and cross-referencing formulas enforced a framework for solvency. There were credit hours connected to salary, class sizes and admission profiles connected to graduation rates, and fluid assignments of workload to staff and faculty.
This really is a picture of it:
There were ways to make it all work, but as you’d expect, the default solution was to stick to the present business model, but make everyone work harder. You stuff more students into each classroom, you pile on the teaching load, and eventually you break kind of even.
At the places where I’ve been employed these strategies are already played out. For one, faculty are teaching an awful lot. For another, the hours left outside of the classroom are also put to valuable use, in research, advising, and the kind of service that runs the university. Such work may not be monetized, but it does have value.
About a month after we met, the Council of Independent Colleges released a TIAA-funded report called The Financial Resilience of Independent Colleges and Universities. Its mostly upbeat tone leads with this statistic: despite the headlines, 67% of all small- and medium-sized colleges are doing fine financially.
I’m not sure I’d find that consoling. It’s a little like getting compelled to play Russian Roulette with two bullets, but told to relax because four rounds are missing.
At the Teagle workshop, the best solutions departed from the current business model more adventurously. There was a lot of interest in prior learning assessment, for example, as an alternative to offering expensive classes in things students already know.
One of the best models proposed higher ed outposts embedded with employers and businesses throughout the community, extensions of the home campus that would make it easier for non-traditional students to fit us into the crevices in their lives – for example, middle-aged learners checking in at a local storefront study hall as part of their broader retooling. No one familiar with community colleges would call these approaches new, but the marriage to liberal arts colleges is.
These private colleges are old institutions, designed to do more life preparation than job training. Keeping them in business will mean offering that transformational, versatile growth in a format that’s available, accessible, and fiscally sustainable.
And doing that means stepping back from our current business model, while counting on the assessment of student learning to keep us honest.
Image credit: Dennis Mires; Spring Mall, Malaysia