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Niches and Strategic Partnerships: Central to Success for Smaller Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Niches and Strategic Partnerships: Central to Success for Smaller Institutions
The changes happening across the postsecondary industry have created some unique challenges for smaller colleges and universities, who must adapt to continue to serve their students.

Today’s higher education marketplace presents some unique and significant challenges for smaller colleges and universities, especially those that are publicly funded. Plummeting state revenues, criticism over tuition rates and an expectation from students for “more” have combined with a range of other factors to create a difficult scenario for institutional leaders. In this interview, Martin Tadlock expands on the challenges leaders of smaller institutions are grappling with and shares his thoughts on what it takes for these colleges and universities to stand out and succeed in today’s competitive environment.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant challenges smaller colleges and universities are facing in today’s postsecondary environment?

Martin Tadlock (MT): I believe there are some common issues among this group, which include:

  1. Enrollment, specifically a decrease in the number of traditional first year/full-time residential freshmen population
  2. Affordability, which includes such things as time to degree, student debt, and cost of attendance
  3. Declining perception in the public arena concerning the value of a college education, despite data that shows the value of a college degree has never been higher
  4. The international search and competition for talent as the world flattens
  5. Declining state support, yet no decrease in regulation and restrictions or in accountability measures and reporting
  6. The public mindset of education as a commodity, source of credentialing, and/or a pathway to the world of work

Evo: To your mind, why have these challenges come about?

MT: The traditional residential university experience is a costly route for an increasingly large percentage of the population. That is a lived reality for low- to middle-income Americans who have experienced an erosion of spendable income over the past decade.

Another challenge is the disruptive effect of technology, which now provides wider access to the acquisition of knowledge, the ability to share information, and pathways to collaboration far beyond what was known in my generation. Young people now expect—and take for granted—that learning will include engagement of those technologies regardless of where they pursue their education. Many faculty members aren’t prepared for, or in some cases willing to, engage with technology to the extent students expect.

In my opinion, another challenge is the continual push to privatize, corporatize and commoditize education: the for-profit realm. Individuals who profit from the packaging and distribution of knowledge influence policy setting and decision making at state and national levels and also promote (inadvertently or not) a view that education is a private good. Huge amounts of money are poured into marketing and promotions to sell the product of education. After all, in the for-profit world, education is and must be a business. In the non-profit, public world education has historically been viewed as a common good—that an educated citizenry is essential to the health of a democracy, that education should be accessible to everyone, and that being educated is about much more than job preparation. There are few dollars available to promote that message.

Evo: How can smaller institutions today stand out among the numerous other colleges and universities?

MT: This is tough when you are a regional, comprehensive university similar to where I have worked throughout my career, but I believe it comes down to this: Being distinctive and achieving a focus are critical to standing out.

That means that we can’t be all things to all people, and we can’t continue to engage in historical or culturally driven practices of the past. This also means that the community or region where the university or college is situated must be educated about the challenges and changes needed for a college or university to be sustainable well into the future. We all need to engage in a process called “reinvention” which is long overdue in higher education, particularly in tuition-dependent, comprehensive state universities.

Evo: What are a few of the changes Bemidji State has made to stand out and succeed in today’s challenging postsecondary environment?

MT: First, we expanded our number of international and domestic partnerships since we believe that a collaborative orientation is in direct opposition to the current commodification of higher education and will lead to a more sustainable future.

Domestically, we partnered with four tribal colleges to create a consortium in northern Minnesota to work on more seamless transferability of courses/programs, develop cooperative course delivery using telepresence classrooms, and to share practices that may provide more successful outcomes for our indigenous students. We also added several partnerships with two-year Minnesota Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) colleges to deliver degree completion programs on site for place-bound adults while continuing to expand the number of blended/online programs and courses offered by our on-campus faculty members.

Internationally, we added several partners to build affordable education and work-abroad opportunities for our students, articulated programs with those partners to increase transfer student numbers, and expanded our international recruitment efforts.

Secondly, we reached into the community to form new partnerships that enhance town/gown relationships while bringing the university presence much more front and center in the city than it has historically been. We raised our visibility and reputation in the region.

Finally, we created a master academic plan to identify and promote distinctive programming within our existing academic array while deliberately investing in programs that directly connect to regional and state workforce needs and student demand.

Evo: What do you think the future holds for smaller colleges and universities?

MT: In many ways, innovation is antithetical to the academy, which places full faith in the canon. Stakeholders are less and less enamored by the canon and similar artifacts, seeing them as arrogant and out-of-touch with reality.

Despite that, I believe the future is full of opportunity if we are willing to let go of historically restrictive thinking, unsuited to the current era (characterized by rapid social change, intrusive technology, etc.) that limits our ability to address that future. It will require creative faculty and staff in partnership with all stakeholders to “confront the brutal facts” and rethink historical practices. We are a people enterprise, so the willingness to change and the innovative thinking needed to move forward is dependent upon individuals engaged in this work. People built what we now have, and we can certainly build what we need for the future.

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