Published on 2016/05/19

Reflections on the Future of Small, Private, Rural Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 2)

The EvoLLLution | Reflections on the Future of Small, Private, Rural Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 2)
Small, rural colleges cannot hope to remain viable and successful over the long term unless they maintain a strong understanding of the aspects that make their institutions stand out and keep their eyes open for new opportunities for growth.

This is the conclusion of a two-part series on the future for small, private, rural liberal arts colleges. In the first installment, Brown discussed the importance of adapting to shifting market conditions and being open to change and innovation. In this conclusion, she shares some tips that could help institutions remain viable over the long term.

Events at Sweet Briar College over the past year have a lot of relevance for other small, private colleges—especially those in small, rural communities and/or those that are single sex. But most small colleges have concluded that they are different from Sweet Briar, implying that they will never face the circumstances that Sweet Briar has.

Still, some suggestions seem appropriate for all such colleges:

1. Consider the Market for Education Now

According to Robert Zemsky, who has spent a lifetime studying the higher education markets, students of today are not seeking “better teaching, more engagement, more affordable as well as accountable institutions.” What they are seeking is “not traditionally configured colleges and universities, but those like the University of Phoenix; they alone fully understand that in a flat world networks and convenience matter most.”

2. Rural Is Not Safer

Do not assume that because your institution is in an isolated part of the country, you are protected from the forces that impact colleges in more metropolitan areas. Mark Twain is reported to have said that when the world comes to an end, he wanted to be in Kentucky because everything happens there 25 years later. He could have referred to multiple regions of the country where small colleges continue to operate in a world remote not only in distance but also in culture from the more prosperous sections of the US. In those rural settings, mission often matters more than markets. But even in such communities, small, privately-owned businesses are rapidly declining in favor of megastores, such as Walmart and Lowe’s. It seems only a matter of time before those living in such areas will reach beyond the nearby and well known to find lower-cost and/or more appropriate options for education.

3. Look Globally

Recruit international students vigorously. They can add valuable diversity to a campus. But do not count on them to save your college. Again according to Zemsky, that approach holds little promise for the small colleges across the US, especially those in rural areas.

4. Be Aware of Market Trends

Pay attention to what is attracting students to other colleges. Some small colleges have been able to build online programs that have attracted students by offering both unusual degrees and/or usual degrees that do not seem as academically threatening as those made available by research universities or elite private colleges. The future for colleges that are not willing or able to change their core operations or values is not promising. And future prosperity for the small colleges willing to change is not guaranteed because the major universities (private and public) have the resources that almost guarantee they will reap most of the benefits in this competitive race. It has taken many small colleges far too long to incorporate the use of technology into their curricula. They lost valuable time in building such programs to interest contemporary students in their institutions. Having a Starbucks nearby probably isn’t critical to the success of a college, but having access to current technologies is.

5. Stay True to Your Differentiators

Do not let the power to ignore problems overshadow efforts to examine the services being delivered by your college for their relevance and quality. Be realistic about what your institution offers in today’s market.

Looking to the Future

The response of a friend (edited here for clarity) who heard about my struggle to convince small colleges that they need to change to remain relevant reflects much of my thinking and concern:

Those small colleges were once established by people who loved and had deep concerns for the future of young people of their communities. I respect and admire them. But time moves on. It is a nostalgic story. What we honor in nostalgic stories are the spirit of the people who built new institutions for the future of young people and their communities.

When those institutions are no longer functioning for the future of young people, they are bound to be gone. People always choose for their own advantage. We saw the rise of cities, hospitals, and many other social institutions. What worries me with the rise of bigger systems is that, as they get bigger, they normally diminish their concern for individual aspirations of young people for the sake of the systems.

What is critical is that some of the small, private, rural, liberal arts colleges survive to serve those who need the special attention and cultural understanding of life in rural communities. For that to happen, some such colleges will likely have to significantly change their institutions, or close and let those willing to innovate preserve the mission that many colleges have maintained in the past.

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