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Serving Local Community Critical for Small Institution Success

AUDIO | Serving Local Community Critical for Small Institution Success
Smaller institutions are positioned to succeed in the commoditized higher education marketplace by maintaining their focus on meeting local needs and serving local stakeholders.

The following interview is with Rick Holmgren, vice president for Information Services and Planning at Allegheny College. Holmgren has spent his career at the small liberal arts college and is constantly thinking about how the institution will fare in the future. As the higher education industry has become more commoditized, this line of thinking is all the more critical. In this interview, Holmgren shares his thoughts on what smaller institutions must do going forward to compete and succeed in the hypercompetitive higher education marketplace, and explains what differentiates smaller institutions from larger ones with more resources at their disposal.

1. As the higher education industry is becoming increasingly competitive, what differentiates smaller colleges and universities from the rest of the market?

We should really start with thinking about how these institutions are the same. … I would argue that there’s a difference in how a course might be delivered on a small campus as opposed to a large campus but, I think, from the public perception, especially from the way we transfer courses between institutions, we really communicate there is no difference. And so, from a public perception, the general education courses … [are] the same at one institution versus the other.

We have to recognize that we need to figure out a way to create differentiation in an environment where, from the market’s perspective, not much differentiation exists.

So, where’s that differentiation going to be? There was recently an interesting piece by David Brooks in the New York Times … in which he talks about the difference between practical knowledge and technical knowledge. At the level of technical knowledge — which is, sort of, the facts and figures and how things work — there really isn’t perhaps that much difference [between small and large schools]. We use the same textbook at Allegheny College, where I work, as, say, the University of Maryland or the University of Michigan. We might be using the same textbook, we might be having in some sense the same kinds of exams at the end of the semester — students are being asked to know the same kinds of concepts. But where we might differentiate ourselves at a smaller institution is that we can engage students more in what Brooks called the ‘practical knowledge’: How do these concepts apply to the world around us? How do they apply in my life? How do they apply when I’m out in the community trying to help a local organization, a non-profit organization, say? …

I think that’s the area where, because we’re smaller, because we have a lower student-faculty ratio, we’re able to do that kind of practical, “How does this make a difference in the world?” kind of work more effectively than others.

What we need to do, though, is tell that story, help our potential audience know what it is that we can do in terms of helping students, really, not only pass the exam, but so that the coursework fundamentally shifts their approach to solving problems in the real world.

2. How does a commoditized higher education industry impact smaller institutions? Are they at a disadvantage compared to larger institutions?

Well, I think [small colleges] are at a disadvantage in some ways. For example, if you look at the non-traditional student market — I think a lot of smaller institutions have been using non-traditional students as a way to increase their revenues — if you look at that market, I think we are in some ways at disadvantage. …

[Competency-based] programs are really good for a non-traditional student who might have some life experience that they can translate into a degree credit and, so, in a competency-based system they’ll be able to work more effectively while still being at their jobs and while still not having to go to class. I guess that’s the big thing, the physical location. A lot of the smaller schools, what we have that’s different is our residential environment … or, if not residential, at least we have a community environment where we’re working together in a small area. We build the trust and the familiarity among our students so that they can support one another in their learning, and I think, to the extent that we can leverage that, we’ll be able to differentiate ourselves and be able to compete in the market really effectively because that’s something we can do well at a small school.

But on the other hand, we have to recognize that there’s a pretty high cost to potential students if being part of that community means that they need to give up 10 or 20 hours a week on a regular basis on a set schedule to show up and work face-to-face or even in an online environment. That can be a real barrier for them to move into or join with our institutions.

The other thing we need to recognize: If you look at MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] and products like that, as they figure out how to do assessment in those environments and in other places, it’s very easy to see how, for these non-traditional students, economies of scale really take over. … The marginal cost of one additional student — once you get up to talking about thousands of students in a course — the marginal cost for an additional student might be close to zero. At our institution, the smaller schools … we don’t have those kinds of economies of scale. We’re not going to as long as we remain small schools. So, we need to think about, coming back to something of what I said earlier, how do we leverage the small campus, the small environment, so we’re really doing something different? And how do we show the market that what we have is something special and that it does add something beyond what you get out of participating in 32 MOOCs, getting credit for them, and calling that a degree?

3. How would, and should, the ideal small institution operate in this hypercompetitive, commoditized marketplace?

One of the things that we’re doing at Allegheny College … is building a new program that is explicitly focused on how it is that our students are going to have the skills and how are they going to practice the skills to solve problems. Our mission statement says that our graduates are going to be able to solve problems in a complex, diverse world. And so, how is it that we’re going to demonstrate that they can do that? We need to actually get them to engage with real-world problems in some kind of structured environment where they can learn from that engagement, where they understand how to learn from that kind of engagement. In some ways, it’s great if they can go out there and solve problems; it’s even better if you can go out there and solve a problem and, in the process, learn how to generalize that so you can help solve problems again and again. I think we can do that in the small colleges, really engaging in our community and being much more committed to our local community. We can do that much better than a large institution, like Western Governors, where they’re not place-based.

So, if you think about, how do we leverage the place that we have? How do we leverage the fact that we are place-based? I saw an article in The Chronicle Review this past week in which the author talked about thinking in terms of produced local knowledge [and the] farmers’ market. Even in an era where, say, Wal-Mart must be one of the nation’s largest grocers (I don’t know that to be true, but they are one of the largest retailers in my experience) — in an environment where Wal-Mart has really captured a lot of that market, farmers’ markets are still thriving and new farmers’ markets are springing up because they focus on local. Our business is a little different, obviously, but I think we should ask the same question, “What is it that’s special about our location?” And that answer will be different, of course, for every institution because every institution is in a different and unique environment. And we need to think about that: How are we leveraging our environment because we are a place-based?

That is what will differentiate us from large institutions based in the cloud because they’re not place based by their very nature, and we have to understand how that matters, how to work on that, how to build on that to create something that’s very meaningful to our students.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the potential disadvantage smaller institutions are at in a commoditized higher education marketplace and strategies they need to implement to avoid this disadvantage?

I guess I would flip the question. The other advantage we have at small institutions, especially traditional liberal arts college, small colleges like Allegheny, is … we offer a place that’s a good transition for students as they move out of the home and into the community. We can do that in ways that I think … students and their families appreciate as a safe place for them to experiment and to grow as individuals and to develop. Eighteen to 22 is an interesting transitional time for all of us and, so, as students move through that time, the small college offers a pretty good environment, at least for many of our students. … I think that is a place of strength where we can think about, “How do we leverage that [intrinsic strength] in order to move forward?”

At the same time, cost is a real issue, so we need to attend to making [small college, place-based education] accessible to the vast majority of families and focus on not just the elite few but, really, how we continue to make a small college experience accessible to the broad swath of students that are out there and able to benefit from that environment.

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