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The Shape of Things to Come: Five Changes To Move Off Sweet Briar’s Path

The EvoLLLution | The Shape of Things to Come- Five Changes to Move Off Sweet Briar's Path
Long-term viability requires institutions of all shapes and size to re-assess their priorities and business processes.

Critics used to deride the use of business terminology to speak about higher education. Students were not “consumers” because higher education was not a “business.” Twenty years ago, even a decade ago, the language of the market seemed anathema to many of us in academe. Such language was akin to having moneychangers in the temple.

The 21st century, however, has seen academe being subsumed by the market. I certainly appreciate those of us who make forlorn calls for the noble aspirations of what academic life might once have been and perhaps one day could become again. At the same time, given the pace of change, if colleges and universities don’t get more with it, they will go out of business.

To many of us, Sweet Briar College’s closure is not a singular example of a mismanaged institution but the proverbial canary in the coalmine. Many of our postsecondary institutions—especially under-endowed small liberal arts colleges—have to start changing or they will close. What needs to happen?

1. Understand the impulse of bureaucracy to expand

There should be no surprise that the fastest growing component of higher education is administration. We hire people and they do their jobs and justify themselves by saying they need more administrators. We don’t. Cut administration by 20 percent.

2. Stop mom-and-pop admissions offices

Admissions is a science not an art. Just the way Billy Beane transformed baseball with sabermetrics, we’ve got to get away from the way we used to admit students. We need targeted approaches that yield substantial results. Small liberal arts colleges can be the Oakland A’s of higher education—but not the way they currently go about doing admissions.

3. Have faculty focus on accomplishments rather than publications and presentations

Who cares if the guy has published 100 articles but no one has read them? Why give tenure to someone who writes stuff that has zero impact? Why tenure someone whose students don’t learn anything? Tenure should remain, but how we judge it has to change. Focus on impact, not output.

4. Level the playing (paying) field

Higher education is supposed to be a beacon, not a follower. So why do we have administrators making so much money when we pay workers such a paltry salary? The point should not be to break the back of a union when we’ve got administrators making a million bucks and have a limo carrying them back and forth to work. “Let them eat cake” should not be the adage for an institution that subscribes to the notion of being the great equalizer.

5. Speed things up

Why the heck does it take so long to get students a college degree? Have them start taking classes in the spring term of senior year in high school; nothing happens then other than deciding who to take to the prom. Have classes in the summer before freshman year. Have a state of the art on-line course that goes for one year so that by the start of their sophomore year students are almost juniors. Enable students to graduate in three years rather than having graduation rates over a six-year time horizon.

There are lots of good reasons not to do these things. But if we don’t start doing smart things we’re going to go out of business.

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