The Benefits of an Innovative Culture at Smaller Colleges

The EvoLLLution | The Benefits of an Innovative Culture at Smaller Colleges
Smaller institutions are under more pressure than ever to innovate or collapse—weathering the storm is simply no longer an option for most institutions. This requires leaders and staff across the institution to have a creative mindset, and be willing to experiment and evolve.

Smaller colleges and universities across the United States are facing some of the most challenging market conditions in the history of the American postsecondary industry. Facing an array of challenges—including increasing costs, changing demographics, growing scrutiny and immense competition—these institutions that have long been bastions of the traditional academy are being forced to innovate or disappear. In this interview, Shane Garrison discusses how his institution is evolving to thrive under these challenging market conditions and reflects on what it takes to foster an innovative culture at a smaller institution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the unique challenges facing smaller, private colleges today?

Shane Garrison (SG): We are a faith-based organization of Christian heritage and background, meaning we do not receive public funds from the state. So making affordability a reality for all types of students is a challenge we continually face. Affordability never goes away and it is never far from our minds.

One of the solutions that we’ve brought to the table is to constantly be thinking of multiple modalities—multiple pathways as we call them—to allow students multiple avenues to seek out higher education. We offer six different pathways all with different and varying rates of affordability and credentialing. There’s enough choice available to prevent anyone from saying, “College is just not for me.”

A second challenge that smaller, traditional institutions face is having the wherewithal to think creatively with limited resources. They might have a smaller faculty base and may not be located in a place that’s accessible to every major highway or major city. However, they must think creatively about how to reach student populations through all the different modalities whether it is on campus, traditional, residential, whether that’s through a regional location, whether that’s through a dual-credit program or online. There must be a creative perspective if you’re going to be smaller and more traditionally minded.

Evo: How can an innovative and experiment-focused culture help smaller institutions overcome some of those obstacles?

SG: I think you have to be willing to experiment for short periods of time with strategies that do not fit inside the traditional bubble. For example, for us, our online presence has been fairly strong for about 12 years. However, we had to experiment with placing a good number of full four-year bachelor’s degree programs online, something our university had never done. We had associate programs, we had graduate programs but we had to add bachelor programs online. We did it for three or four years in the experimental phase and noticed these were actually strong and it was building a beautiful pathway between our associate two-year programs and the four-year programs and continuing into graduate programs.

We are experimenting now with an international recruiting partnership and giving it two to three years to see what happens. It has been very successful thus far. This model has created a culture where we can experiment.

Evo: What does it take to foster such a culture at these smaller institutions?

SG: The private Christian university must adopt a survival mentality and that’s the only thing I can think to call it. There is the reality that if you don’t diversify, if you fail to be creative, if you fail to try new things, you’re on the verge of folding. In Kentucky, two faith-based colleges folded within a span of about three years, and I think that created an urgency to avoid that fate. We have to be willing to try, create and experiment to survive, and that means doing things that we’ve never done before.

Evo: Reflecting back on your own experience, what did it take to generate support for the online and hybrid model that’s helping drive enrollment growth at CU?

SG: Online specifically is really where I get excited. We had tiptoed into the online world, and knew that if we were going to do it we had to get all the way in or all the way out. We were not doing well with our minimal investment in online education. Online didn’t come up overnight. It was happening as a larger trend in higher education and for a good period of time Campbellsville University was on the edge, but we couldn’t commit to it. We needed some encouragement and some guidance and in this regard the relationship and the strategic partnership with The Learning House evolved to meet that need. Even though we had been with Learning House for 14 years as one of its partners, we needed to step into a much more developed relationship with more defined goals. To be very transparent, it was hard at first to get the two cultures to meet, but after about eight months, 12 months at the most, we saw results. You don’t grow 70 percent year-over-year in anything in higher education without strong partnerships.

Evo: How can different smaller institutions across the country determine whether focusing on online and hybrid programming is right for them?

SG: We are operating under a thesis that our president likes to call the opportunity thesis, and it’s very simple: If we provide no opportunity for students to enroll, no students will enroll. But if we provide opportunity for students to enroll, we will discern whether the market is saying that there is a need. The opportunity thesis is something that we speak about quite regularly here because if we don’t create opportunities, we’re really never going to know if the need is present. We applied this method to the online space and place programs online to see if the market matched the need. If it’s really a need we’ll have students, and if it’s not we won’t. It’s the same for cosmetology. Are there cosmetology students who want a faith-based cosmetology program in multiple cities in Kentucky? Let’s test it out and see what happens. In the international market, are there students who have a need for information technology or cybersecurity or computer science? Let’s put out an opportunity. We think there are, let’s make an opportunity available and see what happens. That’s been our modis operandi for the last four or five years, and it seems as though we have begun to move in a very positive enrollment pattern because of those opportunities.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about taking a small, relatively niche institution into these much bigger waters of the online market and the international market?

SG: We have experienced a nice season of growth, but it has been absolutely important for us to remain knitted to our mission and our vision. We understand who we are historically, we understand who we are in the present and we know exactly who we are going to be in the future. We’re going to be a faith-based, Christ-centered, church-connected school that focuses on changing lives and preparing Christian servant leaders. Whether it’s online, regional, technology, allied health, cosmetology or dual credit, our mission has been critical, and if we had wavered on that then some of these opportunities would not have been successful. But because our mission and vision permeated into those modalities, we’ve been able to stay anchored to who we are as an organization. One example of that is in online education. We knew that we were moving into hundreds of fully online students from 35 states who will never ever come to the main campus and go to a chapel program. We knew we had to solve that issue and still remain rooted to our mission and vision. So we created an online chapel which basically is an archive of the main campus chapel services with some weekly connection points, prayer forums and Bible study content that can be downloaded, along with contact for campus ministry. Staying rooted to our mission and vision said to the now nearly 1,000 online students that this school is trying to stay true to our roots. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying to never let that rootedness go away from our extended modalities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Smaller institutions, especially smaller private institutions, face significant challenges in terms of managing costs, navigating shifting demographics and broadening access pathways.
  • Creative thinking bolstered by strategic partnerships is a great way to expand institutional reach, but there has to be an experimental and innovative mindset at play, as well as an understanding of the dire consequences of failing to evolve.
  • Dipping a toe into a new market is ineffective—it’s critical to understand how a new market fits your mission and, if it’s a clean fit, you must jump in.

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