We’re familiar with the higher education headlines. Growing student debt, declining college enrollment, faculty layoffs and department closures, to name a few. The world’s complexity has been catapulted to a new level, and higher education is feeling the repercussions like never before.
In 2015, I wrote a book responding to the declining-enrollment crisis faced by many small liberal arts colleges throughout the country. Soaring operational expenses and shrinking government support has led to higher attendance costs for students, and as a result, to lower enrollment numbers.
The root causes of this crisis have not changed much over the last seven years. However, what has changed, from my perspective, is a willingness to navigate these headwinds collaboratively as a sector, as opposed to in isolation. At conferences and on calls I see innovative presidents, administrators and faculty sharing ideas and solutions that we all used to hold close to our chests.
The solution is within reach. It’s time we, as higher ed leaders, reinvent our institutions through intelligent collaboration.
It’s possible to preserve the best parts of our colleges, their values and the experiences they provide, but we have to do it while expanding access and reducing costs to serve those who need us most—our students.
The Problem With Tuition
Running a college is like running a small city—a really expensive small city. There are costs and demands associated with its infrastructure to keep buildings, classrooms, streets, dining facilities, science labs and athletics departments updated and operating well. Many of these small cities have been magical, transformative places for well over a century, but these cities can’t be run—and thrive—on the backs of students and their families taking out large loans to make it work.
This is especially true as escalating tuition costs are outpacing both the average household income and the rate of inflation. Add in demographic changes, and it’s no surprise that demand is falling for the traditional college experience.
Growing debt burdens across the board and rapidly changing workforce expectations are placing more pressure on students and families each year as they face the reality of what it takes to get a college degree and wonder whether that degree is worth the cost. Today’s prospective college students are closely watching the previous generation contend with student loan issues and seeing how debt affects financial security post-graduation.
These issues are not simply a temporary consequence of the unimaginable pandemic that no one saw coming, but inherent problems in the financial model that has sustained our schools for hundreds of years. Tuition, taxpayer funding, and donations/grants have long provided revenues. Most of the costs are fixed, with little flexibility. Not to mention, a grueling financial aid application process is difficult for students and parents to navigate and has also contributed to a student debt crisis that has disproportionately left borrowers struggling to keep their heads above water.
The days of annual cost increases in tuition have to be over. We can no longer assume that the incremental rising tuition costs will continue to be sustainable for families in the decades to come.
What’s Affecting Enrollment?
Many colleges across the country are facing the same problem—enrollment numbers are down, and campuses are left scrambling to fill classes and provide the same level of service and educational excellence. What’s clear, however, is that the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t actually cause these pain points. It simply accelerated a problem for higher education that already existed. From 2010 to 2019, college enrollment nationwide fell about 11 percent, according to analysis from NPR, due to changes in the labor market that incentivized working over studying; lower birth rates several decades ago; and increased tuition costs. Now, 1 million fewer students are enrolled in college than before the pandemic.
Many students base their college search on the type of programs offered within a given major. In fact, according to research from New America, the academic programs offered are the most important decision factor for a student’s specific college choice. Small colleges tend to offer fewer majors than large universities do. While the quality of education offered at private colleges is unsurpassed, many students end up at large state schools solely because they want to pursue a degree that the smaller private schools don’t offer.
Meanwhile, the construct of the four-year college experience being “essential” is coming under scrutiny. Success today looks different and more diverse than it did in years past. With the rise of online learning, there are more options to help students achieve academic success, and it’s time to offer more of these channels to our students before they look elsewhere. Otherwise, the financial pressure grows more intense and our business model falls further into disrepair.
What Students Want
Liberal arts colleges are scrambling to increase enrollment, but can’t afford the upfront investment and fixed costs required to create new degree programs. While some institutions believe lavish perks and amenities are the answer, the true key to increasing enrollment numbers and setting students up for success is demonstrating new-age value through innovative solutions.
We need to recalibrate by asking one simple question: What do students actually want?
The quintessential college experience is still in demand. Many students want to return to on-campus and in-person social activities. They want to experience dorm life and tailgating on the weekends. They’re still excited for that four-year Norman Rockwell college experience that’s been painted for them.
However, what unites all students, from the 18-year-old to the working adult, is that they want their education to be future-proofed with opportunities after graduation. They want jobs. The data here is about as conclusive as it gets. From New America to Populace to College Pulse, I’m not sure I’ve seen a study where students don’t rank jobs No. 1.
We are seeing the most tech-savvy generation of students navigate different modalities of remote learning. While they want the on-campus experience they have come to know and expect, students today are open to a more hybrid model, both online and in-person, that delivers more efficiency and convenience.
So, how do we accommodate?
One answer, which I have been fortunate to play a part in on our campus at Adrian College, comes from the Lower Cost Models Consortium (LCMC) in partnership with Rize Education, a higher-education technology platform powering the development of academic programs. The LCMC is a new way forward in helping institutions come together to establish new, enrollment-driving majors and minors that are affordable for the institution and its students.
It’s a consortium that brings together presidents, chief financial officers, chief academic officers, provosts and engaged faculty members and administrators to:
1) share information on each college’s cost-cutting programs
2) discuss important curricular initiatives that are in the active planning phase; and
3) set in motion the possibility of additional shared initiatives.
The LCMC helps liberal arts colleges offer top-quality, competitive, hybrid degree programs that integrate online courses with the face-to-face learning already offered at institutions. These are degrees that prepare students for great jobs, in disciplines like cybersecurity, supply chain management and data analytics.
This course-sharing model, with classes taught by professors and adjunct faculty at member institutions, leverages online learning to innovate more quickly and circumnavigate the barriers of upfront investments and fixed costs that typically freeze small colleges in place. For every course that is exchanged between member institutions within the LCMC, a portion of the tuition goes to the teaching institution to cover instructional costs and another portion goes to Rize to support the online-learning platform operations.
It is on us as liberal arts institutions to show students that a combination of a core liberal arts education with technological skills and applied learning is a formidable foundation to thrive in the digital workplace. By working together, we can provide our students the desired, quintessential small college experience without compromising on offering the most cutting-edge academic programs—and we can do it in a transformative, less costly and more creative way.
The good news is that there is still time to fix the problem. If college leaders can come together in the spirit of collegiality and innovation, we can appeal to student demands and ensure the long-term financial future of our venerable institutions. In doing so, we also will ensure that today’s wonderful young adults can also experience the transformative college experience that was so important to all of us.