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Horror headlines usher in spring at colleges

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Scott Miller Scott Miller
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Scott D. Miller is President and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges during the past 23 years. A consultant to college presidents and boards, he edits “Presidential Perspectives” (presidentialperspectives.org), a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.

As if the winter of 2014 weren’t brutal enough at many colleges and universities, causing widespread weather-related disruption, news headlines into the spring don’t offer much comfort, either.

“Small U.S. Colleges Battle Death Spiral as Enrollment Drops,” proclaims a Bloomberg headline, along with “Small Colleges Get an F in Finance” from Bloomberg Businessweek. “Are College Campuses Obsolete?” asks The New Yorker. “U.S. Private Colleges Face Enrollment Decline,” warned The Wall Street Journal in November. “College Degrees Aren’t Becoming More Valuable,” asserts Forbes.

I find myself wondering if I’m not really at a drive-in theater, bombarded with B-horror-movie previews.

Unfortunately, there are some disturbing trends in higher education. The news these days is hardly anything worth celebrating. Bloomberg cites a Moody’s analysis that shows “dozens of schools have seen drops of more than 10 percent in enrollment.” In the same article, my colleague David Warren of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities points out that “there will clearly be some institutions that won’t make it and there will be some institutions that will be stronger because of going through these difficult steps.”

The prescription for being stronger includes more focused institutional branding, messaging and marketing, more student- (client-) centeredness, incentives to faculty and administrators to be more entrepreneurial and innovative in curricular development and recognition that some of traditional institutions’ perceived threats (such as online programs) may be worth doing business with — if not now, someday and soon.

But there is no cure for the reality that the traditional undergraduate population is declining in numbers, that student debt is a ferocious beast that cows students and families, and the expectation that a college degree will guarantee entry into one’s preferred employment field is not always well founded.

It’s not that Americans don’t desire a baccalaureate education. The numbers of first-generation students (the first in their families to enroll in post-secondary higher education) continue to grow at many institutions, along with families’ pride in seeing their sons and daughters walk across the commencement stage. Non-traditional students (older learners, returning military veterans, commuters) often readily embrace the opportunity to attend college. They should be welcomed enthusiastically.

Nor is it that a college education isn’t affordable. Few pay the advertised tuition sticker price, which is typically offset by institutional and government-funded grants, work-study positions and other forms of financial aid.

But the facts of finance at many colleges work against their survival. If an institution is tuition-driven, has a limited endowment, exists in a tough enrollment market (alongside large universities, community colleges and for-profit education providers) and is feeble in fundraising, its prospects aren’t bright. Add to that a poorly defined market niche and an unimaginative curriculum and a college will likely be among those that will not survive.

For liberal arts colleges that are not heavily endowed, the going is getting rough. Their traditional curriculum, though valued by employers, raises questions in students’ minds about the ultimate worth of a four-year scholastic commitment in a residential setting. Fortunately, what we are able to impart to students has tangible and lasting value — just talk to our students at Bethany College who continue to enroll, and our devoted alumni who continue to give. (I should also point out that Bethany and West Virginia’s other independent institutions benefit substantially from the joint fundraising and donor-relations programs of the West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities, a consortium that has raised millions for scholarships for top students from the Mountain State.)

All in all, the mixed reviews that higher education seems to receive these days are more often expressed in the negative. But these trends have been decades in the making. Any college admissions officer who hasn’t been aware of the looming decline of numbers of 18- to 21-year-olds should not be employed in that line of work. The Internet has opened up much new competition from online providers, but that, too, should not be surprising.

Still, colleges and universities do need to be innovative, even daring, in their fight to survive and to deliver their services. They and their timeless, wonderful missions deserve to succeed, but must be deserving of attention and devotion from students and alumni.

Accepting responsibility at all institutional levels for survival and success should be the mantra of every college or university these days. It’s the best single way I can think of to make our business models work — and to get beyond the horror-movie previews at the drive-in.