Catching fire 2014: Campus survival strategies

Many institutions need to reduce their reliance on the 18- to 22-year-old domestic student population

In the epic Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss learns that to survive, it is not enough to know where to be—it is just as important to know where not to be. For higher education, this means knowing what programs to curtail, and what markets to stay out of.

Many institutions need to reduce their reliance on the 18- to 22-year-old domestic student population, and focus instead on adult learners and international student populations as the traditional age U.S. student demographic shrinks.

Consider the plight of small, tuition-dependent, non-profit colleges. These fragile institutions are caught up in a perfect storm of rising costs, increased competition and regulatory uncertainty.

Beyond these hurricanes, for-profit colleges are also buffeted by gainful employment, student and family debt and, sometimes, underprepared student populations. Most schools are honestly trying to do more with less, through college prep initiatives, increased online course offerings and the recruitment of international full-pay students.

Concern about small nonprofit colleges pales in significance when compared to the gainful employment regulatory nightmare facing for-profit institutions in the year ahead. In fact, for-profit colleges and universities now face the most daunting challenges ever imposed by federal regulators, state academic licensing agencies and regional accreditors.

Yet, with all these looming catastrophes and disasters, the American system of higher learning and accreditation is the most coveted validation in the world

When it comes to proving employment, placement and debt burden, proprietary schools are held to a more closely scrutinized standard—all of this at a time of a “jobless recovery.” These arbitrary, bureaucratic interdictions divert significant time and resources away from student academic support, while for profits are compelled to jump through endless regulatory hoops.

Leaving aside private nonprofits and for-profits, state and community colleges face their own daunting challenges—with declining state appropriations, cramped campus infrastructure, deferred maintenance, limited human capital capacity and declining capital outlay allocations.

Beyond dwindling resources, under state and federal labor law, publics and privates face full-time, and even part-time, faculty unionization and impact bargaining, driving up costs even further, while sometimes driving workloads down.

Those who doubt this predicament should learn more about California’s community colleges’ diminished circumstances. There, thousands of students were stranded, either because they could not be enrolled or given timely course sections towards graduation.

From the perspective of state colleges, there is no easy path either. These days, parents perceive higher education as an economic investment with an expected rate of return— i.e. employment, transfer and graduate and professional school acceptance.

The career and transfer orientation of community colleges and the research and scholarship opportunities of larger research universities are more obvious. Thus, some state colleges need to drill down and sharpen their branding, mission and niche as a pragmatic, high-value proposition.

Yet, with all these looming catastrophes and disasters, the American system of higher learning and accreditation is the most coveted validation in the world. This is because it presents a better way of facilitating an effective, professional, independent, peer review and evaluation process.

In 2014, the key for three out of four public and private institutions will be, in the words of Wayne Gretzky, to consider today and the future. “A good hockey players plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be,” he says.

Amidst such challenging circumstances, there are colleges and universities employing creative techniques which take such challenges seriously, namely Suffolk University in Massachusetts, Warren County Community College in New Jersey, and Pacific Oaks College in California.

These institutions have established special relationships with public and preparatory high schools, thereby increasing college preparedness, and ergo college success.

These strategies include proactive college financial counseling, basic skills assessment and individualized program placement.

For example, Warren offers a Law Enforcement Awareness Program (LEAP) allowing high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to enroll in a college criminal justice course and earn college credits at a fraction of the cost of college tuition, and are able to earn credit recognition toward an associates in criminal justice.

Pacific Oaks President Ezat Parnia says, “It all starts by better understanding who we are educating. … We need teachers who can validate and embrace the unique identity and value of each individual.”

For its part, Suffolk University has been proactive in identifying and curtailing underenrolled programs and investing in strong core programs which promise real, gainful employment for its graduates. Suffolk University President James McCarthy put it nicely this way:

“Here’s what you must do — focus, focus, focus. Know who you are, know where you excel, know where you’re strongest, and focus on those things. … Everyone has to be relentlessly efficient. We have to make sure we’re developing the best programs for students and doing that as efficiently as possible.”

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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