Keene Sentinel: Colleges Learn New Ways of Reaching Students
Feb 13, 2023
Keene Sentinel: Colleges learn new ways of reaching students
By Paige Lindell Feb 10, 2023
For small liberal arts colleges and universities in the area, it is no small feat to remain standing. Fifteen New England colleges have closed in the past 30 years, spurred by changing demographics and shifting cultural norms.
The business model of higher education relies on paying customers. For schools that traditionally offer a four-year model to graduating high school seniors, these customers are increasingly scarce. According to the EAB consulting and research firm, there will be 15 percent fewer students attending four-year college over the next 10 years. This is tied to long-range demographic trends, including declining birth rates following the 2008 economic recession.
To compound matters, there are fewer graduating high school seniors following the COVID-19 pandemic, and those who are graduating have lacked access to the full host of college counseling services. Questions about the utility and worth of an undergraduate degree proliferate, while the strapped labor market offers competitive wages for entry-level positions.
Peter Eden, PhD, president of Landmark College in Putney, Vt., lays out a limited menu of options for small institutions wanting to raise enrollment, all of which are less than ideal: Schools can increase the available scholarship money, which opens up enrollment to a larger pool of candidates but can jeopardize the budget. They can lower the selectivity among applicants, but this risks an increased dropout rate from students who are college capable but not college ready. Potentially, it can also decrease the satisfaction level of other students who feel like the academic bar has been lowered. Schools can choose to run a budget deficit for a certain number of years. Sometimes this bet pays off, but overextending can put the school’s accreditation in jeopardy if there are concerns about its viability.
Overall, it is a risky period for small, rural institutions. But what if you didn’t have to be small and you didn’t have to be rural? Local institutions like Landmark College, Franklin Pierce University, Antioch University New England and Keene State College are finding the best investment towards resilience is increasing access to their programming, both in person and online through collaboration and creative expansion.
Students pursuing a four-year undergraduate education may be on the decline, but that doesn’t mean that higher education is on the decline. These schools know there are unmet, marketable needs.
Five or six years ago, when Landmark College was running some budget deficits, the institution made the risky decision to invest in itself, specifically the LC Online programming, knowing that in the long run this would allow them to access more students.
“You need to fish where the fish are,” says Eden.
In 2021, the college also opened up a micro-campus outside of San Francisco, Calif., known as the Success Center to reach students on the West Coast. Eden says that for every student who ends up at Landmark, “there are probably 50 others that could benefit from the experience” but are thwarted by location.
Beyond the financial strain of attending school across the country, he sees a shift in parenting trends, with parents wanting to be more available and involved with college-age children. The satellite campus and wide availability of LC Online has served as marketing for Landmark College, helping to keep enrollment on the Putney campus stable while growing enrollment in LC Online.
Eden says, “It is a matter of survival and simultaneous expansion.”
At Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, President Kim Mooney, PhD, says “that perception of an institution may be based on history and what is visible to the public, but there is much more to it.”
FPU offers traditional residential programming, she explains, but also operates “thriving” academic centers in Manchester and Lebanon, as well as in Goodyear, Ariz.
Beyond diversifying physical locations, FPU is working to make its learning modalities more flexible by offering online and hybrid options year-round. The university is also working to expand offerings by responding to the needs of surrounding communities, including worker shortages in the health-care field. The university enrolls more than 500 full-time students in its graduate-level allied health-care programs. It also partners with the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District to place student teachers directly in the classroom.
Not dissimilar to the robust enrollment in the FPU allied health programs, Antioch University has been experiencing growth in particular programs, including psychology and counseling. A local pioneer in low-residency programs, the university is also opening a new facility on the Keene State campus intended to be a flexible learning environment to complement its online programing.
Antioch has also partnered with Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, to expand graduate programs in high-volume areas of nursing and health sciences. “They have these programs that have been limited geographically, and we can align with them to expand their impact,” says Craig Maslowsky, PhD, vice chancellor of enrollment management.
This type of collaboration is vital for future financial success. “Smaller institutions can’t just spin up new markets or build new programs,” Maslowsky says. “The speed of change will force alignment with other institutions and new models.”
Melinda Treadwell, PhD, president of Keene State College, welcomes this opportunity to strengthen KSC through collaboration with peer institutions. The college hosts various work-sponsored educational bootcamps and is home to Detact Diagnostics, a Dutch biotech firm. Beyond the partnership with FPU, KSC has invited River Valley Community College to locate on the campus.
KSC works with peers, rather than “replicate what is already in the marketplace,” says Treadwell. This allows the college to focus on delivering what it does best: offering a rich residential learning experience.
“We have this assumption that after the pandemic everyone is very comfortable with the online learning environment, but for many traditional undergraduate students, they still want to be on campus,” says Treadwell.
Betting on its core product has been successful. KSC has increased its first- and second-year retention rate and consistently receives a high position in its class in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
Demographics are an important lever in the financial health of colleges and universities, but it is not the whole story. There is a larger, more complex cultural conversation afoot about the value of higher education, something both quantitative and elusive. The Brookings’ Hamilton project estimates that college graduates will make $500,000 more over their lifetime than non-college graduates. Yet creating an educational experience and being responsible for the social development of a young person “is not like trying to make a table,” says Landmark’s Eden. “It is like trying to put your arms around smoke.”
This complicated task can sometimes mean complicated messaging for consumers of this high-priced product.
“Universities have been historically vague,” says Antioch’s Malowsky. “You can’t just say that they are flexible, affordable or convenient, anymore. They really have to be.”
The consumer mindset and current state of social media reporting demand increased transparency both about programming and about the student experience.
FPU has launched a program, Paths at Pierce, that helps communicate the answers to these common consumer questions: How long will the degree take? How much will it cost? And what will be my career options? The programs aim to help students leave with a clear career pathway in less time.
Listening to changing student need is a theme reiterated by institutions working to stay relevant. “We always have to be working on behalf of student success and the changing needs of the student,” says FPU’s Mooney, “needs that are different than they were five or six years ago.”