What if your college or university isn’t going to grow, and you can’t cut your way to sustainability? What do you do then? Community college dean and Inside Higher Ed commentator Matt Reed posed this hard challenge in a couple of columns last week (1, 2). It’s a terrific prompt for anyone thinking about the future of education.
Let’s start by establishing Reed’s parameters. He begins by describing the way institutional cuts ultimately become self-defeating:
[C]uts do damage that starts to show up in enrollments. Too many classes cancelled or calls unreturned lead to attrition, which leads to calls for still more cuts. Cut an off-campus location to save money, and whoops, you lose its enrollments, leading to a need for more cutting. Add an inexorably rising underlying cost — say, just hypothetically, health insurance — and you have the makings of a death spiral.
Then he reminds us that the old growth pattern isn’t working out in most cases. Recall that American higher ed grew enormously from around 1985 through 2011:
Historically, the path to growth was through, well, growth. Build buildings, add programs, hire people, and students would come.
That’s not true anymore, and in fact, trying it can be destructive; it can saddle a college with debt that declining enrollments won’t let it pay.
Given those two boundaries – no growth, no cuts – the overwhelming majority of American higher education institutions is now caught in this position:
When the message on one side is to keep cutting until the bleeding stops, and on the other side is to hold your breath until the good times magically return, the only way for something good to happen is to change the narrative.
So what do we do now? Reed offers a four-fold test for solutions, then proposes some interesting low-cost approaches, like a semester redesign, which I recommend exploring.
From American higher ed, I’m seeing a few strategies in play. Remember, these shouldn’t rely on new funding or brutal cuts:
Grow international If America isn’t growing its number of undergrad and grad students any longer, one solution is to head abroad. Colleges and universities of all kinds are recruiting extensively from the rest of the world, especially central and east Asia.
Expand online This is another way to boost student numbers, by recruiting adult students from around the world, especially learners who aren’t physically co-located. This isn’t cheap to do, but a good number of institutions already have some or all of the mechanisms in place.
Focus on student success A campus grows resources aimed at boosting student degree completion. This can include expanding advising, changing curricula, creating new paths to degree, etc. It could also involve applying new research from learning science to faculty teaching through professional development.
Embrace open Cutting student textbook and material costs can make a big difference for poor and working-class students. Giving students more access to scholarly research through open access publishing expands their learning as well.
Partner with local high schools The main capital here is administrative time, and there may well be political incentives to expend it. The other incentive is the chance to grow student numbers by having high school students taking higher ed classes and by encouraging them to attend full time later on.
Share classes with other campuses A college or university can open up a class to students from another institution. We’ve already seen this done in multiple projects. For a little administrative overhead (which declines rapidly with practice) a school can expand its curriculum.
Boost study abroad If an institution already has study abroad support in place, including local staff and programs, plus relationships with host universities, this can heighten a campus’ appeal. Wealthier students are especially well placed to take advantage of this.
Entrench Stick to what a campus does well. Reaffirm existing relationships. This may include not filling positions as they open and letting offerings go dark as staff can’t fill them.
Consolidate and merge Combining operations internally (between units) or externally (between institutions) can save resources.
Remix programs Offer more classes and programs in high demand areas, while shifting away from low-demand ones. The idea is that rising student numbers will pay for these initiatives. Yes, this can be a queen sacrifice strategy, but doesn’t have to.
What other answers are you seeing to Matt Reed’s carefully bounded question?