Improving a campus without growth: Matt Reed's excellent and difficult challenge

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?


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5 Responses to Improving a campus without growth: Matt Reed's excellent and difficult challenge

  1. Bryan, All of the suggestions (Reed and yours) are spot on. Given the conditions (no growth and no cuts) – semester redesign offers the best response. Successful redesigns compress student time in ways that are more compatible with the work schedules of most students (traditional-age and later) . Typically, physical class time is condensed into half-days (often Saturday and/or Sunday) with augmented/flipped use of online content. The result is more availability, faster progress and lower cost to the student.

    I believe both the international and online options are now sufficiently market saturated to provide little or no advantage for late adopters. As for the facilities implications of Reed’s conditions, my recommendations .

    * michael*

    Michael Haggans


    *Visiting Professor – Center for 21st Century Universities *

    *Georgia Institute of Technology*

    *Visiting Scholar – College of Design *

    *University of Minnesota*

    7914 Lafon Place, St. Louis, MO 63130 *314-570-5789 (cell)*

    On Mon, Apr 24, 2017 at 12:31 PM, Bryan Alexander wrote:

    > Bryan Alexander posted: “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” >

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Michael. Very good point about traditional-age undergrads having to work.

      I fear you’re about right about the international market. Trump’s election has accelerated that moment. China still has a powerful drive to send students abroad until they complete reconstructing the university system, though.

  2. Ruben Nelson says:

    Bryan, The issue you highlight is critical. Complexity theory teaches us that when on a “rugged landscape” send small hunting parties in all possible directions. Therefore, I seek to add to the list, not judge the options already identified. My hope is that in some places folks are re-conceiving and re-imagining their presuppositions and views of (a) the emerging character and challenges of the 21st Century in some other language than “STEM, innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity”, (b) what processes and experiences will shape and nurture persons of tomorrow, and (c) how they can become the life-giving community that prepares such persons to co-create persons fit to live with in a planet fit to live in — a global eco-personal form of civilization. Without some such driving personal and societal intention to catch and hold our attention and that of our students, the noise of our culture will continue to drown out most of what intend to be signals.

    • What a grand metaphor, Ruben.

      I’m not seeing much of (a) right now, alas. STEM and entrepreneurship demands are still running high. I was hoping for students to drive (c), but that hasn’t really occurred.

      My work on digital literacy is a sneaky way of getting to (b).

  3. Pingback: On the solstice, dark thoughts for 2018 | Bryan Alexander

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