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  • Dr. Mary Darden

Mary Darden: Don't be fooled into thinking your school will be there forever

As kids, we think we’ll live forever. As adults, we think our college will live forever. I attended Sweet Briar College in rural Virginia. This idyllic place is a beautiful all-women’s school, with a long history of successful graduates. Suddenly, out of the blue, the board of trustees voted to close the college. Only the heroic efforts of a group of powerful alumni saved the college and began a rebuild, which continues today.

But Sweet Briar was not even the first significant loss in higher education in the United States. In recent years, hundreds of colleges and universities have been forced to drastically cut their offerings, merge and even close.

Closer to home, you may have read about the sweeping layoffs and abrupt closure of departments at St. Edward’s University in Austin or the struggles of Abilene’s Hardin-Simmons University, a religious-based school that trimmed dozen of academic majors and even closed Logsdon Seminary, with its $32 million endowment.

And all of that was before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, Baptists across the country were saddened by the recent closure of Judson, another all-women’s college in Alabama.

“But surely,” you’re thinking, “it can’t happen here. It can’t happen to my university, right?”

Former Harvard University scholar, author and futurist Clayton Christensen projected that “half of all U.S. higher education institutions will close in the next ten to fifteen years.”

Ultimately, here’s the deal in 2021 in post-pandemic America: Most higher education institutions focus all of their recruiting on an increasingly smaller and smaller pool of traditional college-age students. Most of these institutions have been unable or unwilling to adapt to new financial realities, and most have been reluctant to embrace new entrepreneurial revenue streams. When you add the sudden disruptions of the pandemic, the result is all too often economic disaster, particularly for smaller private schools.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a multi-faceted problem, one that needs multi-faceted answers. Fortunately, there are things you, as a proud, concerned alum can do:

1. If you love your alma mater, support it financially and give support to those administrators who are brave enough to admit their college has problems and are willing to offer unconventional solutions.

2. The same applies to the administration and governing body of your beloved university — support in any way possible those who are bold enough to admit that there are problems in the year 2021 that require creative, sometimes painful solutions.

3. Contact your legislators — your colleges and universities provide the future of your state. If we let them founder and slip away, it is nearly impossible to regain the creativity, entrepreneurship, and financial impact that a thriving college has on your community.

This most certainly could happen here. And there. And anywhere.

The year 2021 is a watershed year for American education. My long research on this topic leads me to believe that it is possible to pull out of this downward spiral if all of the parties mentioned above work together.

The catch is, of course, is that American higher education is notoriously conservative, particularly in many areas of academia, which are still operating as if it’s 1999 (or even 1699 in some cases). But the financial realities are 2021 and beyond. Bluntly put, U.S. higher education must change. And for most, radically change. The time to act was several years ago.

Fortunately, and for many, it’s not too late — at least for those forward-thinking colleges and universities, willing to become entrepreneurial. And as for your college, let them know that this matters to you and that you’re there for them.

Alas, Sweet Briar isn’t completely out of the woods, although there are significant and marked signs of improvement as they still have a thriving and active alumni base that is continuing to rally behind the school and break large fundraising goals. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your school will be there forever. It just may not.

Mary Darden is a futurist and president of Higher Education Innovation, LLC, and author of the books “Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America” and “Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change.”

Guest Column in the Waco Tribune Herald, July 21, 2021

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