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  • Dr. Mary Landon Darden

The Dallas Morning News: Small colleges will need radical change to survive

Here’s what administrators and alumni must do to remain relevant to students.

Nestled in thousands of gorgeous acres at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains is my tiny alma mater — Sweet Briar College. Frequently one of the Princeton Review’s top 10 most beautiful campuses, Sweet Briar was an ideal setting to receive an exemplary education. It inspired my soul.

Because it was a women’s college, it was a safe haven free of gender discrimination. It empowered women to not only be scholars, but to be confident and strong leaders.

Although it had thrived for more than a century, enrollment declined in the 2000s and the endowment that once seemed huge began to shrink. The board voted to close the college in 2015.

What the board underestimated was the response of the school’s powerful alumni — including many accomplished attorneys, politicians, doctors — who raised tens of millions of dollars in three months and went to court where they gained stewardship of their beloved institution. They undertook the extreme responsibility of rethinking and re-envisioning this college, finding leadership capable of radical transformation and taking enormous risks in the process.

Sweet Briar did radically transform. It cut tuition rates in half, overhauled academics and built on its strengths and unique niches. Sweet Briar planted a vineyard, created an apiary, doubled down on its nationally ranked equestrian team, and restored historic buildings to their former glory. Today, the school remains one of a handful of women’s colleges in the country and enrollment is gradually climbing again, though the work is not over.

Like women’s colleges, historically Black colleges and universities face the challenge of profound change. With the overall drop in student populations, women’s and HBCU institutions are feeling the pinch, as they are often highly dependent on tuition. In some ways, they are like the canaries in the coal mines. More than half of all higher education institutions could find themselves desperately scrambling to make budgets and scrapping to bolster enrollment.

Unfortunately, this on-going crisis has become so great, and major change has been avoided for so long, that for most colleges and universities, it is impossible to budget-cut their way out of it. The pandemic accelerated the problems. And, for many, it is already too late. We will see even more unprecedented institutional closing and mergers in the months ahead.

Most colleges and universities will need to radically change, reimagine, innovate, entrepreneur and take large and bold risks to survive. They must become educationally relevant to the new job markets. They must create multiple legs on the financial stool that supports the institution: 10 or more legs, rather than the traditional two legs of tuition and donor gifts. In fact, they need to be ready to give up the tuition leg completely, as more colleges and universities offer tuition-free education. I expect that this will eventually become the rule, rather than the exception.

American higher education has enjoyed a long tenure at the top. America’s place at the head of the global table in business and industry and so much more is due in great part to near-universal access to excellent higher education.

Census figures consistently show powerful correlations between education level and income. In order to remain at the top, it will be essential for American higher education to embrace the extreme transformation required to succeed.

So, what can be done?

First, institutions must hire outstanding entrepreneurial leaders who understand the culture of the academy, possess the required credentials and practice excellent leadership through the necessary organizational change and institutional transformation.

Second, if you are the son or daughter of a beloved school, you must support the institution and lean in to help. That means not only writing checks to our alma maters, but also volunteering to serve, to share our gifts and to cheer them on.

And third, we need to support those innovative, imaginative leaders taking the unpopular steps essential to saving our schools.

For most institutions, Survival will require all hands on deck. There are scary days ahead. It will require bold action from the administration, faculty, staff and alumni to ensure that another priceless college or university doesn’t become the next casualty in the mineshaft.

Mary Landon Darden is founder and president of Higher Education Innovation. Her new book, Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change will be published this month. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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