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Innovation, Collaboration Help Small Colleges Weather Challenges

By Net Assets posted 04-05-2018 08:54 AM


Leadership |

Article by Cecily Garber

Independent schools often look to smaller private colleges and universities as bellwethers for trends in budgeting, admissions and compliance, along with strategies for institutional change. “Innovation and the Independent College,” published in March by the Council of Independent Colleges (an association that supports more than 700 smaller private colleges), offers myriad examples of recently adopted practices that have helped colleges boost enrollment, cut costs and advance academic excellence.

The report cites management expert Peter Drucker’s incremental approach to change. “Effective innovations start small,” Drucker said. “[G]randiose ideas for things that will ‘revolutionize an industry’ are unlikely to work.”

The report focuses on eight areas:

  • Athletics
  • Career connections
  • Community engagement
  • Consortial arrangements
  • Cost containment
  • Curricular reform
  • New academic programs
  • New student populations

In athletics, for example, some small colleges added programs, including unconventional sports such as competitive bass fishing to attract more students. Others eliminated sports teams while launching campus-wide wellness programs to both save money and combat the rise of obesity among students. One college reported significant cost savings by convincing all coaches to purchase uniforms from the same source.

Many small private colleges are among the top employers in their communities, so enhancing community engagement can be vital. To strengthen town-gown relationships, colleges have developed programs to meet local educational needs, partnered to build mutually beneficial facilities and worked with local businesses and organizations to expand students’ learning experiences and companies’ resources.

Some small colleges have contained costs by collaborating on spending, particularly in risk management and compliance functions, and by sharing services for auditing, emergency preparedness, environmental health and safety, and Title IX compliance. Purchasing software and hardware together and sharing technical personnel are additional opportunities.

Consortial arrangements enable small colleges to save money and/or expand offerings. Examples include purchasing consortia, building shared facilities and even co-hiring personnel. Shared arts programs, sports teams and libraries have also been successful, though Cynthia Zane, president of Hilbert College, warned, “True collaboration is hard. It means you give up as well as gain.” Her advice to collaborate productively:  

  • Actively recruit support from trustees who have partnership and/or merger experiences.
  • Retain strong ties with potential partners even when collaborations don’t work out.
  • Abandon individualism to move the institutional culture toward the collective good.
  • Negotiate fiefdoms and siloes on your own campus first.
  • Manage expectations by harking back to former failed experiments.

CIC collected examples of innovation at eight regional day-long meetings around the country with member institutions. Goals “were to increase understanding of the sector’s distinctive strengths as well as its greatest challenges, and to facilitate thinking about a future both grounded in mission and open to new possibilities,” the report stated. Read or download the full report.

Cecily Garber is NBOA’s manager, editorial content. Before coming to NBOA, she was an American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellow, working on CIC's public information campaign, “The Power of Liberal Arts Education.”  

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