Making it work while enrollment takes a dive

Some of the institutions I am visiting confront what I will call a challenging demand scenario. That is, what used to be a lock for, say, 400 new students is now in the low 300s.  The reasons for this drop-off are many and vary with diverse institutional profiles.  In this installment, I want to share some ideas about how to stem the tide of declining enrollments and to share an idea for schools to use in reducing faculty headcount without cutting programs.

Unique Programs

We have heard it time and again that distinctives are what drive institutional success.  That is, you want to be one of but a handful of institutions that are known for ________.  Programs that are unique and have a good deal of demand will draw in students who are less concerned about “the deal” and more focused on the experience.  Now, this is not just about finding a program of any sort and being the best there is.  I am not sure that Klingon studies will bring in much in the way of student demand, for example.  And, if it does, it will not boost the inventory of datable guys on your campus.  Rather, of the many programs that students are flocking to these days, pick one or two and stick with them. It will likely take a few years for each to reach its potential but when they do, it will contribute to the health of the institution.

One of my institutions decided to invest in a Christian Contemporary Semester program and offered other institutions the opportunity to spend a semester studying that genre; even to the point of offering it as a one-semester minor in that area.  You may respond that this seems run-of-the-mill. Why would one program be any better than another?  Well, consider that the institution offering the program is located in Nashville and that some of the leadership is closely aligned with popular artists and labels.  The lure of such an offering becomes quite appealing.  Over time, it will be a strong draw and a contributor to the University’s bottom line.

Find program candidates by unlocking the creativity of your faculty.  Work on the structure to ensure that it is financially contributory.  Then, roll it out with proper promotion, recognizing that it takes three years anyway to establish a reputation.  You will need to advertise / market the program in the same way you market the entire institution.  This is called productmarketing, versus the brand marketing that most institutions spend all of their advertising budget on.  I could go on and on about that but will save it for a later submission.

When you have a couple of premier programs that are known far and wide for their quality, discount rates for those who want to be majors (but have to compete for a slot) will be lower and academic success will be stronger.  You can find these programs.  Get cracking!

Cooperative “Flip” Classes

The flipped classroom has grown to be a common topic of conversation amongst strategists and futurists alike.  The idea is that the lecture and accompanying notes can be made available online, to be called up by students whenever they want to see it.  Physical proximity gatherings can be associated with such a delivery method so that students can have questions answered and for working together on research and other projects. My son-in-law is a seminary student who watches some of his lectures on a large TV in his living room.  Pretty impressive and, in a number of ways, better than the one-time shot of a lecture that we were all exposed to back in the day.

Let’s take it to the next level.

Presume that five colleges of similar size and mission band together to share curriculum and courses.  Major required courses would be aligned amongst the group, with each participating institution offering a couple of courses in the flipped format to, collectively, cover the entire major requirement.  Ten, three hour courses total thirty hours; the typical requirement for a Bachelor of Arts major.

And so students who are taking a major or minor in history will take courses from up to five different professors who each teach two major level courses using the flipped model.  Study groups on each campus will have a half hour or more of access to the professor each week to ask questions and interact about projects or research.  Specific questions via email can also be raised.  An upper level course that would normally have five to seven students in it would have twenty or more in total from the participating schools.  Utilization of professors who are the highest paid but who have had the fewest students in their upper level classes winds up going up materially.

There could be resistance from certain perspectives over this kind of a strategy.  After all, it would require far fewer faculty to deliver major level courses than is currently the case.  What it offers the student, however, is exposure to the best faculty from five institutions, each teaching in areas where they have specific expertise.  It also affords a greater list of potential recommendations for jobs or grad schools and it increases the student to faculty ratio by multiples.

Contrast this to each institution being fully self-sufficient – employing a full complement of faculty to teach each major level course directly, even if only five take the class.  Courses are offered every other year, in an attempt to bunch up upperclass students and bolster class sizes.  Students are then exposed to as few as two faculty members for an entire major course of study.  If a student is not excited about one of the faculty members, a transfer may be in the offing.

For those who are still unsure about the wisdom of such an arrangement, let me share with you that unless effective ways are found to shrink instructional costs to a fraction of what is currently being spent, there are institutions that will no longer be alive in but a handful of years.  Some have moved from a healthy size, defined as an enrollment within few students of their historic breakeven point, to a level that is permanently below breakeven by a large margin.  Without a rethinking of how the most expensive component of their institution is delivered, programs of all shapes and sizes will have to be eliminated, along with the students who are attracted to them.

In Closing

Find the strongest, unique programs you can, with the help of creative faculty, and then deliver them to the market that is clamoring.  Also, consider collaborating with other institutions on flipped classes, to save material sums of money on your most expensive component of the operation.  Oh, and you may want to begin these discussions soon.  Demand is not expected to get better all of a sudden.