Higher education institutions are in the battle of a lifetime as they are coping with political and economic uncertainties, threats to federal aid, declining state support, higher tuition rates and increased competition from for-profit institutions. Amid all these challenges, these institutions are pressed to keep up with technological demands, including increased online course offerings, and preparing students for a global marketplace.
In the face of mounting demands, universities must also recruit and retain students and meet and surpass expected outcomes for graduation rates. University leadership is finding their roles redefined as “fundraiser-in-chief” and “visionary” along with their long list of duties and result-driven responsibilities.
Institutions are plotting how to strategically move forward by trimming some program areas and adding offerings in high-growth fields such as STEM, as well as expanding online course options in order to attract more students.
These uncertain times present a unique opportunity for universities to also reinvent themselves into models that meet target market needs, operate more efficiently, identify strategic partners and position themselves on the global stage.
The challenges in higher education also rest on national goals set by the Obama Administration to help the country regain its place with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
“As the United States looks to higher education as the primary vehicle for maintaining its leadership in the globalized world, colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to expand access to a quality and affordable college education and to ensure students graduate in a timely manner,” said Gretchen M. Bataille, senior vice president for leadership and lifelong learning at the American Council on Education.
In their favor, today’s tight fiscal environment does create an opportunity for university leaders to think outside the box when it comes to reinventing programs, campuses and outcomes.
The adult learner
Sojourner Douglass College has a long history of evolving to meet the needs of the communities it serves. Born out of the Civil Rights Movement and its Saturday and evening Freedom Schools that taught Black history, Sojourner Douglass was established 40 years ago by its first and only president, Dr. Charles W. Simmons. The college has five locations in counties throughout Maryland, as well as a campus in the Bahamas.
“Our student population has not changed,” Simmons said. “We started out serving the adult population from the beginning, with the average age of 38. We also recognized that there was a group whose needs weren’t being met.”
Though the mission and target market has remained the same, Sojourner Douglass is working to keep pace with technology for its 2,000 students.
“We are in the process of not changing our strategy, but adding to it with more online courses,” said Simmons, who is currently going through accreditation approval to offer full degree programs online. “The difference is going to be the student services. Even though there are a lot of African-American students taking online courses, they are not always successful. We are looking at a concept we are calling ‘Super Serving’ students, creating strategies for that online community.”
He added that through the super serving students program, the online community would be provided with live tutors who can assist with lessons beyond the traditional technology helpdesks in order to support the special needs of the adult student population.
Simmons has grown the college by meeting the basic needs of adult learners. Each location offers childcare to allow students to focus on their studies. In addition, Simmons said students are offered help with other pressing issues that could impact their ability to attend college.
“We are transforming the whole family,” he said. “One of the differences is that we provide wraparound services, a wellness center and other assistance. If it is beyond what we can provide, we find services in the community.”
Simmons said Sojourner Douglass offers the same programs at all of the campuses, but does have some special focus areas based on community needs. For example, the Bahamas campus offers international banking and finance, the Baltimore and Annapolis campuses offer certification in political campaign management, and Simmons said it’s the only Black college to do so. In Salisbury, Md., the college was invited to open a campus to help create a pool of local teacher candidates.
The college has been successful in securing STEM funding for its nursing, IT and biotechnology programs.
“Our programs are designed to meet the needs of the people we serve,” Simmons said.
Reshaping women’s colleges
Trinity Washington University has boldly remade itself from the once-exclusive women’s college to serving a broader audience that now includes minorities and men. Founded over a century ago by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur as the nation’s first Catholic liberal arts college for women, today Trinity is known most for its small classes and flexible schedules — as well as its dedicated and enthusiastic president, Patricia A. McGuire.
A Trinity alumna, McGuire has served as president for more than 20 years. She is known as the woman who saved the university by rebuilding a dying Catholic woman’s college into a multifaceted university that now reaches out to the Black and Hispanic women of Washington, D.C.
McGuire’s vision didn’t come without pushback from alumnae over what was perceived as abandoning tradition to embrace the education of urban students. She is quick to point out that the women’s college still exists within the university, but the program offerings have expanded.
Her vision included a women’s college that serves a population of women who needed more access to higher education. McGuire said when the college was founded, that group was White Catholic women at a time when they needed more access. Today, she has swung the doors open, embracing women of color and offering class schedules conducive to working women and mothers.
“Our women’s college has grown tremendously. We have maintained it,” McGuire said. “While we never abandoned that model, in 1989 when I started, we had 300 women, and now we have over 1,000. We did that by refocusing on the needs of the metro area and particularly Washington, D.C.”
“We had an adult’s studies program that we reshaped to the school of professional studies; we took the old teacher training and turned it into the School of Education. We recently created the School of Health Profession, which is co-ed,” she said.
Trinity is now 72 percent African-American and 18 percent Latina with other students from Central America and Africa.
“Unlike the traditional women’s colleges, where many have faltered,” McGuire said, “we found the hunger was quite great in the population we serve. We love empowering women and developing their leadership.”
Lessons in resilience
While most universities are battling budget woes, Dr. Norman Francis at Xavier University in New Orleans has tackled financial burdens on top of rebuilding his campus in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history — Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Francis’ resilience comes from a strong desire to change destinies by educating minority students and future leaders.
Xavier is consistently a national leader in placing African-American students into medical schools, as well as first in awarding African-Americans baccalaureate degrees in the physical sciences, the biological/life sciences and physics. The College of Pharmacy ranks among the top three colleges in the nation in graduating African-Americans with Pharm.D. degrees.
Xavier was cited in the 2013 edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges, placing fifth among historically Black colleges and universities. Xavier also showed up on the list of best national liberal arts colleges.
“In this country, people will invest in an institution that they feel offers a return on their investment,” Francis said. “We don’t ask for gifts; we earn them. Every year we have to earn it. If there has been success, it’s not from all the pretty brochures, but because of the results, in medical school, in STEM, and pharmacy.”
Since the hurricane in 2005, Francis has rebuilt the infrastructure and programs even stronger. Rebuilding efforts included expansion of the school’s College of Pharmacy, including a pharmacy pavilion that added 60,000 square feet adjacent to the existing College of Pharmacy building.
“We believe strongly in the young people we serve,” Francis said. “We do not cringe when we face difficult times. This year was no different. We suffered in three major hurricanes in the last several years; each one came in the middle of the registration period. We believe in the students we serve. That passion is felt in this total community. We are there when students need us, and they respond.
“I’ve been privileged to watch the transition over the years,” he said. “We never sit on our laurels. We do what we have to do. The mission is more important now than ever.”