Higher Education

What if you could start over?

One-course-at-a-time, gap-year, 2-year programs, and on-line programs!  Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all in higher education.  Today, higher education is challenging historical and traditional practices.  Parents want to know outcomes!  They want programs that translate into results.  They want to know what “works”.  Why does a bachelor’s degree take four years?  Why is college typically relegated to two semesters or three trimesters between September and May?  Who makes these rules and are we confident that there isn’t a better way?

Like a little kid, one of my favorite questions is “why”.  The questions above are great examples of questions I ask myself often.  And most recently, I asked if Doane College can graduate a student in less than four years.  The answer led me to try and impact our approach to AP tests and dual-credit coursework.  Although Doane College is a 4-year traditional college, we are taking steps to think differently.  Today, Doane College is rolling out a 3-year graduation program in which certain majors are backed by a 3-year graduation guarantee.

As a quick digression, Doane College has offered a 4-year graduation guarantee for many years.  We were one of the first to offer such a guarantee and the first in the state of Nebraska.  I believe the 4-year guarantee is a component of our culture and while the 4-year guarantee red-tape can be duplicated almost anywhere, I’m not certain that the culture can.  In that same vein, I look at the new 3-year program.  This is not rocket science.  The academic requirements for graduation have not changed.  Instead, we’ve packaged our academic programs with the understanding that a student may choose to accelerate their educational experience.  In the event they want to do that, we provide them the road map.  But make no mistake; this is not for the faint of heart.  Eighteen credits a semester and summer coursework wasn’t in my college plans, but it is for some students today, particularly those that have already taken over 24 college credits while in high school.  And by the way, we have a few Doane students graduating in three years without this program.

Now, before even the first faculty member says, “you can’t do that,” I say yes, we can and yes we are.  Today, high school students are taking more college level dual-credit courses and AP tests than ever before.  And I believe they are doing this because they believe there is a benefit to doing so.  They believe they are getting ahead.  Moreover, high schools are helping to facilitate programs to encourage more college coursework prior to graduation.  But, how many colleges and universities are acknowledging this openly and actually embracing this proactive approach to college?  If a first-year college student enrolls with 36 credits, doesn’t it stand to reason that they consider themselves at the sophomore level relative to credits earned?  And, furthermore, if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that they need only three more years to graduate in college.  If that’s not true, why are we talking about college being four years?  Shouldn’t we talk about it being four-and-a-half or five years?  (Truthfully, there are colleges that do speak to honest fact that it takes more than four years at their school).  Why would high schools encourage their students to do college coursework before high school graduation without some understanding of a benefit?

The four-year model is tried and true and a tough mold to break.  But, I believe colleges and universities should embrace the fact that there are quality students working hard in high school with expectations of getting ahead both academically and financially.  More importantly, colleges must get in the game and respond appropriately with packaged programming that helps a student to leverage pre-college credit toward an accelerated degree plan.  Obviously this assumes that the student wants this.  A student could also want to double or triple major.  They could want to study abroad.  They could want to stop out for a year.  All these options are acceptable and may prolong any accelerated program to four years or beyond.  That’s not the point.  The point is that there are students who want this and their current success in graduating in three years is often predicated on the strong collaboration with a faculty advisor who shepherds the student through any red tape.  I vote for making it easier for a student to see these opportunities.  Notice I didn’t say make it easier to graduate.  In fact, I think it goes without saying that graduating in three years is more rigorous than a four year plan.

A three-year program isn’t a game-changer in higher education.  In fact, changing higher education today is difficult and requires patience.  But, who doesn’t like to dream?  To that end, give some thought to this question.   What would you do if you could start your own college and take advantage of all the lessons learned over time?  Start fresh!  Would you use one-course-at-at-time?  Would you use a hybrid approach to online and classroom work?  Would your program encompass year-round programming?  Would you require an urban plunge or an international experience?  Would you require an internship?  Would you still require the liberal arts?  This all gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.  Part of me fears the pace of educational change is impacted more by the inability to insert new ideas into old structure.  So, what if you could start over?

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The quest for the silver bullet.

Silver Bullet

Silver bullet?  What silver bullet?  I’ve been in higher education since 1998 working both in admissions and advancement.  I’ve participated in and directed discussions that lamented over what to do differently to achieve substantially greater results.  In almost every discussion it seems that we are most often looking for the one thing, that elusive silver bullet, which will turn water into wine.  As my Director of Admission says, “there is no silver bullet.”

He’s right but that doesn’t stop us from hoping that there is so these discussions continue.  Nevertheless, as realists we make sure we don’t spend too much time in imaginary land because it is highly unlikely that one strategic initiative from the admission office will achieve substantially different enrollment results.  Maybe it’s more productive to put time and energy into many strategic initiatives that help to move the needle together.  Staying true to my athletic background, I’ll use this analogy.  A star player can make a tremendous impact on a team; even win some games seemingly by themselves.  But, typically championships require a not only a few substantially talented individuals, but also a great “supporting cast”, a game plan that evolves adding new plays and different schemes, a crowd that supports the team, great coaching, and great ownership.  Great teams adapt and are always looking to get better throughout the season.  Teams that want to go from good to great, don’t make just one move in the off-season or even during the season.  Even those that are considered great must continue to evolve or complacency catches up.

This summer while in the same conversations of the past, we decided that we were going to try many new approaches with the plan that while not all will be home-runs, each of them together has real potential to help move the needle.  In fact, a colleague of mine challenged me.  He said, “Do one thing new every week.”  That proves to be very difficult but in the spirit of competition, I gave it a go.  It pushed (and continues to push) me every day to think forward.

We can easily put too much time and energy into one strategy and then we wait to determine if it actually works.  That’s frustrating!  I want to look for new ideas, new strategies, and continue to implement new programs anticipating that some will hit while others may miss.  I’m not arguing for the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach.  We still have to have a critical eye.  But, I want continual forward thinking.  Every plan is a working plan which should be continually adjusted.  This approach is particularly difficult for me.  I’m one that likes to create a plan and then work the plan with limited deviation.  In the world of traditional college enrollment, we deal with the traditional year-long cycle – often it takes a year (or more) to see results from our strategies.  We assess the results and make changes and then go again.  I don’t feel I can afford to be that traditional anymore.  I need to be more flexible; more innovative.

A buddy of mine read my first two blogs and provided some well-deserved constructive criticism.  He said, “You can suck me in and, yet, really not offer specifics.”  In that vein, I’ll give some specifics a try.  Here are a number of our new initiatives:

  • We launched a new senior advantage program for area high school students to take college courses for $100 at Doane College in their senior year.
  • We eliminated high school transcripts as a requirement for admission.
  • We approved 2014/15 tuition in October rather than waiting till February.
  • We plan to roll-out a three-year graduation guarantee before the end of second semester.
  • We are rolling out a new branding campaign.
  • We are venturing into social media advertising including Google AdWords and Facebook advertising.
  • We are creating videos to have a presence on YouTube.
  • We will substantially increase branding signage on campus over the course of the next 12 months.
  • We created targeted visit events based on some of our strong programs rather than continuing to offer generic group visit events.
  • We restructured our financial aid policy.
  • We are implementing a targeted communications plan that integrates mail, e-mail, text, and social media.  (Some of you may be saying, “Well, duh!”  I get it, everyone has a communications plan.  I also contend that everyone’s communication plan can be better.  I’m simply acknowledging here that our communications plan was not as integrated as it should have been and we took steps to mitigate this.  Still, we have more to do.)
  • We have initiated a Transfer Task Force to assess our current approach to transfer students – there may be a Transfer Graduation Guarantee Coming!
  • As an institution, we are instituting a College to Career Center and hiring an Internship Coordinator – we know internships lead to employment.
  • We are holding admission counselors accountable for the recruitment of what we call “unleveraged” students – those students who are not coming to Doane for athletics, music, or theatre.

These are a few.  None of these independently will propel us to our goals.  This isn’t enough!

We are smack in the middle of recruiting and I’m continuing to push on what we need to change to be more effective.  The market place has high expectations.  Meeting those expectations simply puts us in the game.  We need to exceed those expectations.  Quick example:  If you’ve ever been to Doane’s campus in Crete, NE, and taken the tour, you might make the statement, “If you can just get a student to visit, you should have no problem with enrollment.”  This would seem to imply a silver bullet possibility.  However, our visit yield is very similar to national averages.  It’s true.  Our campus is amazing.  But, let’s not forget that the vast majority of students don’t come to college to sit under the tree and look over the beautiful pond as the sun slowly sets.  Getting students to campus certainly is a huge step but there is more to it.

Colleges must evolve with the needs of students and families.  Communication methods have changed substantially in the last 10-15 years.  Change happens so fast that we must adapt and fight the urge to do it the way we always have.  Stay tuned…I’d like to share the process that led to a new branding campaign.

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