Higher Education

Why make the investment in a liberal arts college?

I had the pleasure of visiting with a father recently that is on the verge of sending his daughter to Doane College.  He shared with me that he had not attended college and has held many manual labor jobs over the course of his career.  While successful, he acknowledged that he had to scrape and claw most of his professional life in order to not only succeed but at times simply to make ends meet.  He confided in me his concern for his daughter.  He said, “She doesn’t really know what she wants to do.  I’m concerned about spending so much given that uncertainty.”

If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard that concern.  He went on to share that what makes him more comfortable – although not completely comfortable – with her lack of career direction is the fact that she is choosing a liberal arts college.  While I was excited to hear this, I’ll admit that I don’t hear that as often as I would like from parents.  He admitted that this is his first (and only) child so the entire process is new to him, but he has paid particular attention to what colleges and universities have shared about the educational value that they offer.  He acknowledged that attending a private college is more expensive, but he desperately wants to believe in what we’ve put in our marketing material.  He wants to believe that our liberal arts education is the best investment in his daughter’s future.

First, what a great guy!  There is a great deal of discussion regarding the value of the liberal arts in higher education (and I think a misunderstanding of the word liberal altogether.  But, we’ll leave that for another day.)  For example, consider this great article on 5 reasons to attend a liberal arts college.  When I encounter this issue with students or parents, I typically share my personal experience.  I was like many high school students who have an interest but not necessarily true direction for a career.  Back in the early 1990’s when Apple was big in education I heard a lot about desktop publishing.  I was not an artist, but I did enjoy working with layout software on computers.  As a result, I did some work on the profession as a senior project.  Given that I had started down this path I felt to a degree obligated to continue forward.  So, my interest brought me to a small private college which was in the early stages of a graphic design degree program.  All this to share that while I obtained my BA degree with a major in graphic design, I ultimately decided that I did not have the necessary talent to earn a living doing that work.  Frankly, I just wasn’t creative enough.

I share this because what I learned – which had always been told to me – is that the sum of my liberal arts experience prepared me for much more than I could have imagined – more than any single class.  While it prepared me to be a graphic designer by trade if I chose to, it also opened my future options to a career and profession that I could not have imagined while in college.  I still remember not wanting to take the history course or the marriage & family course.  But now, I understand why those were important and why they provided me with a great foundation.  I didn’t particularly enjoy math and like most college students majoring in art, I often asked why I need a math course when I’m not going to use math in my career.  I was a stupid, smart kid!

I believe the liberal arts experience prepares a student for more than what they think they need to know to be successful.  But, possibly more important, it gives students the foundation for a long successful professional life which will likely take twists and turns that at the moment may seem absurd.  I believe that people hiring students out of college are looking for college experiences that show the person can think critically, communicate effectively, listen, and learn.  I recognize that the student’s major can and does matter but I believe there should be more to it.  After all, how does a graphic design major end up as a successful fundraiser and higher education enrollment manager?  And, oh by the way, while I’ve continued to utilize the skills I learned through my graphic design degree, I also use math a lot!  A college degree prepares you for a job.   A liberal arts degree prepares you for careers – particularly those that don’t exist today.  While it’s true that students can obtain a liberal arts-type experience at a large, public institution, they will have to work at it and seek it out.  At colleges like Doane, it’s interwoven into the entire experience.  It’s what we do and I believe we do it very well.

Standard
Enrollment Management

[March Madness] Enrollment Management

Imagine, if you will, the high school senior that creates a tournament bracket similar to college basketball and seeds each of his potential college suitors in accordance with his interest.  Then, one by one he pits each school against one another using financial aid as the sole contributing factor to the decision on which college or university moves on to the next round.  (I saw something similar to this in our student affairs office last year when a college senior created a bracket during March representing his law school choices.)  As an enrollment management professional at a private, independent college and obviously not knowing explicitly who my institution is competing with, a process like this would make me cringe.

In the admission and financial aid office at Doane College, March 13th represents the date when we make our first official financial aid offers to prospective students.  We will mail over 400 financial aid awards representing over half of the total number of awards we will make this recruiting cycle.  And, when you consider that our first “wave” of financial aid awards accounts for roughly 60% of our anticipated class, it makes sense that this is a big deal.

March is maddening, particularly in this day and age in higher education and this would be true without college basketball!  I’ve discussed in previous posts the challenges of merit aid, price, cost, and tuition.  Financial aid is a beast and a blessing in enrollment management.  No two schools develop their financial aid policy and strategy the same.  As a result, all who want to make apples to apples comparisons with financial aid awards are easily frustrated.  A consequence of this process is an increasing demand for financial aid negotiations between potential students (or the parents) and the college.  At times it’s laughable because I often see those who have the greatest ability to pay for college lobbying for the greatest amount of aid.  But, then I ask myself, “Who could blame them?”  Just because people have wealth doesn’t mean they are any more interested in parting with it.  Nevertheless, I often hear more appeals for families with the financial resources than I do for those that do not.

Those in enrollment management understand that financial aid can be very complicated and therefore isn’t always the easiest to explain to families.  Even if you can articulate your institution’s philosophy and process, good luck helping a family understand why their Expected Family Contribution is $20,000 as defined by the FAFSA.  Who hasn’t heard the comment, “I don’t have $20,000 in the bank to pay for Junior’s college each year!”?  I suppose the saving grace is to share that the EFC is calculated the same for everyone and therefore each school is using the same information.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t provide families with much comfort.

So, how does an admission counselor navigate the March Madness bracket with a prospective student in the event they focus largely on the financial aid award?  As a private, independent college, how can we compete with the local community college on price?  If you draw that match-up do you simply throw in the towel?  How about if you draw the local state institution?  Maybe you have a chance if the student isn’t getting any aid from the state school.  But what if you draw another area competitor; similar college if you will?  Slam dunk, right?  Hmmm, not so fast.  In the end, we must to talk about value.  We cannot let it be only about cost even when we know that is a significant issue.

Let me share a brief story.  A father visits Doane College with his son.  During the visit they indicate that they have received an “offer” from another private, independent college in the state totaling more than our offer.  When asked for the details of the offer in order to determine if we could find a way to be more competitive, the father indicated that he doesn’t work that way.  He is a farmer and he likened his son’s college choice to a recent purchase of a tractor. He shared, “When I need a tractor, I go to two businesses and ask for the best price on a tractor.  Whoever gives me the best offer gets my business.”  I asked the father, “Sir, were both tractors John Deere?”  He indicated that both were Case to which I replied, “Sir, in your example, what if you were comparing Case to John Deere?  Would price be your only comparison point?”  I would bet that John Deere and Case reps would work hard to argue the differences in their tractors if given the chance.  That being said, if from the beginning this farmer knew that he wanted a Case, the fact that we are John Deere is irrelevant because it’s very possible that we don’t have what you want.  Comparing Doane College to another school based only on financial aid is shortsighted and assumes that everything else is equal.  A better financial offer from us may make your decision more difficult but it sounds like this farmer and his son had already decided what they wanted.

March Madness in higher education admissions seems to be all about financial aid and less the importance of fit and comfort in a college choice.  As colleges, we create financial aid awarding strategies in order to provide enough financial aid to make enrollment possible for a target amount of prospective students while also anticipating resulting revenue.  Ultimately, our awards will not be the best award for every student.  It doesn’t (and can’t!) work that way.  But, we want to be right for 350 first-year students for sure!

Standard
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?

Standard
Enrollment Management

Merit aid and the impact on tuition price

Eric Hoover wrote an article on January 17th, “Want to Define Merit?  Good luck.”  He accounted for a discussion among higher education enrollment officials at a conference focused on merit aid, specifically how colleges assess and reward merit aid to shape the socioeconomic and racial diversity of students at selective colleges.  I enjoyed the article but it got me thinking.  Shape socioeconomic and racial diversity?  I wish!

The term “merit aid” has grown in relevance exponentially over the last ten years for private, independent colleges.  But, merit aid is an enrollment tool used for very different reasons depending on the college.   Hoover’s article is focused on the discussion of officials from more selective colleges.  He discussed need-blind admissions, the influence of social class on students’ test scores, and the important debate surrounding the way in which colleges leverage aid to solidify diversity in enrollment.

Now, allow me the opportunity to share the world that many enrollment managers and college administrators live in related to this merit aid.  Our institutions are not considered highly selective.  We would love to shape our classes with more diversity and better test scores which typically translate into higher retention rates and ultimately stronger ratings in US News & World Report.  We thoroughly enjoy those conversations and get excited whenever the opportunity arises to participate in that discussion.  Unfortunately, our real-world, day-to-day challenges often push the discussion of shaping a class to the periphery.  Focus on that and we don’t have the enrollment to shape!  Fair to say, our issues with merit aid are different.

When colleges began offering merit, they opened Pandora’s Box.  On one hand, it was genius because it made private college attractive to many students who may have seen it as out of reach due to cost; college only for the wealthy.  On the other hand, it started a financial war which continues today.  Schools are pitted against each other fighting for the same student often not based on value of the education, but instead based on the value of a scholarship.  And, make no mistake; as the pressure to offer more merit has increased, schools have had to recoup their financial investment (net tuition revenue) in the form of tuition increases.

Because colleges offer merit with slightly different criteria, comparisons can be challenging.  There are different qualifications for different scholarship amounts.  Some scholarships are competitive whereas others are given based solely on arbitrary criteria.  Moreover, the arbitrary criteria are different at each school as is the amount attributed to the criteria.  Easy example is Doane College and Hastings College.  Very similar schools but different academic qualifications for different scholarship amounts.

As tuition-driven colleges increase merit to attract more students, it puts other similar colleges in a position to increase merit as well to be competitive in very price/cost-sensitive markets.  One college can significantly increase merit aid forcing other similar schools to do the same to stay competitive or lose enrollment.  In the private college environment, I believe this tactic erodes the value of the product we sell.  And not only that, but as I mentioned before, tuition will increase in order to recoup some of the net revenue lost by increasing aid.  I don’t expect students/parents to appreciate this or feel any remorse for colleges.  Nevertheless, merit aid war games are significantly effecting decisions made with respect to tuition and other costs at colleges today.

I’m not suggesting that merit aid is bad.  I don’t think I can make that argument.  But, it complicates an already challenging college decision.  If instead of merit, a college chose to provide financial aid based solely on need, it’s not likely that the college would meet enrollment targets, nor would it likely meet net tuition revenue targets for operational budgets.  But, some would argue that’s the “right thing to do.”  I don’t see an easy answer here but I do anticipate a change coming in higher education.  The path of more aid and increased tuition is a very rocky road at best.

I’m not minimizing the importance of the merit conversation related to Mr. Hoover’s article.  However, I think it’s important to understand that there is another merit issue unrelated to and (to me) equally important for many colleges today.  We can’t begin to shape our enrollment if we don’t have enrollment to shape.

What do you believe the role of merit aid should be in college enrollment?   

Standard