Liberal arts colleges face unique challenges in today’s higher education landscape. Declining enrollments and financial challenges have led to the closure of many colleges, particularly in the Northeast. It is in these situations where leadership can play an important role in charting new strategies that will allow for their colleges to thrive into the future.
Many small liberal arts colleges also have small endowments, which leave little buffer room when enrollments decline. Development, including relationships with potential donors and alumni, are important components for supporting the mission of a college or university. However, just as important is developing relationships with current students—first to ensure that they graduate, and second, to foster the ongoing relationship so that they become supportive alumni when they graduate.
Having just dropped off my son at a small, liberal arts college, and having been provost at a small college for three years, I have become interested in the ways that liberal arts colleges are developing strategies to work with a changing student body—particularly students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds. Innovation is not only important for making processes more efficient, but also providing new resources that can help retain students and get them to graduation in a timely manner.
Due to their size and low faculty-to-student ratios, liberal arts colleges are often a good choice for students who can take the opportunity to connect with faculty and have a smaller community to engage with. For students with strong family ties, they can be a place that resembles some of the community structures they have grown up with. Liberal arts colleges are one of many college options that can meet students’ different needs.
As a parent, I appreciated the thoughtful way that Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon began the relationship with my son. Their events in California were held at the homes of parents, they have a parents’ council that advises the president on a variety of issues, and the first two days of orientation also included two days of orientation for parents. Of course, at the end of it, they asked us all to kindly leave our children, so they can start the process of “adulting.”
Lewis and Clark’s President Wim Wiewel has a strong fundraising strategy, and I was impressed with the outline of the strategic plan that has gotten them off to a good start on their next capital campaign. I know from my own experience as an administrator that development and fundraising have to be an “all hands on deck” activity. That also means that faculty and staff have to buy into the mission and strategic plan so that they can articulate to students, potential donors, and alumni how the college is meeting its mission—which should focus on students.
There are many “shiny objects” out there that promise to be the latest and greatest innovation for your campus. They can be helpful, but what can be even more helpful is a relationship-building strategy. This requires having a mission and strategy that are clear, student-focused, and easily articulated. Taking care of students from the time they apply, attend school, and then through their alumni years is an important component of any college’s strategy. And don’t forget their parents—they can become important supporters, even if they aren’t alumni themselves.
I find it very unlikely that the liberal arts college will go away, despite the challenges they face. I am encouraged by the many colleges that are finding new ways to update their curriculum and focus on the needs of a changing student body. I am thrilled that my son has the opportunity to get a great education, and I’m also excited to be able to be involved in and support the institution that has welcomed us as a family.
You can find Terri at the Council of Independent Colleges conference in November.
About the author:
Terri Givens, Founder & CEO
Terri is the former Provost at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area; Professor of Government and European studies at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice Provost overseeing undergraduate curriculum and spearheading global initiatives as its chief international officer.