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Restructuring Higher Ed
Published Thursday, May 18, 2017

Against the headwinds of declining K-12 demographics, lack of state funding and rising costs, NH colleges are cutting staff and degrees while structuring new programs and buildings to compete for the brightest students.

For example, Colby-Sawyer College in New London dropped its English and philosophy majors due to low enrollments, but is honing in on nursing and other pre-professional programs that attract more students.

The nursing lab at Colby-Sawyer College in New London. Courtesy photo.

New England College in Henniker tabled majors like sociology and English, but its graduate programs in mental health counseling, in partnership with area behavioral centers, elicit praise from communities struggling with the opiate crisis.

Southern NH University is reevaluating its culinary program, but is adding an engineering college this fall.

And in a move that startled the higher ed community, Plymouth State University (PSU) scrapped three of its traditional colleges, including Arts & Sciences, in exchange for seven academic clusters with voguish names like education, democracy and social change.

Despite fears to the contrary, these institutions are not putting all liberal arts on the chopping block. Rather, they are recalculating the college curricula to give students tools to adapt to an evolving workforce.

This rejiggering evokes decisions that do not easily charm faculty, students and staff. Professors and administrative employees are let go; budgets are cut. These changes are difficult, admits Donald Birx, president of PSU since 2015 and the mastermind behind PSU’s radical approach to interdisciplinary learning. But they are necessary to break away from a siloed higher education organizational structure that emerged over time, he says.

Finding new ways to grow enrollment is imperative to the survival of small colleges. Tom Horgan, president of the NH College and University Council (NHCUC), says most colleges don’t have the infrastructure to build large endowments. They rely on tuition fees to maintain operating budgets. When enrollment shrinks, financial woes lie ahead.

Experiential Learning
Social media feeds and marketing brochures bombard college-bound students with recruitment messages. Barely into adulthood with newly minted drivers licenses and voting privileges, these teenagers face mounting pressure to identify colleges that may irreversibly alter their careers—or so they perceive. Their struggles are thick with questions such as: do I pursue subjects that intrigue me or find a profession that secures my destiny?

Their parents are asking the same questions, perhaps even more assertively. Ed MacKay, director of the NH Higher Education Commission, says that with college sticker prices crawling upwards to $50,000 or more, families want a guaranteed return on investment.

Also, many applicants favor more urban areas outside of NH that offer pragmatic experience, whether through formal cooperatives, clinical rotations or project-based practicums with
area businesses.

That leaves colleges in rural pockets of the state struggling to compete for quality students, says MacKay. To rival nationally known liberal arts institutions, many are ramping up their internship programs and learning experiences outside the classroom, ensuring students can apply academics to real-world situations.

Michelle Perkins, president of New England College, says the college offers 375 internships to its undergraduates, triple the number it maintained in 2014. It also incorporates internships into the coursework of many of its graduate programs, such as in clinical mental health and education.

SNHU officials want students to complete at least two pre-professional experiences before graduation. This occurs organically, says Michael Evans, SNHU’s vice president of academic affairs, but the school is drafting more official parameters.

The Entrepreneurship Center (ECenter) at UNH in Durham is another reflection of the emphasis on experiential learning. Only a year old and under the auspices of UNHInnovation, the ECenter is intentionally unaffiliated with any one college. Director Ian Grant says the 8,500-square-foot space provides resources to help students across a range of disciplines identify problems, test solutions and potentially develop commercial enterprises.

Devin McMahon is a UNH sophomore majoring in business administration. An industrial sewing machine sits in a corner of the ECenter where her co-creator and fellow business major Kate Aiken continues to revise a prototype that solves a problem many women experience but don’t talk about: an overnight sanitary napkin that absorbs better and without leakage.

Last semester, the two business partners earned $7,500 for their concept in the Paul J. Holloway Innovation-to-Market Prize that the University System of NH sponsors. They dubbed the hygiene product, “Lily Pad,” and cast a soft, swirly logo beside its moniker that McMahon says is “feminine but still beautiful and strong.”

ECenter director Ian Grant with Devin McMahon, co-creator of the "Lily Pad." Photo courtesy of ECenter.

Up against an industry dominated by a few major players, McMahon and Aiken predict a long road ahead with no assurances. “Once we dove into research and development, we realized we still have a lot to do,” says McMahon. Their prize money lets them attend entrepreneur conferences, run focus groups and purchase supplies for manufacturing. The ECenter offers expertise and connects them with external resources.

The ECenter’s Makerspace, where undergraduates work with 3D printers and laser cutters, is part of the tour taken by prospective students and is a strategic move that tilts the scales towards UNH’s favor, says Grant. “I literally see their [the visiting students] eyes light up.”

Boosting Enrollment and Revenue
When visitors come to a campus, they observe students congregating in dining halls, dorms, libraries and athletic fields. They eye the architecture and elicit feedback on the academics.

How well they connect with the vibe on campus determines whether they imagine themselves there.

Once students are enrolled, colleges need to keep them happy. Services like advising, tutoring, campus safety and security are all part of the amenities package. They’re all costly, says Perkins of New England College.

MacKay, of the NH Higher Education Commission, sees a dramatic shift in the level of support colleges offer to ensure student success and on-time graduation, including tutoring, advising, remedial courses, freshmen seminars, community engagement programs, mental health counseling and living-learning communities. This trend is partially driven by finances. “It’s less expensive to retain than recruit students,” says MacKay.

NEC admission officers assess risks of students who may not receive acceptances elsewhere but show potential, acknowledges Perkins. And while some colleges weed out students to demonstrate prestige, New England College allocates staff to mentor and counsel. The goal is to improve the college’s fall-to-fall freshman retention rate of 70 percent.

Evans of SNHU says that students have always needed help taking notes, managing their time and preparing for exams. What’s new is that colleges are responding. “The old sink or swim model is archaic,” he says. Last fall, SNHU renovated its former library to house support services for the disabled, veterans, international students and anyone needing academic advising under one roof.

To finance these services, colleges need multiple revenue streams, says Perkins. New England College has expanded its graduate programs to include engineering project management, education and health care management. It also established a master’s in computer information systems with more than 300 students.

Program Director and Professor Rick Mitchell teaches a Java course in New England College's Computer Information Systems program. Courtesy photo.

Using an overseas agent, New England College recruited most of these students from India who, unlike 96 percent of its undergraduate students, don’t receive financial aid. They reside locally but not on campus.

These and other programs also attract older students who don’t require the amenities and services of a typical freshman. Perkins says the college has increased enrollment from 650 in 2001 to close to 2,400 in fall 2016.

Boosting enrollment figures is the key to financial solvency, says Sue Stuebner, president of Colby-Sawyer in New London. Stuebner arrived at her position in March, armed with stats of a sloping applicant pool and charged with turning it around. The predicament of this small liberal arts school with Mt. Kearsarge as its backdrop is similar to that of other national institutions. Close to 40 percent of private colleges report declining enrollments in their freshmen classes, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

What’s to blame, in part, says Mac-Kay, are shifting demographics. After many years of steady increases, the number of high school graduates is shrinking. This year, it falls by 2.3 percent, with about 81,000 fewer graduates nationwide, and spirals downward until 2023, according to data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

The steepest declines are in the northeast where most NH colleges attract students, says Evans. The ebb is less significant in the southwest, prompting SNHU to advertise its brand nationally on television and streaming services to draw from other regions. Tuition discounts are deepening, reducing revenue that without significant endowments, leads to income shortfalls. Last year, average breaks in tuition trended towards 50 percent, according to NACUBO. In NH, discounts are closer to 60 percent, says Stuebner.

“Prior to five years ago, schools were able to see an increase in tuition revenue that was predictable and consistent,” says Stuebner. “Today, there’s a lot more volatility in the market.”

Like New England College, Colby-Sawyer had to shelve majors that weren’t drawing students. In doing so, it cut 18 positions and chose not to replace 19 people who left.
Stuebner is optimistic the 180-year college can turn around. To encourage diversity and to tap into new markets, Colby-Sawyer enrolls students from foreign countries with modest financial resources. In the future, it wants to expand its recruiting efforts to other countries like China or India. It hires commissioned agents who recruit overseas students that pay the full freight.

Federal laws prohibit recruiters from collecting fees for U.S. applicants but allow them for international students who don’t require government aid.

Experts often question the ethics of this industry, especially since agents get paid to enroll students but are not responsible for their academic outcomes. In recent years, some recruiters have come under scrutiny for falsifying transcripts or ghostwriting essays.

“You have to be careful,” admits Steubner. Schools that want to expand but don’t have national reputations depend on these middlemen to connect them with qualified foreign students. “Those with small resources have to network with partners,” adds Stuebner.

SNHU also courts foreign students and has 1,300 international undergraduate and graduate students from more than 60 countries who reside on the Manchester campus. When President Donald Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, SNHU President Paul LeBlanc wrote a letter opposing the President’s executive order and promising to use legal means to protect SNHU’s international students.

“For parents, sending their children to a foreign country is already a worrisome prospect, and they are watching our current national debate with curiosity and concern. I think international families want reassurance. Like any of us, they want to know that their sons and daughters will be safe, will be okay,” LeBlanc says. “They want to know that if they are studying with us on a student visa, that they can go home for a holiday and still return to the U.S. to complete their studies.”

LeBlanc says it is not yet known how the executive order may affect American universities. “We compete with other countries for foreign students—countries like Australia, Canada and England—and while all grapple with issues of immigration, none are sending the unwelcome messages that we are at the moment, and none are delivering it with so much confusion and conflicting guidance,” he says. “As any business owner knows, organizations want clarity, predictability and stability. To the extent that universities have business-like aspects—in our case, competing for international students, who have a $36 million impact on the Manchester economy alone—our job has been made much harder.”

Plymouth State’s Redesign
When it comes to redesign, Plymouth State University gets the trophy for its magnitude. Over the next three years, the publicly funded institution plans to eliminate three colleges and 24 undergraduate academic departments. It is replacing them with seven academic clusters, including Arts & Technologies; Education, Democracy & Social Change; Exploration & Discovery; Health & Human Enrichment; Innovation & Entrepreneurship; Justice & Security; and Tourism, Environment & Sustainable Development.

The realignment trims administrative budgets but comes with a casualty: PSU is removing close to 11 percent of its 734 employees. Some are leaving voluntarily, but their positions will not be filled. Most academic majors will remain the same, but they will fall under the auspices of what Birx refers to as an “open laboratories” model, where students are required to work across disciplines on theme-based projects. For example, he envisions computer science majors collaborating with artists and mechanical designers to build remote-controlled robots.

Plymouth State University President Donald Birx greets a student on move in day. Courtesy photo.

Birx cautions that this approach is not about jamming more knowledge onto students. “You [the students] can’t understand all the disciplines,” says Birx. “But you need to understand
their relationships.”

Barbara McCahan directs the Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities at PSU and is involved in faculty discussions on implementing hands-on projects for which students from different disciplines can receive academic credit. Of the redesign, she says, “we’re still trying to figure it out.”

Officials at Plymouth State University say this restructuring will spark synergy between students and community partners as they collaborate to solve real-world challenges. That may help this small college boost name recognition and lure more students to its central NH location tucked about 25 miles from Franconia Notch.

The ambitious plan comes at a critical time when public funds for NH colleges have stagnated at pre-recession levels and in-state tuition and fees run neck and neck with Vermont for the highest in the country. Evans applauds the efforts at PSU and says colleges need to continually evaluate what’s working and what isn’t, as well as answer the call when opportunity knocks.

That kind of analysis has led to SNHU re-evaluating its once popular culinary arts program, including a proposal to scale it back to an Associates degree. In contrast to SNHU’s burgeoning enrollments in accounting, finance and marketing, the culinary program has experienced a 39 percent drop in enrollment in the last few years. Whatever form the program takes, SNHU will allow its current culinary students to complete their degrees.

When Daniel Webster College in Nashua, owned by ITT Technical Services, announced it was closing its doors, the federal department of education asked SNHU officials to broker a “teach-out” agreement, allowing DWC students to continue their studies while SNHU administers the payroll. SNHU will accept DWC students onto its campus in the fall of 2017.

The agreement is also providing SNHU an opportunity to build an engineering program. SNHU will take on DWC’s programs in mechanical, aeronautical, and computer and electrical engineering, placing labs and classroom in a warehouse until it builds a new engineering building in a few years.

Such agility and innovation are needed for colleges and universities to survive. “Those that are creative and agile will hopefully thrive,” says Horgan. “Those who continue to do things as they’ve always done face an uncertain future.”

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