This article explores case studies from two small, private institutions (one urban with undergraduate and graduate programs and the other rural undergraduate) about managing change to strategically optimize enrollment while building new programs and partnerships for a sustainable approach to a declining but more diverse student population, tuition dependency, shared governance, and long-term resiliency.
Higher education in America is navigating an environment of increased competition for student recruitment which is in part connected to a shrinking population. For example, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education reported nearly a 3% decline in the number of high school graduates in the U.S. between 2014 and 2017 with a much steeper decline expected to start around 2026. To compound the situation, the rising price of published tuition and fees, despite greater discounting, has contributed to an erosion in the perceived value of a college education.
Small liberal arts colleges and universities, especially those in the Northeast and Midwest, face the greatest strain. According to projections by the United States Department of Education, Pennsylvania is expected to have among the greatest percentage decreases in high school graduates over the next five to ten years. In this environment, two institutions in western Pennsylvania, Chatham University and Allegheny College, have built strategies of resilience by optimizing their student bodies with realistically targeted enrollment goals. As tuition-dependent institutions, this strategy ensures they are building more sustainable, less aspirational budgets. This essay provides an overview of the processes that each institution employed to manage change—processes which, we believe, can be of use to other institutions.
Founded in 1869 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Chatham University is one of the country’s oldest women’s colleges, has a co-ed enrollment of over 2,200 students, and grants bachelors through doctoral degrees. In 2013 Chatham was facing significant declining undergraduate enrollment in the women’s college, prompting the University to engage multiple stakeholder groups to explore options for a more sustainable future. Over its nearly 150 years, Chatham had changed many times as it has pursued its mission to help people live productive, responsible, and fulfilling lives. The focus in the 1860s was access to education for women; the concentration later was a Gateway program for older women to earn their bachelor’s degrees. The 1990s and 2000s saw the addition of graduate professional programs with an emphasis in the health sciences and sustainability.
Pursuing change has always been an essential part of the culture of the university and change was needed once again to ensure continued resiliency in light of evolving demographics and enrollment trends. To begin the process, the University decided to explore methods for bolstering undergraduate education, including considering the implications of opening the undergraduate women’s college to both women and men. Whatever change that was pursued was to be undertaken with the goal of growing the total number of undergraduate students and fostering a sustainable and vibrant student body.
At the time of this process, the graduate enrollments were three times those of the women’s college undergraduates, which had declined to around 400. Graduate enrollment was subsidizing the undergraduate programs at a rate that was projected to be untenable in less than five years. Internal studies found that fewer than 2% of high school girls indicated interest in women’s colleges; therefore, it was and would continue to be arduous and unproductive to recruit from the reluctant 98%. Were the university to do nothing, undergraduate education would essentially disappear.
To begin the process, the President convened a Faculty Study Group to explore disruptive innovation by looking at multiple options for what could be a viable future, while the Board of Trustees simultaneously developed a task force. Several of the possibilities considered included becoming a graduate college, enrolling undergraduate men to a specific level to remain a women’s college, developing a separate coeducational undergraduate college while maintaining a women’s college, and moving to fully coeducational undergraduate programs. A series of town hall meetings locally and regionally were held for alumnae; blogs and online feedback forums were developed for continuing dialogue; and student meetings were held on campus to discuss the options. The Board of Trustees, having gathered significant data from their task force and these initiatives, voted in May of 2014 to move the undergraduate college to fully coeducational that August.
Significant collaborative work across the university ensued, including restructuring the academic schools, revising the undergraduate general education, adding men’s sports teams, and creating a women’s institute to further the legacy of the women’s college. As a result of this thoughtful and engaging process, the university has increased the undergraduate enrollments to nearly match the graduate enrollments, while creating a balanced institution that remains true to its mission. In order to sustain this new population, key stakeholders have developed enrollment goals and allocated resources to achieve a stable and attainable undergraduate student body.
Key factors to the success of managing this change to strategically optimize enrollment included significant planning, dedicated personnel committed to change management, multiple communication venues for constituents, and capturing the details of the process to compile afterward for continuous improvement and accreditation purposes.
Allegheny College is an undergraduate liberal arts institution located in Meadville, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh. Founded in 1815 to provide access to education in what was then a frontier region of America, Allegheny continues its tradition of access with recent entering classes exceeding 30% Pell eligibility and delivers its mission to promote students’ intellectual, moral, and social development along with personal and civic responsibility. Through the mid-1990s into the early 2000s the full-time student body averaged about 1,850 students. After a period of growth throughout the 2000s, Allegheny, like other institutions, faced enrollment pressure and budget challenges around 2014 as the nation experienced a decrease in the number of high school graduates. While meeting enrollment goals in 2016, the projection of a decrease in high school graduates starting around 2026 prompted a robust evaluation and planning process from which Allegheny chose to strategically return to a smaller student body and become a more selective institution while investing in new curricular and co-curricular programs. Remarkably, these strategies were adopted and implemented within one year following a broad and inclusive process.
This process began in the winter of 2017 with a retreat by the Board of Trustees that was followed by the President forming a multi-stakeholder strategic planning group to proactively confront the challenges ahead. In early summer 2017 the President convened a 45-member working group that included faculty, administrators, coaches, students, and trustees/alumni. This group was divided into three areas of focus: access and enrollment, programs (curricular and co-curricular), and facilities. Each focus group in turn consulted with a range of other campus stakeholders as they developed strategies and recommendations for a sustainable future. By the end of summer, this plan was completed and distributed to the Board and to the full campus community with feedback and discussion through ‘town hall’ style meetings, on-line open-format surveys, and shared governance structures. The Board unanimously adopted the plan in October with implementation throughout the remaining 2017-18 academic year. The plan includes a realistic vision to systematically lower enrollment targets by a small percentage each year over five to seven years based on demographic projections—a vision that remains consistent with Allegheny’s mission and commitments to diversity and access. In the first year of the plan, there was an increase in academic quality and a decrease in the acceptance rate of the incoming class while increasing domestic and international diversity and maintaining Pell eligibility above 30%.
Coupled with this plan, the Board unanimously approved a retirement incentive to balance staffing in concert with the new student body. While such a plan will not be effective for all institutions, it was well-received and effective at Allegheny with retirements spread evenly across the curriculum allowing for selective re-hiring in areas of greatest staffing need. Importantly, the subsequent faculty staffing plan, released in February 2018, maintains a consistent student/faculty ratio based on enrollment projections. A strong process for consistent and frequent communication was integral to the success of the staffing plan.
The process for developing the faculty staffing plan began soon after the summer 2017 working group completed its report. In August 2017 the Provost provided an overview of the main points and criteria to Faculty Council (an elected body of faculty which serves as liaison with the administration and advises the President and Provost on staffing). This was followed in late August and early September by individual meetings between the Provost and each department/program chair to review the broad aspects of the plan and to provide information about projected staffing in their areas. Faculty Council was updated and consulted on the staffing plan through fall 2017 and drafts were also shared with deans in academics, student affairs, and enrollment. Final pieces of the plan were shared and discussed with Faculty Council during January 2018 and it was finalized by the end of January after the close of the retirement incentive.
A second round of meetings with the Provost and department chairs followed to review the final plan as it pertained to each department and to discuss and resolve short-term staffing needs relevant to retirements. The main points of the plan were also shared with the Student Government and Alumni Council. Also, during a half-day retreat in January, the Provost discussed it with the College EVP/COO and CFO for counsel and context regarding multi-year budget planning. An overview of the staffing plan was presented in January at a meeting of all department and program chairs and to the Board of Trustees at their meeting in early February. Throughout the entire process, the Provost worked closely with the President. Following release of the plan in early February 2018, the Provost hosted a half-day Curriculum Summit for chairs to bring forward concerns, collaborate, and anticipate problems with implementation.
From the start, the prospect of change brought uncertainty among faculty and staff. However, key factors for managing this change have been open communication, building and following an inclusive process, and significant evidence-based planning.
Common to each institution is a proactive Board of Trustees that has invested in programs to support innovation. The two institutions have also developed new partnerships in the form of post-baccalaureate articulation agreements which are mutually beneficial for student recruitment. Historical and national demographic data formed the basis of evidence-based decisions that facilitated a process of collaborative change involving trustees, students, faculty, alumni, and administration. Both institutions have adopted realistic enrollment strategies, pinned to sustainable goals that are not dependent on growth in the face of a projected decline in high school graduates.
The lessons learned at these institutions can serve as valuable case studies for other institutions that are considering their next steps. In particular, understanding change management has been fundamental to both institutions. Phases of change common in both cases are:
Denial There’s no need for us to change
Resistance We won’t change
Acceptance We’re open to change but not sure how
Alignment We’re working in sync toward a common goal
Progressing through these phases can take months or, more typically, a few years. Both institutions recognize points in time when the direction of change was temporarily reversed (i.e., moving from growing acceptance back to resistance for some stakeholders in response to particular issues), but the long-term progression has been towards alignment. We believe that reaching alignment requires an inclusive process with frequent and consistent communication of plans and clear rationale for decisions in order to achieve a shared vision. Recognizing these phases has been key to developing resilience—the ability to effectively advance our missions in an ever-changing environment—at each institution.