Friday, September 30, 2011

A Road Less Easily Traveled: Selling Higher Education in Tough Times

(The State Journal, September 2011 - by Scott D. Miller)

Addressing our September 8 Bethany College Fall Convocation audience—especially our students—Board of Trustees Chair Greg Jordan suggested that as we look over the menu of today’s bad headlines, we hold the despair.

Fluctuations in stock markets, unemployment figures, and other indicators of the nation’s financial health are cyclical and normal, Jordan, a native of Warwood, WV, and now global managing partner of Pittsburgh’s Reed Smith law firm, reminded us in his address, “You Can Get There from Here.” None should derail a student’s plans for success.

That’s wise advice for seniors about to enter one of the toughest job markets in American history—symptomatic of perilous economic conditions that are preventing many other students from committing to a four-year undergraduate program in the first place.
At a time when higher education continues to come under increased scrutiny from the media, families, employers, and students themselves, outcomes and perceived value are paramount concerns.  A recent survey commissioned by the Pew Foundation revealed decidedly mixed perceptions about the value of higher education that should cause the industry to take stock. On the one hand, alumni themselves believe that their investment in a four-year college education was a worthwhile investment, and long-term salary statistics confirm that assessment. On the other, however, the public increasingly feels that a four-year college education is out of reach economically.

Families fear that student loan interest rates will skyrocket, and the continued uncertainty surrounding Pell Grants adds to the perception that a college education may not be affordable. Despite the availability of other forms of financial aid, once they graduate, college students are likely to find themselves in debt.  A study by the Institute for Financial Literacy found that college graduates are not only not immune from bankruptcy, but now constitute the fastest-growing group seeking such protection.  Some employers, meanwhile, point to what they see as the mismatch between needed skills and preparation of college graduates. 

Bottom line? The opening of fall term this year, for me, represents the most unusual, unstable, and anxious recruitment cycle I have experienced in my career as a higher education administrator. As with much else in our economy, consumer perception and confidence drive purchases.

Confronting fluctuations in enrollment, colleges and universities have had to adopt new business models. Writing in Presidential Perspectives, which my colleague Dr. Marylouise Fennell and I edit, President and CEO of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) John Walda states, “What has changed, dramatically and positively, is the way we in higher education do business. Higher education institutions have been exploring new financial and educational delivery models at an unprecedented pace…finding new and innovative ways to respond to student need, often while simultaneously cutting operating costs.”

Whether partnering with other institutions, as Bethany College does, outsourcing basic services like food services and campus security, or simply relying on bold strategic planning, colleges and universities have no choice but to manage change before it manages them.

Often it’s as much, if not more, a matter of retaining current students—the existing paying customers—as recruiting new ones. Dr. Joe Pace, a national expert in student retention, prescribes “total employee commitment and involvement” for ailing student retention rates. That means that every employee of a college or university—administrators, faculty, service staff—needs to be a model, mentor, or monitor, especially of newly enrolled, at-risk students such as those who represent the first generation in their families to attend college. For them, the first three months of the first semester are especially critical.

For the students who make the sometimes difficult decision to enroll in college, we should make every effort to help them succeed. After his Fall Convocation address at Bethany, Greg Jordan hosted an afternoon panel of top-flight business professionals for an audience packed with students. He and his colleagues covered career-wise topics such as clear communication, appreciation for other cultures, keeping up with technology, and the importance of volunteering. That’s the kind of “value-added” feature that market-minded colleges are making available these days.

As in any business, if we in higher education do our jobs well in pleasing our clients, they are likely to return to invest in what we offer. A freshly matriculated college freshman may contemplate four years of college as a long road to travel. Given today’s economy, however, it is no less a formidable goal for us educators who pronounce the merits of making that journey.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bethany Trivia

What sororities formerly existed at Bethany College?

Click here to see the answer and other Bethany Trivia questions.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fostering Student Success: Vision, Emotion and Connectivity

(Enrollment Manager, October 2011 – by Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell)

When it comes to student retention, it turns out that what we thought we knew ain’t necessarily so.  Current research reveals that many key assumptions on which we have often based enrollment management practices need to be challenged and modified.

Take, for instance, the traditional institutionally-centered focus on retention.  When we as college CEOs and senior enrollment (admissions) managers turn this issue around, examining persistence from the student’s standpoint, we enhance existing perspectives about what fosters students success, says Dr. Joe Pace, a nationally-known specialist in student retention.

Institutions have often acted on the knowledge that students are most vulnerable to dropping out within their first 90 days of enrollment by creating success-centered classes, First Year seminars and the like.  Such courses are helpful in stemming attrition, but they don’t go far enough.  When we delve further into what motivates students to persist until graduation, we find that “it is total employee commitment and involvement that makes the difference,” Pace notes.

Further, we have often placed most responsibility for retention upon faculty or enrollment management staff, rather than fostering connectivity across the board. All employees need to be models, mentors and monitors.  The stronger the connections they foster with students, the higher the rate of student persistence. 

The reverse is also true.  “Unconscious saboteurs” – those who (often unknowingly) create negative enrollment outcomes -- can undo the best work of even model mentors.  “It takes 11 positive mentor models to counteract the influence of one negative,” Pace notes. 

Thus, it is critical for institutions to train all employees in what Pace calls “the edupreneurial spirit,” focusing on the student or customer-oriented side of higher education. 

Next, institutions too often create a disconnect between student expectations and reality, emphasizing rational choices rather than emotion in the choice to remain enrolled or to drop out.  College presidents and senior leadership need to embrace the “heart” or “hot button” strategies based on current cognitive behavioral research to assist students in persisting.  Students who persist tend to have a sensory-rich vision in their minds; we want them to feel, taste and touch the goal.  We may want to motivate them with a picture of the student in cap and gown holding a degree taken when he or she is a freshman.  For many, it will be some other motivator, including photos with their parents, spouses and children and with them in cap and gown.  Sometimes, the more humorous or audacious the imagery, the more effective.  When students don’t persist, it is often because their vision isn’t concrete enough to take them through the rough spots.

Both i.q. and emotional intelligence are instrumental in boosting retention rates.  Every employee of the college must know what has been promised by the college to its students, and everyone must work to deliver what has been promised; dreams can quickly unravel.  The more employees understand about the student’s “picture,” the more they can support it.  Research shows that emotion is involved in any type of long-term change; people do not change without it.  Thus, successful retention strategies touch both the head and the heart.

Next, while we sometimes view successful enrollment management strategies as relying on big, bold measures, we should remember that even small changes in institutional behavior can produce measurable results over time.

You retain one student at a time, one here, another there, and before you know it, over the course of a year, your retention will have improved by 10 percent.

Finally, we must recognize that improving retention is a task that is never going to be completed.  It is ongoing.  People ask, “When will this retention thing be solved?”  It will never be totally solved.

However, by paying scrupulous attention to students’ needs and expectations (attention equals retention), hiring and promoting instructors with “intelligent hearts,” training “edupreneurs” and “touching the heart button,” we can foster greater persistence, resulting in measurably higher retention.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of the College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College in West Virginia.  Now in his third college presidency, he has served as a CEO for nearly 21 years.  

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bethany Trivia

In what year did Bethany students strike? Why were the students striking?

Click here to see the answer and other Bethany Trivia questions.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bethany Trivia

In what year were the Oglebay Gates built?

Click here to see the answer and other Bethany Trivia questions.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Presidential Perspectives

(This month's issue of Presidential Perspectives, a presidential thought series, published by Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell with support of Aramark Higher Education). 

This month's chapter is titled "Tuition Discounting: Issue of Transparency, Access and Accountability": 

Bethany Trivia

In what year did football begin at Bethany?

Click here to see the answer and other Bethany Trivia questions.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Historic Commitment, Recent Success Mark New Academic Year

(The President's Letter, September 2011)

As I write, we are in the second week of classes for the new academic year.  Standing in majestic Commencement Hall welcoming our new students and their families to Bethany during the annual Matriculation Convocation on August 20, I was reminded of our remarkable history.  This magnificent venue, where United States presidents and other dignitaries have spoken, seems to represent the intersection of Bethany’s golden past and a future bright with possibility.

As Bethany begins its 172nd year, the College’s proactive management of change has resulted in notable strides in key areas. These include strengthening enrollment, furthering a successful capital campaign and recruiting talented faculty committed to the core principles of a liberal arts education.

I believe that our founders would look with pride upon Bethany today, fulfilling our mission and thriving amid challenging times. Benefiting from focused strategic planning, we enter the 2011-2012 academic year with momentum and the promise of ongoing success.

Our student population is reported to be the most diverse in the College’s history, including a much wider geographical representation than in past classes.  Moreover, thanks to the stellar efforts of Director of Enrollment R.J. Zitzelsberger and his staff the academic profile of the newly-matriculated class is the strongest in 11 years, while the total enrollment of 1,020 this past year is the largest since 1976-1977.  After three successive larger-than-usual recruiting classes that have brought us to full residential capacity last year, we focused this year on increased selectivity. 

Our capital campaign has passed the $33 million mark after only three years, with total new resources from all sources exceeding $40 million during that time.  So, while we continue to face enormous challenges, these quantifiable measures show that we are on the right course, that donors express confidence in our progress through their giving and that our master planning is continuing to show the desired results.

The value of a Bethany education has been reaffirmed, as well, by a number of national rankings.   We are especially proud that the College’s  financial aid programs resulted in “Best Buy” rankings from both Forbes and Barron’s, and that Bethany students placed 7th nationally in lowest student debt, according to U.S. News and World Report.  

In addition, as a result of the College’s ongoing commitment to service, the Corporation for National and Community Service recently named Bethany a national leader among institutions of higher learning for its support of volunteering, service learning and civic engagement. In 2010, Bethany was admitted to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.  Over the summer, we were invited to participate in the opening sessions of President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, held at the White House. Our campus events for the Challenge will include days of service and ongoing dialogue about the strength of community engagement by all faiths.

There is more good news to share:
  • The College will benefit from a $100,000 challenge gift in honor of Professor Randy Cooey, who retired last year after 45 years on the College faculty in business and economics, and retired economics Professor John Davis. The gift will honor their years of service while launching a new experiential fellowship for students in business and economics.
  • In the academic area, the College is developing interdisciplinary minors in non-profit marketing and non-profit management.
  • We are also developing “dual major” pathways in social work and psychology, economics and math and business and computer science and proceeding with plans for “2 + 2” agreements in psychology while exploring a three-year degree pathway.
  • To better prepare students for a global economy and increasingly pluralistic society, we are delivering Arabic language and culture courses through the Fulbright FLTA program and further developing global opportunities leading to a study-abroad requirement no later than 2013.  In that vein, I am happy to report that Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Gary Kappel will be heading to England next year as a visiting professor at Harlaxton College, one of several international institutions with which Bethany has  partnerships.
  • Finally, because expanded use of technology in classroom learning and teaching is so critical to student success, we continue to foster partnerships with organizations such as the Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and Universities (OCICU), New York Times Knowledge Network, and the Appalachian College Association Bowen Central Virtual Library to extend student and faculty access and library holdings.
I continue to hear positive comments from returning students marveling at the renovations in Ogden Dining Hall of Benedum Commons and the Bethany Beanery in Morlan Hall. Over the summer, the studios of the Bethany Broadcasting Network (BBN) received new equipment and a sophisticated new look.  Each of these projects was funded by private gifts.

Our athletic teams are displaying a positive outlook as they begin their fall seasons. Women’s volleyball and men’s soccer eye NCAA berths after strong conference and ECAC showings in 2010. Bethany football looks to continue its rise to the top of the PAC under the leadership of veteran Coach Tim Weaver.
In 2010-2011, we added men’s lacrosse, with 23 students on the roster, and we will debut women’s field hockey in fall 2012. In addition, we plan to add women’s lacrosse in 2013. Bethany continues to make progress in the area of athletics program enhancements and successes with the completion of the Goin Locker Room and plans for the future construction of a new baseball complex.

By any standard, we are doing well.  But numerous challenges remain.

Top priorities for this academic year include:
  • Addressing recommendations from the Higher Learning Commission, strengthening finances and assessment. A report is due in spring 2012;
  • Continuing to emphasize operational efficiency, control spending, forge synergistic educational partnerships and focus on cost containment;
  • Strengthening graduate and undergraduate enrollment and fostering retention;
  • Focusing on capital fundraising by securing at least $5 million in new gifts and pledges; and
  • Emphasizing Strategic Planning/Image Building.
If all this seems like a tall order, remember that Bethanians have always been resilient pioneers and innovators, building a campus in the midst of rural farmland and surviving the horrific Civil War that closed many colleges permanently.  It is this spirit of “grace and grit” that will carry us confidently into the future.

It’s often been said that success lies at the intersection of luck and preparation.  With insight, imagination and vision, and with your continued support, Bethany College will thrive and prosper in the new academic year.

P.S. Don’t forget:  Homecoming is just around the corner, October 8-10.  Watch for details in the Old Main Journal or check the schedule and registration on our web site.  Reconnect with friends, classmates and former professors on our mountaintop campus at its most beautiful in the fall season.