Writing in a front-page story in the Boston Globe last week, Deirdre Fernandez reported that Merrimack College “has recalibrated its approach to move away from the traditional liberal arts offering – and the strategy is working.”
Ms. Fernandez noted that Merrimack is among a handful of small private colleges that have avoided drastic financial steps, despite changing demographics and the consumer revolt against high sticker prices. She argues that Merrimack’s success is exceptional, especially in the highly competitive admissions market in the Northeast. In fact, Merrimack’s enrollment has increased by more than 60 percent from 2300 students in 2011 to 3,780 students last year. The college expects its second largest first-year enrollment in September.
I should offer a disclaimer that I am a Merrimack graduate and have served both as a trustee and the chair of the Board. But that having been said, what happened at Merrimack is illustrative of the broader changes that must occur across higher education.
Focus on Tech and Health Science Programs
Ms. Fernandez rightly attributes much of the enrollment growth to the College’s determination to aggressively support programs in health science, business, and engineering to reflect the steady growth of these sectors as foundational pillars in the Boston “eds and meds” high and biotech economy.
Fernandez argues that this represents a move away from the humanities toward more practical education that serves the workforce needs of the Boston region.
Sophisticated Financial Aid Model Targets Right Students
Ms. Fernandez also reports that Merrimack has worked extraordinarily hard to develop a sophisticated financial aid model, targeting the right students rather than simply the best scoring ones:
“The effort has become so sophisticated that the College uses an outside consultant and computer algorithms to dole out financial aid, ensuring that students who visit often and want to come to the school get more money, instead of simply offering the biggest scholarships to students with the best grades who are weighing several options.”
The Globe article suggests that the redefinition of the college’s product – in this case, attention to academic program differentiation – enabled Merrimack to emerge from the pack of other good schools working to define their future.
Strategic Allocation of Resources to Boost Enrollment Growth
But the hidden story behind the obvious lessons that Merrimack provides on enrollment growth is that its leadership of trustees, faculty, and administrative staff determined what resources they had to use, where investments made the best sense, and how to tie issues such as enrollment growth to strategy.
It’s much more complicated than what even the most significant financial aid modeling could provide.
The transformation begins with leadership. When Merrimack College sought a new president in 2010, its Board consciously made a determination to seek the right person for that moment in the College’s history, choosing a senior Northeastern University official, Dr. Christopher Hopey, as its new leader. What attracted the search committee to Mr. Hopey was the range and complexity of his experience, a successful track record in growing programs at Northeastern, and a clearly articulated vision of where a tuition-dependent college should head in its service market.
The new president also understood the need to build on Merrimack’s sense of self, appreciated the limits of the cards that were dealt to him, and could execute, assess, and modify the combination of people, programs, and facilities that Merrimack must have to become a sustainable college.
The Board of Trustees also looked hard at itself, determined to keep its noses in but fingers out of the tent. First, the board established what it needed to know and then looked at what it did not know.
The college’s new administration found a rare combination of external in-residence expertise, new hires, and consultants who built from the Augustinian traditions that shaped Merrimack’s traditions, pushing aside the inertia that defines so many college campuses.
Merrimack moved quickly to support its newly differentiated programs. But what’s missing from the Globe article is that while Merrimack ramped up professional programs tied to the regional economy, it remained true to the core tenets of the liberal arts. Students still graduated with an ability to speak, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting.
This combination of the liberal arts tradition washing over its professional programs is Merrimack’s equivalent of the “secret sauce” that separates the College from its peers.
Ultimately, the lesson from Merrimack College is similar to that learned from other colleges and universities that took off as they differentiated themselves. Examples include Elon University, SUNY Geneseo, and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo although the circumstances are different on each campus.
The cold fact is that there is no simple strategy to build sustainable growth on a college campus. The solution instead begins with an understanding of who the institution is and how the pieces fit together.
While on the Merrimack campus not too long ago, I ran into the women’s basketball coach – also a former colleague from an institution where we had both worked. Without prompting, she spoke passionately about how she loved working at Merrimack because she felt the momentum that the changes had made possible each day.
That’s the best success metric for any college in the end. The right kind of change builds momentum. You know it when you feel it.
Many of us have long been proponents of “laboratory” initiatives in the humanities, social sciences, professional and graduate programs that translate academic learning into real world experience.
These initiatives serve a variety of purposes. They make critical inquiry more pragmatic. Most colleges and universities build their academic program on the traditions of the liberal arts. It’s an education that provides a broad and encompassing view of the world. The best liberal arts programs teach students to think not by memorizing but by better integrating what they learn into a comprehensive understanding of an issue. They graduate with an ability to write, articulate their positions, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting.
As an employer, would you rather have an engineer trained in the liberal arts or one trained more narrowly as an engineer without these additional skills?
Arguably, both have similar technical skill sets. But in the first case, the liberal arts engineer also enters the workforce with a capacity to move beyond the narrow technical training to contribute earlier and more meaningfully to his employer. Put in other terms, an engineer trained in the liberal arts is the more logical hire, if the quality of the engineering training is roughly equivalent.
In a sense, it’s the softness of traditional arguments supporting the liberal arts that obfuscates the case for an educational foundation based upon the liberal arts, in whatever field.
The historic argument – which I continue to believe and advocate as a former college and university president – is that the liberal arts create both educated citizens and train graduates for life.
It’s a good political argument but insufficiently pragmatic to address the needs of prospective applicants and their future employers.
College Career Services Are Changing to Meet Marketplace Demands
Market demands change with new workforce demands each day. To offset this shift, colleges and universities have enhanced their liberal arts foundation by expanding the scope and range of their career counseling centers. For undergraduates, they offer more robust internships and externships, technical help in application writing, and increased connections to alumni and parents who are in a position to assist them with employment.
The better career centers also move beyond the “easy sell” degrees like business, management, and engineering. They invigorate the job market prospects for humanists, social scientists, and others for whom career centers are insufficient counselors.
Filling Gaps in Pathway from College to Employment
Yet there is an important gap in creating a seamless pathway between education and employment. Some students need to fill in their time outside the classroom with completing their academic projects. Others must work to meet expenses – especially independent adult students who often have outside responsibilities that place additional pressure on them. The result is that many students have limited ability to access some of the newer “real world” initiatives; despite the broadening effect these experiences have to improve their entry into the labor market.
Northeastern’s Experiential Network: Short-Term, Real Life Collaborations
To answer this problem, Northeastern University in Boston created the Experiential Network (XN). In this program, graduate and professional students work virtually with a sponsoring business or non-profit organization on a short-term project over a six-week period. Students and sponsors work closely to produce deliverables for their employers to inform critical business decisions.
Dr. Charles Kilfoye, senior director of XN, reports: “Employers believe that there is a skills gap in which students must be acculturated to the shifting demands of the job market.” He argues that many adult learners cannot devote more time or interrupt their full-time work schedules to participate in other Northeastern offerings like the co-op program, so they benefit enormously from these more flexible, limited term collaborations.
There are numerous advantages for students who participate:
- The XN Network allows students to apply classroom theory to practice in a collaborative setting.
- As part of the selection process, students grow their professional networks since they choose where they will interview and work. Each student gets between three and five matches from which to choose.
- For many employers, these graduate and professional students often demonstrate maturity that more traditional undergraduates lack.
These projects also align with an academic course, worked through Northeastern’s XN offices. Their students devote about 35 hours over the six weeks to their project. Dr. Kilfoye suggests that Northeastern anticipates market trends and effectively “‘future proofs’ its students by keeping pace with what’s happening in the broader world.”
To ensure success, each project has formative and summative surveys as well as a mid-term review. Students are placed in a wide range of venues that also allows them to think more broadly about how their degrees relate to the shifting demands of the job market.
Student Rupali Agrawal, a graduate student earning an MS in Project Management, said of his XN experience:
“Being a full-time student and executing an XN project takes you out of your comfort zone, and gives you the opportunity to learn professional skill sets. It prepared me to face professional responsibilities.
Learning professional communication etiquette through my Experiential Network project was one of the most valuable things I learned. As an international student, the way we communicate in my country is different from communication here in the United States. Being able to learn these skills before entering the professional world is very valuable.
The beauty of doing an XN project is that it’s an opportunity for students to get practical work experience, delivered right to students.”