Winning in Higher Ed via the Road Less Traveled

Why (despite the headlines) it’s a great time to be a small college in the U.S.

By Dr. Michael Horowitz

Taking a 30,000-foot view of the higher ed space today paints a very graphic picture of a sector in the throes of pure distress. From the widely reported shrinking student population to evaporating university budgets, and an accelerating number of college closures over the past five years, the terminal fate of institutions without billion dollar endowments would appear sealed.

What’s been given far less media attention against the backdrop of these traumatic headlines, however, is the resilience and triumph of a select few academic institutions in these tumultuous times. With a seemingly limitless number of challenges stacked against them, how are small colleges without substantive means competing? The short answer is they’re not! They’re going against the grain and cooperating with others to thrive.

What’s historically been counterintuitive in higher ed is actually the winning recipe for success in the space today. The key characteristics of successful colleges in this era are a willingness to break with traditions that no longer serve them, and a fearlessness to forge connections beyond the walls of their own institution. By cooperatively banding together with others to advance a set of common goals, Bay Path University, Southern New Hampshire University, the five colleges and universities of our own non-profit system, TCS Education System – The Community Solution in Higher Education (The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law, Pacific Oaks College, Saybrook University, and the Dallas Nursing Institute), and several others are thriving today.

The common goals of these progressive institutions include: 1) a primary focus on student engagement and outcomes by all faculty, staff and trustees, 2) deep community engagement that informs and guides pedagogy, 3) a silo-busting commitment to internal and external collaboration (which we happen to call Radical Cooperation at TCS), and 4) a willingness to accelerate the pace and responsiveness of higher education to real time student needs.

Speaking from my own experience successfully navigating this turbulent and often volatile era of higher ed, I can attest to the positive impact of the unconventional – if not radical approach of the TCS model. From no real accreditation and a show cause notice to maximum regional accreditation status and complete financial turnarounds to exponential enrollment growth and college campus expansions—the impact of this approach is real. As TCS colleges deepen their connections with one another, each continues to thrive and grow in their respective missions, beating the tremendous odds stacked against them and other institutions of their size. Is venturing down the road less traveled easy or intuitive? Not a chance. It is, however, invariably worth it in an otherwise challenged higher ed sector!