Monday, August 20, 2007

Small College Turnarounds: Can Independent Colleges Be Rescued?


In 1996, I had the good fortune to join the faculty of a small, independent college located in Shawnee, Oklahoma, which was in the midst of a phenomenal turnaround, guided by a visionary leader, and supported by a team of dedicated, committed, and self-sacrificing administrators and faculty. Thankfully, its turnaround was permanent, and the college is a thriving institution today.

The key elements that contributed to its remarkable renaissance were fairly straightforward, but they required college leadership to demonstrate a great deal of courage. A similar level of courage had been demonstrated earlier by five small colleges that had also found themselves in financial difficulties due to declining enrollments, rising costs, and declining contributions. Their experiences were studied by a researcher, Ruth Cowan, who then published her findings and recommendations in the journal, Change, in 1993. In the 1990s, the following strategies were found to be effective:

Effective Turnaround Strategies in the 1990s:

1. Changing leadership (finding a President willing to lead the college through painful and risky change);
2. Ridding oneself of “problem blindness” and naming and addressing real problems;
3. Redefining the college’s purpose;
4. Defining the college’s target market and gaining an idea of their characteristics;
5. Finding alternative funding for the appropriate solution (including technology, infrastructure, staffing, faculty).

Now, ten years later, many colleges and universities find themselves in dire straits once again. Some of the colleges suffering from rising costs, declining enrollments, and declining contributions and endowments may have actually experienced a turnaround in the 1990s, but, due to circumstances, find themselves in trouble again. For those who weathered the first challenge, this return to crisis mode – a kind of “déjà vu decline” – must be emotionally draining.

Top reasons for declining enrollments in 2007:

1. “Stale” degrees and curriculum;
2. Emerging competition;
3. College changes direction and goes into the wrong markets;
4. Inadequate information, marketing, and support (college becomes invisible);
5. Rapid increases in tuition and fees;
6. No flexibility in delivery options (no online courses, no hybrid);
7. No enthusiasm or sense of focus, mission, or future potential when contacting or interacting with the college;
8. Students have technical and administrative problems when they take their courses, resulting in poor performance;
9. Scholarship funds dry up;
10. Students required to stay in expensive, out-of-date dorms that lack high-speed internet connections.

Here is a more extensive laundry list of potential problems. Some are covered above in the “top ten” list. Some are not. At any rate, the checklist below could be used as a quick diagnostic for a college that is experiencing declines in enrollment, creeping costs, and declines in contributions.

Expanded Checklist of Common Small College Problems:

--Early adopter for technology solutions (online, distance education); can’t afford the updates, so now have lagged behind;

--Enrollment is declining. Students cite poor service and an out-of-date curriculum. They are going with the competition;

--Students are not returning after their first or second semester. They do not finish their courses, often because they do not possess adequate skills to succeed, but the college cannot afford to provide tutoring, student success courses, or remediation courses;

--Rapid turnover in administration leads to many “vision” changes, resulting in blurred vision, and a loss of focus in establishing a “brand image” to the world at large;

--Student support services are inadequate and slow to respond to student issues;

--Long wait at the help desk;

--Billing errors, resulting in poor collection rates, and time-consuming corrections;

--Student registration, billing, and records are housed on a now obsolete system that does not integrate well with financial aid, housing, and other departments;

--New departments were formed to solve emerging issues, but they were understaffed;

--Bookstore coordination is poor and the students often purchase the wrong materials, resulting in frustration and the desire to drop the class;

--Faculty are required to teach large face-to-face sections, and students often drop;

---Reliance on athletic scholarships, which is a sure source of enrollments, until the source of funding dried up;

---Financial over-reliance on academically underperforming athletes brought down overall academic level, with low graduation rate;

---Campus property is in a declining neighborhood. Perhaps it is located in what used to be a prestigious, centrally located neighborhood, but now is in the middle of a high-crime area, resulting in high security costs and a reputation for students having a high probability of getting mugged;

---Faculty members are not publishing books or articles, not winning grants or presenting at conferences, and the school is missing free publicity opportunities.

Effective Turnaround Strategies for 2007

1. Obtain leadership “buy-in” for an honest assessment of problems, to avoid “problem blindness”;

2. Articulate the institutional vision and mission in terms of curriculum, delivery methods, technology, and existing resources;

3. Articulate the institutional vision and mission in terms of emerging technologies and delivery, with an emphasis on affordability and leveraging legacy systems and forging forward-looking partnerships;

4. Develop ways to partner with technology providers, instructional material providers, and organizations to share in marketing, offload costs, and develop cohort groups of new students;

5. Identify problems and estimate the actual impact on enrollment and the bottom line. Prioritize based on their negative impacts;

6. Identify solutions, and list costs as well as potential positive impact on enrollment, revenues, and costs. Prioritize based on positive impacts. Create a “weighted” positive impact statement;

7. Avoid one-shot “desperate moves” bail-out strategies (selling property, etc.);

8. Inspire a team effort with college faculty and administration; allow egalitarian participation in problem-solving;

9. Avoid pessimism. Focus on transformation, rather than just hanging on.

10. Create a groundswell of enthusiasm with students, alumni, and family.

The turnaround strategies for 2007 are listed in a rather cursory manner, with virtually no discussion. What is interesting is that many of Ruth Cowan’s insights published back in 1993 still hold true for the 2007. Perhaps the largest gap is that in 1993, role of technology, though, was not always stated.

So, to return to the recommendations for 2007 turnarounds -- many of the points deserves a rather detailed discussion which will take place in future articles. However, for the purposes of identification of problems and for general planning for a turnaround, the “meta-strategy” approach is probably an appropriate first step.


Cowen, R. (1993). “Prescription for small-college turnaround – saving independent colleges that lack administrative and curriculum objectives” Change. January-February 1993.

Hamlin, A., and Hungerford, C. (1989). "How Private Colleges Survive a Financial Crisis: Tools for Effective Planning and Management," Planning for Higher Education, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1988-1989, pages 27-37.

Recommended sites on college administration and new visions in education:

Stephen Downes: Articles published online. An amazing collection, very useful.

Ray Schroeder's Educational Technology:

Mark Wagner's Educational Technology and Life:

Scott Leslie's EdTechPost

Recommended site:

Recommended book: Excellence in College Teaching and Learning: Classroom and Online Instruction

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