3 Ways Small Colleges Can Innovate for the Future

As the COVID-19 pandemic fueled enrollment drops across the country, some observers wondered if Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen’s dire predictions on the future of higher education were starting to come to fruition.

Christensen has famously predicted that 50 percent of colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade. He’s not alone in his dim view of higher education’s future, and such prognostications have been especially concerning for small, private colleges such as Schreiner University, where I am Provost.

Even before the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the expected decline of traditional, college-aged students that many private, small institutions rely on had led to predictions of mass closures and bankruptcies. Recent closures have been cited as evidence that time is running short for institutions across the country. However, this grim future is not guaranteed. Across the country, small, private colleges are developing new policies and models to adapt to the challenges of the moment, to better meet the needs of their students, and to prepare to serve the students of tomorrow.

Rather than serve as a death knell for small privates, the COVID-19 crisis has helped illustrate how these institutions can continue to play a vital role in their communities while also serving as leaders for other higher education institutions during a time of disruption and transition.

Here are three ways small, private colleges and universities can chart a successful path toward the future.

1. Rethink Course Structure and Delivery

When the pandemic began shutting down campuses across the country, we knew we would have to get creative to keep students engaged and on track while still being socially distant. At Schreiner, we did not have enough space to safely accommodate our number of students for in-person and hybrid classes. At the same time, it was becoming clearer that some of our students were struggling to focus on their studies while dealing with the many challenges of the pandemic. This forced us to rethink our approach to course structure and delivery.

After much research and discussion, we ultimately decided to move to a schedule consisting of holding two academic terms, lasting 7.5 weeks each, within the traditional 15-week semester. Students would meet every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Wednesdays, students had the day off to access tutoring and other support services. It took some getting used to, and the transition was not without its frustrations, but in the end, most students learned to adapt to the new approach, with some appreciating the flexibility it provided.

Moving forward, small private colleges should consider modifying the design of their academic calendar and their course structure in order to meet the needs of their students more effectively.

2. Provide High-Quality Digital Experiences

While most of our students and faculty opted for our socially distant in-person courses last year, it was critical that we provide them with as many safe options as possible to keep learning throughout the pandemic. Students and faculty could meet fully online, through a hybrid model, or through a “high-flex” model, where face-to-face and remote students can remain connected synchronously to the classroom and with each other. This latter scenario was all supported through Echo360’s higher education video platform and the Canvas learning management system.

Lectures were recorded and shared with students even when a class was ostensibly in person. If students were sick, they could stay connected virtually and not miss a beat. The ability to record a lecture or a class experience allowed for all students enrolled in the course to go back and review course materials (e.g., to help clarify concepts or ideas difficult to understand or in enabling students to take more accurate and complete notes for a given class). The investment in this student support resource was certainly a value add, whether the student was able to attend a given class or not. The pandemic has helped illustrate just how important it is to use technology to meet students where they are.

Students lead busy lives, balancing academics with athletics, student organizations, and other co-curriculars. A growing number of students work while enrolled. We should keep working to provide them with greater flexibility and access long after the pandemic subsides by continuing to equip students with technology that accommodates their needs.

3. Embrace Our Smallness

The COVID-19 crisis made clear that our small size is far from a hindrance. Instead, it is an asset.

There’s a nimbleness that comes with being a small, private college. At Schreiner, we quickly converted ballrooms and recital spaces into new classrooms so students could remain socially distant. We limited students to one main entrance to campus, allowing security to conduct temperature checks and other important screenings. And we were able to easily hear and respond to the needs of our close-knit community of students and faculty.

Our community also helped foster a culture of care and habit. Our faculty and staff were walking right alongside our students during this challenging time, and our students recognized and appreciated that. New norms were quickly adopted as members of our community looked out for one another. That kind of shift is far easier for a small college than for a university of 40,000+ undergraduates.

As we look toward a future beyond the pandemic, small, private colleges should remember the lessons learned over the last year. We must lean into our nimble and close-knitted campus communities where we can be more adaptive and responsive to student needs. We must invest in the development of our faculty so they have the resources they need to support our students. We are far from becoming obsolete.

We must only remember to keep our focus on the needs of our students, even if that means rethinking tradition and questioning what is commonplace. In fact, our challenge is not so much in “understanding the needs of our students,” in “rethinking tradition,” or in “questioning what is commonplace,” as much as it is in us delivering on meeting the needs of our students. The latter is more difficult, because it often requires us to make real, significant, lasting change—in how we design our courses, our classrooms, our academic calendars, and our campuses.

Dr. Travis Frampton, is Provost at Schreiner University, Kerrville, TX.