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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Challenges for Regional Undergraduate Universities in “the Middle”

Photo: Thomas Carey
Thomas Carey, Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Institute for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada writes, "Matt Read posted in the Dean Dad blog about the colleges in “The Middle”: community colleges and the public universities that are predominantly undergraduate, caught between concern about rising tuition costs and constrained state resources for higher education (and pretty much everything else)."

Where others see mostly crisis – including Goldie Blumenstyk, whose book American Higher Education in Crisis was the prompt for the post – Matt sees opportunity for these institutions: If they allow themselves to be commoditized…then I foresee an ugly race to the bottom.  But with more middle and even upper middle class students feeling compelled by economics to look more closely at public options, there’s a real opportunity…”.

I think Matt is on the right track in suggesting that public colleges and universities may have a new opportunity to increase their contribution to learning in their regions, through reaching out to students that may not have given them full consideration when concerns about the ROI on tuition were less of an issue. But it’s going to be hard to get your faculty really engaged if you are perceived as recommending that your institution will compete on price! That also may not appeal so much to prospective students, or to parents picking up some of the tab, if they are sensitive to the reputational capital of the institutional choices available to them. So while the “cost” component of the cost/benefit ratio may be shifting in favor of teaching-focused public colleges and universities, you should also be thinking about how to upgrade the “benefits” component of your perceived value proposition.

From our experience (in five different public higher ed systems), regional teaching-focused institutions may particularly struggle to take advantage of these potential opportunities. If your institution has traditionally relied on the immediate area for a critical mass of students, other local students won’t suddenly put you top-of-mind as an alternative to a more expensive residential college experience. You may also have the greatest need to expand your reach, if your institution is located in a rural or remote area where the demographics indicate an ongoing decline in the high school population.

If your institution is in a secondary city or a bland suburb rather than the archetypal small college town, you will need to offer more than an attractive price to become a destination campus. (This also can be an issue in retaining local students, if they can transfer to a “bright lights of the big city” campus after a couple of years.) If your government is looking to upgrade the research flagship to move up in the much-publicized international rankings, you need to get some of their attention as a ‘crown jewel’ in teaching and learning ‒ otherwise your institution and your students may come up short in the next state budget.
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Additional resources

  • Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 13, 2014)

American Higher Education in Crisis?: What Everyone Needs to Know 

Source: Inside Higher Ed (blog)