Grow or focus?
. . . Why “grow or die” is the wrong advice for small colleges . .
There are few truisms more common than the one that says small colleges must grow or die. Like most truisms, “grow or die” is obvious, and on its face, true. But that advice is also illogical and unwise, and small schools who embrace it are no more likely to flourish than those who don’t. Here’s why.
“Grow or die” assumes that the problem with a small school is its failure to be big. Of course “big” and “small” are relative terms in higher education--they refer to enrollment and budget and visibility. And it is generally assumed that a school is better if all of those things are increasing in size. But when students talk about their desire to go to a small college, they almost never think about enrollment, or budget, or visibility. Instead, they think of the feel of a school--its intimacy, its community, its care for students as human beings. There is no reason to believe that those characteristics of a small school remain when a school aggressively sets its sights on more students, greater visibility, or a bigger budget. In fact, they are often replaced by proxies--more services, more programs, better amenities--that turn relationships into transactions, and that favor efficiency over connection.
The pathways to growth almost always favor breadth over depth. Whether one considers curriculum, or enrollment management, or student services, or co-curricular programming, the growth assumption is an additive one. Add new academic programs, recruit new types of students from new sources, roll out new support programs, add sports teams. This, again, is on its face good advice. And there are stories of schools that have bet wisely on one or more of these strategies and grown. But these strategies have three built in problems that make them difficult for small colleges. They are high volume, low margin strategies; they demand sophisticated systems; and they abandon focus for reach.
An analogy may be helpful to explain what I mean. Most small colleges are like general stores--offering a circumscribed range of products to a local market. The advice to grow is akin to telling a general store that it should become a department store. The problems with this advice in a retail setting are obvious. A general store is unlikely to compete successfully with Macys or Dillards. And department stores themselves are dying in the face of mega-stores--Amazon, Walmart, Costco, and Target.
In this context, it is just as likely that a school will grow and die as that it will grow or die.
The advice to grow or die flies in the face of demographic and policy trends, neither of which look favorable for small schools. As the number of high school graduates flattens or declines and the financial wherewithal of their families shrinks, there is little reason to assume that every small school pursuing a growth strategy will succeed. Most will not.
So if not growth, then what? My money is on focus, not growth, as the future for small schools. Now focus is not, by definition, the same as shrinking. But it does demand that small schools recognize who they are and what they do best. What would focus look like?
To extend the retail analogy, a school that chooses focus chooses to stop being a general store and become, instead, an artisan bakery, a craft brewery, a custom manufacturer, a boutique. Here are the characteristics of such schools.
Focused schools know who their students are and who they aren’t. Their enrollment efforts focus ever more tightly on students whom they serve well, and importantly, discourage other students from applying. For some schools this means seeking students of faith, or with a particular academic interest. But for others it means abandoning the hope that they will be able to enroll and serve both very bright and academically marginal students, or large numbers of international and local students.
Focused schools have specialized curricula and generalist faculty (not general curricula and specialist faculty). For reasons of cost, culture, and competitiveness, a small school needs academic programs that are attractive to its students and faculty who can embody the program’s distinctiveness. This doesn’t happen when the curriculum is indistinguishable from that offered at another school and when faculty can represent only a small piece of that curriculum.
Focused schools have a theory of student development, and they stick to it. Most schools have a laundry list of student support programs and co-curricular offerings. They provide tutoring, and mentoring, and supplemental instruction, and success coaching. And every interest has a club and an advisor. As a result, the school cannot explain how it does its work, why it does what it does, and why that work is effective. As importantly, they can also not say why they do not do what they do not do.
Focused schools care only about a few measures of success. Schools intent on growth must measure dozens of things and pursue every opportunity to be ranked and rated. Focused schools know what they care about and what they don’t. If their students need to move through a degree slowly, the school doesn’t care about graduation rates. If their faculty are remarkable advisors, they don’t care about publications.
Focused schools assert a position on public policy, community development, and accreditation. If a school has effectively defined itself and its interests, it is able to defend itself and its interests in public. Doing so demands that it make its case to the public, not (solely) through marketing, but instead through argument, persuasion, and outreach.
None of these approaches to focus, by definition, mean that a school must shrink (or grow). But they do mean that a school needs to be open to both options as it pursues its best self and the success of the students that it has chosen.