By Allen C. Meadors, Chancellor and Professor Emeritus The University of North Carolina-Pembroke May 4, 2020. The United States has over 5,000 Colleges and Universities ranging from less than a hundred students to over 50,000 students. All institutions of higher education have been re-evaluating their mission and viability, but none more than the 500 or so smaller institutions spread throughout rural America. These institutions are often the lifeblood of their community (and often their region). They often represent one of the most substantial ties to the community/region’s history and culture. They are often the economic engine (jobs, purchases, etc.) that keeps the community and the region alive.
In the last 40 years, many have seen their enrollment decrease, often to the extent that they have had to merge with other higher education entities or close their doors. Like many businesses in America, they cannot continue to be successful in doing things as they always have. So, are small rural Colleges and Universities viable?
There was a comic strip in the 1940-1970’s by Walt Kelly, Jr called Pogo. One of Pogo’s famous quotes was, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Rural institutions often underrate themselves. One University with about 2,000 students, said we can’t grow because the large State University is only 45 miles away and that is where everyone wants to go. As we worked with them, we convinced them that they offered something that the much larger campus couldn’t. They offer a more personal touch campus where you obtain an excellent education and “only” 45 miles from a university of over 40,000. Once they accepted this vision and market it to potential students, they were able to double their enrollment in four years.
Many rural campuses (especially public institutions) often see themselves as commuter campuses. It is a limiting vision to have. Winston
Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Bringing residence students to your campus not only provides growth opportunities but adds diversity that will enrich the commuter student’s educational experience. It will also be good for the local community. Institutions in metropolitan areas often complain that their students do not engage in on-campus opportunities because the local area offers so much distraction (professional sports, major entertaining events, major events brought to the community by industry). The rural institution has the opportunity to be the “destination” not only for their students but for the local community as well.
We always encourage rural campuses to form an active “Town/Gown” committee and support it vigorously. One complaint we often hear is that our community isn’t supportive of our students. At one institution, we had identified several rural institutions that had very positive “Town/Gown” images. We put together bus tours to these communities and had the College’s town businesspeople visit with the town and College individuals in those communities. They came back excited about the business opportunities that a small “College” town could provide that worked for both the academic institution and the town. Over just five years, remarkable changes occurred in the community. Everyone was better off.
We often hear, we are too far away from a major city or we’re not located in a desirable resort area. Again, those are just mental blocks. Your first job is to re educate your faculty and staff to the positive that your institution has to offer. One campus with only under 3,000 students (they had lost enrollment over the past ten years) felt exactly that way. We had a forum to discuss the things we did have to offer and why they were a great fit for some students. The campus started to focus on campus life and the fact that it was only 2-3 hours away from two large metro areas, the ocean and beautiful beaches and mountains. Today, students have grown up to not see 2-3 hours as that big of issues. Often it takes nearly that long to drive from one side of a metro area to the other.
Once the focus moved from what they weren’t to what they had to offer, they were able to grow to nearly 8,000 students. The community now has numerous student apartments, restaurants, and a developing classy downtown area. It is moving to be a true “College” town.
Another opportunity that is often overlooked is International students. Small institutions often think that international students wouldn’t want to attend a small rural institution. I am sure that is true for some international students, but many want a campus that will offer them a safe haven during their academic years away from home. One institution located in the lower mid-west was able to increase its international enrollment from less than 250 to nearly 1,000 in three years. The international students were introduced to a University in a small community where they got a lot of individual attention, and the US students got an introduction to students from all over the world. A significant enhancement to their classroom experience.
Another key factor that is especially critical for small rural institutions relates to a quote from one of Jim Collins’s books, “Good to Great.” It is essential that you “Get the right people on the bus and get the right people in the right seats and get the wrong people off the bus.” It is a positive for all institutions, but small institutions do not have the luxury of often having multiple individuals in various departments/units. Institution leadership often worry about the “get the wrong people off the bus,” and the negative push back from the local community, if these are local individuals. Yes, this will be necessary sometime, but the focus needs to be on “get the right people in the right seats”! Most people want to do a good job, but if we have them in a position that does not fit their skill set, then we have a lose-lose situation. We need to take the time to evaluate an individual’s skill set. If some aren’t good with people, don’t put them or keep them in a position that requires that above other skills. They might do well in a purchasing position that is more research-oriented than handling students’ complaints in the business office.
Another approach recommended by Jim Collins is when addressing a problem “shift the decision from a “what” question (‘what should we do”) into a “who” decision(‘who would be the right person to take responsibility for this”). You will be amazed at how often weak employees in one position shine once they are in an environment where their skill set is a plus.
The Coronavirus (COVID 19) have brought new challenges and opportunities to higher education. Financially weak institutions may not be able to sustain their financial viability before full recovery occurs. However, small rural institutions may be able to market their remoteness and small enrollment as safer and more responsive than their larger sister institutions.
So, are small rural Colleges and Universities viable? Absolutely, but each has its history, culture, and opportunities. It is so important to know that no one approach fits all institutions. With small rural institutions, its history and its regional culture play a critical role in not only what you do but how you do it.
Dr. Allen Meadors is an American higher education professor and administrator. He has worked in international higher education as President/CEO of St. John International University in Torino, Italy and served as Executive Director for Higher Education for the Ministry of Higher Education in the United Arab Emirates. He is currently serving as an Associate Editor for the journals “Frontiers in Public Health” and “Frontiers in Education”.
His previous US career included serving as President/Chancellor of three US state universities including Penn State Altoona (February 1994 to June 1999); University of North Carolina-Pembroke (July 1999 to June 2009); and University of Central Arkansas (July 2009 to September 2011). Prior positions held include Dean of Health, Social and Public Services, Eastern Washington University; Dean of Public Health, University of Oklahoma, Executive Director of the Northwest Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute; and an executive at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Kansas.
Allen currently serves on the Edu Alliance Advisory Council and is Associate Editor of Frontiers in Public Health