By Douglas Kim ’87 and Amoret Gates Thissell Jorgensen
There is a sobering fact that sits in the rear-view mirror of all public and private four-year non-profit colleges today: schools are shuttering at a rate of five per year. Last fall, Moody’s warned that number stands to triple. Meanwhile, institutions like Sweet Briar and Trinity are fighting the good fight, but not without significant challenges.
In the case of Sweet Briar, those challenges took the college to the brink a year ago. The Board of Trustees wanted to pull the plug on an institution with an $84 million endowment and over $340 million in assets, including 3,250 acres of land thought to be the last colonial-era parcel in Virginia. Ultimately, Sweet Briar’s alumnae prevailed over its Trustees, but only after an ugly legal battle and complications that inflicted as much as an estimated $50 million in damages on the college.
For Trinity, an immediate challenge is its inordinate fee dependency from a highly restricted endowment. The solution adopted years ago was to grow enrollment without significantly increasing infrastructure. Trinity’s student body is now about 1/3 larger than it was in the early 90s. It’s a situation akin to being an Uber driver who supplements income by strapping passengers to the hood and roof of a compact car. The school gets the extra cash, but pretty soon you run out of space on top of the car. Moreover, the institution takes a big hit in selectivity and standing that, in the long run, is unsustainable.
Sweet Briar and Trinity are very different, but both have historically been stronger. The question is if a stronger position from their past can translate to an advantage today. Specifically, what is achievable right now that can be a game-changer?
Strategy #1: Roll out a well-traveled red carpet.
An ultra-competitive market demands that Sweet Briar and Trinity take every opportunity to stand out from their peers. Fortunately, with Sweet Briar just past the century mark and Trinity fast approaching its bicentennial, there’s a body of evidence to examine. History is overwhelmingly on the side of these schools, which is something their younger peers can’t say.
Think of all the students who have graduated and prospered over the years. What if we crafted smarter communications by adding historical data to the mix, then told applicants exactly how many people with their profile—starting with their high school—had matriculated and prospered over the years?
People are fond of metrics, so let’s invent our own. Let’s show students a proven formula for success that’s more personal and more meaningful than any arbitrary ranking system. Let’s show prospects a command of the facts that other schools can’t, or won’t, offer.
Imagine an acceptance letter that read: “Your matriculation will put you on a path where many others like yourself have flourished. In fact, 86 students from your high school have applied, been accepted, matriculated, and prospered at our school over the past 30 years.”
To the college, this is building on its existing base. To the applicant, it’s evidence of a well-traveled path that is historically strong. Call it proof of concept for both parties. Now consider that fact-laden letter as it sits next to other college acceptance letters that say little more than congratulations, along with a hollow, handwritten PS line acknowledging some personal factoid. (“Your summer internship sounds terrific!”)
No, schools don’t market themselves this way, but they should.
Strategy #2: We could learn a lot from Match.com.
We’re college students for just four years, but we’re alumni for life.
Connecting these two communities in as many ways possible is essential to unlocking the full, lifelong value of the experience.
What if students could tap into a secure database of alumni in the same seamless way dating sites pinpoint and introduce compatible people? And even before they matriculate, what if prospects to the school could find alumni who can offer insights into areas of interest?
Good schools have devoted alumni, but a better school would supply intelligent, innovative tools to connect you to them.
Strategy #3: Stick to the mission.
The dirty little secret of higher education is that most institutions are worth more dead than alive. The inescapable fact is that it costs a small fortune to keep a school like Sweet Briar or Trinity running. For 2016, the annual operating budget for Trinity is over $135 million. There’s just no way around that. So even though schools like Kenyon and Connecticut College couldn’t be in more different surroundings than Trinity, their operating budgets are roughly the same.
Colleges may be worth more dead than alive on paper, but the lesson of the near-demise of Sweet Briar is that a court upheld the position that a college is more than assets and liabilities on a balance sheet. Sweet Briar could not be euthanized without cause because of the basic principles governing restricted donations. Colleges are mission-driven, living entities whose purpose is not to turn a profit, but to advance our very highest ideals.
And this is precisely why making the case for institutions with centuries of successful outcomes makes the most sense of all. Call it history. Call it equity. Call it a taste of Big Data. It’s all of these and more. It’s also proprietary, since this is the history we’ve earned, student by student, over hundreds of years. Let’s claim it in the full light of day.
Douglas Kim ’87 is a New York ad agency creative director. Since 2010, he has served on the National Alumni Association Executive Committee.
Amoret Gates Thissell Jorgensen is a member of the Sweet Briar class of 1982, alumna, and activist.