McPherson, Kan. — Among the long-standing institutions in the United States, few have been pressured more strongly by recent political and technological challenges than higher education. With support from state governments decreasing, digital tools challenging traditional pedagogy and for-profit schools taking students away from traditional colleges, higher education is experiencing its most radical changes since the inception of public post-secondary learning.
These challenges are not unique to the nation’s large universities. While state institutions often steal headlines with tuition hikes, liberal arts colleges are similarly forced to adapt to recent changes if they hope simply to survive.
Yet in the heart of Kansas, small, liberal arts colleges are finding those very challenges that threaten institutions of all sizes hold incredible potential. Indeed, schools in the Associated Colleges of Central Kansas, including McPherson College and Bethel College, are learning that the evolution of higher education that indiscriminately challenges schools to adapt may be an equalizer that, for the first time in more than 100 years, gives them room to grow.
Getting a leg up
As higher education proceeds into a new, digitized reality, the paradigm under which post-secondary education in Kansas has operated faces unprecedented challenges. The Kansas government, historically generous in supporting state colleges and universities, has cut more than $100 million in higher education funding in recent years. Colleges that previously relied on the state to cover increasing expenses, caused by the increasing costs of modern technology, employee benefits and other educational expenses, are now forced to look elsewhere to balance their budgets.
More often than not, the increased burden is shouldered by students. This fall, students at Wichita State University who are Kansas residents will see tuition jump by $100 compared to fall semester of last year. At Kansas State University, tuition is poised to go up by $191; at University of Kansas, $194.
As public institutions raise tuition rates seemingly every semester — by as much as 6.9 percent this fall for some KU students — the ACCK’s smaller schools are taxing students at a relaxed rate. Less dependent on state aid, colleges like McPherson and Bethel are finding rising costs at state schools make a liberal arts education more attractive to prospective students.
“As the level of support from the state begins to fall, we see public institutions raising their tuition at a pace that’s almost double what private institutions are doing in this state,” Bethel College President Perry White said. “Through the economic downturn since 2008 I don’t think there’s any state or any academic institution that isn’t suffering, but we are starting to see the private institutions are suffering a little less.”
Both McPherson and Bethel have trimmed their course offerings in recent years, slimming down to minimize both overall costs and those costs passed down to students.
“We run a really lean operation,” McPherson College President Michael Schneider said. “We’re very focused in what we do. We don’t have lots of different kinds of programs — the programs we do, we do well.”
That independence from state funding and lean, adaptive nature now helps such schools challenge larger colleges in a way never before possible. Kansas’ liberal arts colleges have long claimed to be just as affordable as state universities — for the first time, that boast is becoming apparent.
Rising costs are not the only challenge facing higher education — students are no longer interested in the old ways of learning. Textbooks are rapidly being replaced by tablets, and the lectures many middle-aged graduates remember have been replaced by dialogues aimed at implementing information learned by students online.
“You don’t need to sit and listen to faculty,” Schneider said of the modern student. “You capture the lecture, listen to the content, watch it, look at it before showing up to class and then the professor works through it, discusses it and answers questions.”
Universities have trouble integrating such one-on-one methods of teaching. Schneider said Kansas’ small schools can capitalize on this distinction by fast-tracking technology upgrades on campus in ways state schools can only dream of.
“I can move a lot quicker than any other college that’s bigger than me,” he said. “I can move really quick and be very nimble — if I grab onto the right thing.”
Challenging the giants
In the past, schools have looked at the small liberal arts colleges of central Kansas and the state’s sprawling land-grant universities as two groups in the same business but attracting different students. Now, with the financial playing field level, McPherson and Bethel both see themselves less in competition with one another and more with public institutions.
“Historically we have looked at ourselves as competing with the other private colleges in Kansas,” White said. “But the reality of it is that the competition for students in the state of Kansas will be for those students who would traditionally have gone to public institutions.”
The ways in which the two schools go about achieving that goal varies. Both compete for those students naturally drawn to smaller schools — those interested in the liberal arts approach to student government, music, art, and athletics, White said.
From there, however, the schools branch out, appealing to different populations of potential students. McPherson College, in addition to attracting those interested in attending a Brethren school or enrolling in its unique automotive restoration program, continues working to distinguish itself as an entrepreneurial-minded institution.
“We realized the same skill set you’re trying to build in the liberal arts graduate is the same skill set you find in entrepreneurs — the idea we want our graduates to be expressive, perceptive, creative critical thinkers who have an appreciation for risk,” Schneider said.
Bethel, on the other hand, has chosen a different way to distinguish itself. While it, too, caters to students of a specific religious denomination, Mennonites, White said Bethel’s administration found a path far from McPherson’s in searching for a way to make it attractive to prospective students.
“Rather than seeking out a niche and trying to develop it, I think the most successful way to achieve that is to allow the niche to find you,” he said. “You have to look at what it is you do well and then put your attention and resources behind those things.”
For Bethel, White says, that niche is the residential college experience, something traditionally public school-bound students desperately want.
“When we ask alums what it is they remember about their time at Bethel, they always have an experience to share,” he said. “That — the residential, communal experience — is our advantage.”
Ultimately, the future of all higher education remains in flux. Technology and public policy will continue to evolve, and the advantages small, private schools like Bethel and McPherson believe they have may disappear as quickly as they have developed.
“We are in a liminal period,” White said. “We must continue to utilize our resources prudently and be cautious as to how far we extend ourselves.”
In the short term, however, both colleges hope to capitalize on their advantages as long as their luck holds out. In quoting St. Francis of Assisi, White said colleges like Bethel and McPherson can use their advantages today to sustain growth beyond the current phase in higher education’s evolution and into future success.
“Start by doing what’s necessary,” he said. “Then do what’s possible. Then suddenly you’re doing the impossible.”