President’s Report 2012-13: Answering the Challenge

You’ve probably heard it before: If you want to make God chuckle, make a plan. And if you want to give him a real belly-laugh, make it a five-year plan.That’s never been truer than it is today, given a world changing so quickly that, in planning terms, five years is the new twenty. Consider my own line of work, higher education, which some days feels like it’s being buffeted from all four directions at once. Anyone who tells you with a straight face that he knows what the landscape for colleges and universities will look like in five years might need a checkup between the ears.

Well, doctor, let me dust off my crystal ball. 

First, however, let me say that I think the changes now roiling higher education do not represent something to be feared but something to celebrate. As we go forward, there will be a multiplicity of paths to what we call higher education, and this is a good thing. More people will have more access to advanced learning. They will have more flexibility in how they go about it, and in some instances it will be a good bit more affordable than it is today.

Given that the United States increasingly requires a workforce with post-secondary skills, these developments are critical.

But what will this brave new world look like?

Our traditional two and four-year schools will continue to be the workhorses for public higher education. But as we are seeing, these institutions – in the face of tremendous financial, political and competitive pressures – already are adapting to the new educational order, making more kinds of classes available in more ways. And while this is a positive development in the main, it does come with some serious consequences – reduced student contact with full-time faculty, for instance; even larger enrollments in popular courses; and stress fractures in the tenure system.

We will continue to see a climb in the number of students electing to do their post-secondary education entirely online, or nearly so. Providers will be the next generation of for-profits as well as nonprofits (both public and private) that are moving their emphases to the virtual classroom.

In fact, one day soon students may be able to assemble a portfolio of classes from a wide range of colleges and universities in a kind of personalized baccalaureate program. With top universities investing heavily in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, I think it’s only a matter of time before our accreditation agencies, under tremendous pressure, somehow sanction these emerging hybrid experiences.

Indeed, on that point, more college programs will offer a credential for a combination of conventional coursework and credit given for on-the-job experience, if the student can demonstrate true competence in that area. 

Then, finally, there is the traditional liberal arts residential model – the St. Norbert Colleges of the world. I am confident we will continue to play an important and necessary role in higher education for a very long time. Nowhere else in higher education do you get the focused mission of a small institution, the intimate class settings and ready faculty mentoring, the sense of community, the expectation of engagement, the inspiring campus environment, and the rich humanistic experience, that you do at a liberal arts college.

Having said that, I believe just as strongly that in the future there will not be the need for all 1,700 or so traditional private colleges that the Department of Education says we now have. The next five to 10 years will see a great shaking out of these institutions, and the ones that already are on the financial margin or that fail to adapt to a modern educational environment will fall by the wayside. 

So how do we guarantee that St. Norbert is one of those private colleges that not only survives but thrives? 

To begin with, we must continue to do everything in our power to keep our experience affordable for any student who wants it, regardless of his or her economic background. That will take a combination of prudent fiscal management, finding revenue sources beyond traditional tuition, room and board, and providing even more financial aid. We are actively engaged on all those fronts. 

The 2012-13 academic year saw the arrival of our largest – and smartest – incoming class ever, and the institution of a waitlist for qualified students. But the decline in the number of high school graduates in this region and increasing concerns about the cost of college are realities that are already driving us (and our peers) to be ever more proactive in meeting the growing challenges of recruitment. It’s more crucial than ever that we deliver on all our promises to these students once they are here – and, especially that we offer a superior academic experience that will convert into good jobs and careers. We have an enviable track record on that score, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t be the case in the future. After all, when employers are surveyed as to the qualities they want in new employees, they say things like the ability to think critically, to adapt to shifting circumstances, to work collegially, to communicate, to make ethical decisions – all characteristics of a liberal arts education. 

We must use any regional advantages and partnering opportunities that present themselves. There is no better example than our relationship with the Medical College of Wisconsin, whose Green Bay regional campus, set to open in 2015, will be located in our new Gehl-Mulva Science Center.The positive impact of this collaboration for St. Norbert is almost beyond calculation.

We must adapt our teaching to the digital environment. St. Norbert has always been justifiably proud of its commitment to student learning. But in a world where young people do much of that learning in a digital context, we need to meet them where they live technologically. 

Finally, we must be rock-solid about our values. We need to be able to articulate them clearly and then demonstrate every day that we live them. In the end, that is apt to be the biggest differentiator between schools that endure and those that don’t. 

Put another way, institutions such as St. Norbert can be greater than ever as we move forward, building on our current position as one of the top 10 Catholic schools among America’s best national liberal arts colleges (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report).

But only if we’re smart. And only if we continue to earn your support. 

The simple fact is, tuition alone will never cover everything it takes to provide the resources, services and amenities our community needs. That’s why we are currently engaged in Campaign St. Norbert: Full Ahead, with its target of raising $90 million by 2016. Your gifts to the college totaled more than $22 million in the fiscal year just concluded, a generosity that is, frankly, inspirational. When you provide scholarships, when you endow professorships, when you name a new science classroom, when you make your annual contribution to the St. Norbert Fund at a level that works for you, you not only express confidence in today’s St. Norbert College. You join us in ensuring that tomorrow’s will be here, going strong – educating the next generation of Green Knights.