THE BLOG
01/15/2015 11:05 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

New Year's Resolutions for Higher Education

With the hope that Santa rewarded America's colleges and universities for being exceptionally good prior to the 2014 holiday season (such gifts to include a healthy applicant pool, vigorous end-of-calendar-year giving by alumni and friends, stable retention of current students for the spring term), it's time for a few new year's resolutions.

This is not a list of personal goals; as the responsibilities of the college presidency have grown and become more complex, I prefer to discuss those separately with my colleagues, especially those who are new to the presidential arena. At the recent convening of the Council of Independent Colleges New Presidents Program, which I've chaired for 15 years, I counseled some of our newest campus CEO's to benefit from mentors, to be visible at signature campus events, to exercise, and to take some personal time.

On the carnival ride that has become the higher-education presidency in America, adhering to personal goals is sometimes easier said than done, I know.

Our colleges and universities, however, have little choice but to honor new year's resolutions--which really are indistinguishable from those of their presidents anyway, whose private lives have morphed into the public brand of their institutions. Such goals are compelling, and have a lot to do with whether long-term survival of such colleges or universities is to be expected.

At the beginning of each new year, The Lawlor Group (www.thelawlorgroup.com), Minnesota-based marketing consultants, publishes their outlook on higher-education marketplace trends. For 2015, the forecast includes recommendations on "specific market-driven educational outcomes," financial incentives (such as three-year degree programs and guaranteed tuition rates) for students and families to afford and commit to a college experience, increased on-campus support to students, "enhanced targeting capabilities" to convey individualized messaging to enrollment prospects, and other trends and topics.

The bottom line (literally) for campuses interested in survival amid some very stark marketplace realities--a trillion dollars of student-loan debt, growing doubts and publicity about the affordability and value of a traditional, four-year college education, shaky job prospects for many graduates--is communication of what might be called transfixed career trajectory. With apologies to NASA, whose moon-rocket days familiarized us with such outer-space terms as "translunar trajectory," I remain confident that the students we recruit today will expect a smooth ride to the moon and beyond, career-wise, upon graduation. It would follow that our mission as their college or university is not only to guarantee that journey but to assure them beforehand that it is attractive, attainable, and affordable.

Thus, transfixed career trajectory appears to be recommended through these institutional new year's resolutions:
  1. Lose weight. Take a hard look at your curricular profile. It's not a matter of dropping courses or programs that don't produce employable graduates; it's more a challenge of slimming down the curriculum to produce efficiencies of learning, prepare students for the marketplace, and encourage lifelong, cross-disciplinary learning.
  2. Get fit. Strengthen the "lift" of your institution through target marketing, personalized messaging, and exhaustive research of your desired applicant pool. Often said but true is that no institution can be all things to all people. Market and evaluate 24/7. College admissions competition is relentless: no pain, no gain.
  3. Give up smoking. Help students make healthful choices. A growing number of campuses are going smoke-free. The hazards of alcohol are compelling institutions to be more proactive than ever in addressing related problems such as binge drinking, riotous behavior, and sexual victimization.
  4. Be a more engaging partner. Communicate how employers value the kind of liberal arts skills that lead to jobs and career advancement for the 21st century, and help students attain those skills while building a foundation for life success through social and professional adaptability.
  5. Be a good listener. Support students in their quest for personal and career fulfillment. Millennials may absorb, process, and value information differently than their predecessors, appearing rarely to look up from their phones and iPads, but their concerns and insecurities are not dissimilar from those of earlier generations. Although they may not acknowledge it on the surface, compassionate mentoring and discipline are sought and valued.
  6. Enrich the mind. Like much of society, campuses have begun to take the politically easy way out, barring controversial speakers from commencements, turning off the microphone--the "bully pulpit"--of the college presidency, toning down the discourse of ideas. It does little good to prepare students for productive and rewarding careers if we close their minds in the process.

So there you have it--a recipe for institutional success and survival in 2015. Follow these simple resolutions and the future will be yours.

Were it so easy for our wonderfully complicated, often tradition-bound, argumentative institutions to reduce their challenges to six simple rules!

Get busy.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives" (www.presidentialperspectives.org), a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.