How Smaller Colleges Are Disrupting Higher Education

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Higher education is under attack for saddling students with crippling debt that compromises their future success. But lesser known colleges and universities are burnishing the image of post-secondary education through innovation, equipping a new generation of diverse students with the knowledge and skills to get ahead, according to this opinion piece by Scott Cowen, president emeritus and distinguished university chair of Tulane University. He is also the author of  Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education.

It’s that time of year again, when fresh-faced graduates embark on the rest of their lives, holding their hard-earned degrees as the first-class ticket to a bright future. It’s a moment when everyone unites in celebrating the benefits that higher education bestows on the young. But the reality is this: The year-round perceptions of college are the reverse of rosy. During a moment of national upheaval and political division, with many of our institutions and values under attack, doubters and cynics have been going after higher education with pitchforks.

A doomsday narrative describing colleges and universities as exclusionary and overpriced has upended the long-held belief that a post-secondary degree is the gateway to economic security, mental and physical well-being, and meaningful participation in society. Stories of young people demanding safe spaces and lap-of-luxury amenities make college sound like an indulgence; graduates with escalating student loans but no jobs make it sound like a raw deal.

But within higher education, it’s a different story. For those immersed in the work of leading institutions of higher education, the narrative goes something like this: innovate or die. In response to the challenges of the 21st century, higher education is in the midst of a paradigm shift focused on the imperative of change.

Remarkable developments are unfolding nationwide at institutions large and small, public and private, urban and rural, famous and unknown — and unknown often just means untold. The prominence and success of elite colleges and universities can lead to traditionalism and complacency. But schools that no one’s ever heard of, on the other hand, have a strong motivation to innovate for enhanced impact and visibility.

“Higher education is in the midst of a paradigm shift focused on the imperative of change.”

Not everyone knows about Xavier University in New Orleans, a small historically black Catholic school that over the past three decades turned itself into the major pipeline for black doctors, scientists and pharmacists in the U.S. Even fewer know about Trinity Washington University, an all-female Catholic school whose enrollment, reduced to 300 students in the 1990s, rebounded to a total of 2,000 by 2015 because of strategic changes focusing on low-income women of color, sustainable financial aid, and a curriculum that emphasizes basic skills, analytical reasoning and the practical application of knowledge.

There are other little-known stories that reveal the efforts of schools all over the United States to lower the price tag so that access to education is not limited because of rising income inequality. For example, Amherst College was first in the country to eliminate loans for low-income students, replacing them with scholarships in financial aid packages. Consequently, it ranks highly on the College Access Index, which tracks percentages of low-income, minority and first-generation students nationwide.

A wide variety of schools, ranging from Vassar College to Southern Vermont College, have also made increasing diversity a priority, enlisting organizations like Posse, which discovers student leaders from urban centers through its Dynamic Assessment Process, and QuestBridge, which locates outstanding low-income students and matches them with elite partner schools. The aim of all these efforts is to increase social mobility and ultimately rebuild the middle class.

One indispensable element of institutions that are forward-looking and socially responsible is the leaders who guide them. The individuals leading successful colleges and universities typically share several characteristics: They are creative and adaptable, with the relational skills to build consensus and the prescience to encourage innovation and lead the way to transformation.

“The emerging story of our colleges and universities is fundamentally one of hope.”

One example of such leadership is Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn, a historically black college in South Dallas, who turned around a failing school by opening wide its doors to Latino students, converting its football field into an organic farm in a powerful symbolic move, and partnering with businesses to create a paid work program of 10 hours to 20 hours a week that reduces average tuition by $10,000.  Recently the school became the first historically black college and university to be named a “work college” by the U.S. Department of Education, a first step toward Sorrell’s vision of creating a national system of urban work colleges based on the Paul Quinn model.

The bottom line is that there is reason to be optimistic. The naysayers and handwringers — those who predict the end of college and scorn the time spent on intellectual endeavors, personal growth, and interaction with a diversity of people — are ignoring the current wave of efforts to reform obsolete traditions, launch new initiatives, and forge a path to the future. We need to acknowledge the problems, from unequal access to runaway costs, but we also need to take notice of the myriad solutions being pursued at institutions all across the country.

The emerging story of our colleges and universities is fundamentally one of hope, with courageous leaders spearheading a culture of innovation and inspirational models offering the promise of a brighter future for our youth, and hence our nation.

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