In the past decade or so, many higher education institutions have worked hard to raise their profile. Savvy enrollment directors and presidents had their eyes on the coming demographic shifts, and they worked hard to establish reputations beyond their traditional recruiting area. They knew there were not going to be enough students in that region to sustain them. Some invested in new programs, others rushed to specialized accreditations, and still others celebrated winning athletic contests that brought them national recognition. It was an exhilarating race.
All of these seemed like sane strategies, and there have been some big winners. But the field is crowded, and not all of us have the resources to found a medical school or compete in division one sports. For those of us designed to serve a broad range of students while working with more limited funds, this quest for national brand identity was and is out of reach. To put it simply, being recognized costs money. When choosing to invest our resources, schools like mine tend to focus on direct student services, rather than reputation. It may seem shortsighted to some, but when faced with the day-to-day realities of our student’s needs, direct services win every time.
But, here we are. The demographic shifts are upon us, the big winners in the branding arena have been determined, and we are not among them. We don’t have national recognition, and as we work hard to maintain reasonable enrollments, we are facing difficult decisions about the allocation of our resources. As we make those decisions, it might be a good time to focus on the value we bring to our local community.
WCSU is a wonderful option for so many people. We have a diverse array of programs, highly qualified faculty, interesting research opportunities, and some very nice buildings. Many of our students go on the impressive things, like law school, medical school, and other interesting graduate programs. Others win prestigious scholarships like Fulbright’s and Goldwater’s, or full-funding for graduate degrees in math or economics. However, the vast majority earn their degrees from us, secure employment in the region, and get on with living productive lives. I am very proud of every one of these accomplishments.
Having lived in this region for over twenty-five years, it is impossible for me not to see our impact. Everywhere I go, I run into our graduates. They are running small businesses, inventing new things, and working for global firms. They are in our healthcare agencies, our schools, our police forces, and running social programs. They are volunteers, elected officials, and proud parents. They are my friends and neighbors.
Just last week, I was out to dinner, listening to some friends play music, when I ended up in a conversation with another musician who earned his business degree from us and is now working for an international accounting firm. His wife earned a degree in social work from WCSU as well. Both are having wonderful lives, working in their fields, and raising their children in CT. Their parents also attended WCSU and if they send their children to college with us, they will be third generation WCSU graduates. That is some kind of endorsement of our offerings, don’t you think?
These kinds of conversations are a common experience for me. I hear of great outcomes in grocery stores, at concerts, and local fairs. I am occasionally called upon to give advice to families whose children may be struggling. I have helped friends of friends guide their children back to college, after the study-away experience didn’t work out. Sometimes, I find myself explaining our policies on park benches or at the beach. It is actually an honor. I am happy to be that resource for so many members of my community.
Reflecting on these experiences, I realize just what a privilege it is to be a good, regional comprehensive university. Instead of focusing on being a national brand, we’re focused on doing quality education. Our offerings are typical of our kind of school and they are, in fact, pathways to productive lives. From the generalist degrees that serve as great foundations for careers in many fields, to the more direct career focused programs that prepare students to be nurses or social workers, we provide opportunities for all students to thrive. When appropriate, we add new majors that meet emerging demands (cybersecurity and addiction studies come to mind), and that is important, but mostly, we offer quality education that sets our graduates up for success.
I guess what I am saying is this–as the number of students in our region drop, I still want to be that great option for my friends and neighbors. I don’t want to chase a trend or invest resources in the ratings race or hire a consultant to tell us what we already know about who we are. Instead, I want to invest in the things that support this environment, so that we can continue to be the community asset that we have always been.
This makes us a little vulnerable. We have to figure out how to manage our resources while we wait for a new generation of learners to be ready for college. It is a real challenge to budget for status quo, rather than growth. But, I think we are on the right track if we keep quality education as our focus, rather than shiny objects. It may not be glamourous, but it is sure does change lives.