The news about projected high school graduates in New England is not encouraging. Here in Connecticut the projected drop in high school graduates over the next ten years is 12%. We are all still reeling from the COVID drop and the impact of the last ten years of declines in high school graduates (@ 9%). In a nation obsessed with continuous growth, we are now in a conundrum. How do we balance our budgets in the face of continuous declines? Even if those projections turn out to be overly pessimistic, it seems it is time to design for less.
We often start this conversation as “how do we do more with less?” This is not a good idea. We can’t do more than we’re doing. In fact, we are already doing too much. In the lovely period where student populations kept growing, we allowed ourselves to add programs, courses, departments, and schools as ideas arose. This was exhilarating, to be sure. The freedom to just keep adding bolstered inventiveness and creativity (both wonderful things), with little concern for a future with fewer students. But trying to sustain all that we have created is not a path to sustainability. Nor is it a path to excellence. It simply strains resources so that nothing is properly supported. No, we should not try to do more with less. We should try to imagine our way to something that is smaller but still infused with inventiveness and creativity.
As soon as I suggest that we need to be smaller, our natural response is: “what will we stop doing?” This is both a reasonable question and a necessary reality. We have to stop doing some things because the spread of what most universities are doing is unsustainable without continuous growth. All institutions know which academic programs are thriving and which are not. They also know which co-curricular programs are thriving and which are not. All of this is pretty easy to see. This knowledge can point us in a direction for getting smaller, but it doesn’t tell us where we want to go. I think we need to start with a different question. Instead of asking about what we should cut, it might be more productive to consider what we want to achieve.
It is at this point, that I always think about missions. This is ours:
Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.
This statement is similar to those at peer institutions in the region and as such it does reflect some about how we see ourselves. But to make it truly useful we need to be a bit more specific. Here are some ways we might do so.
Let’s start with our desire to provide a high quality education. What are the essential elements of a high quality education? Universities were not always this sprawling and they did not always have so many choices of programs, courses, and majors. Since there were obviously some high quality experiences a century ago, it is clear we can achieve quality education with fewer options. But we need to figure out what the essential elements should be. This should be clearly defined in the general education curriculum, and in the balance of programs offered. How can we define that essentialness and then design from there? Can we do it without just defaulting to our favorite lists, but instead map it to our learning goals for our students? Can we consider some evidence-based practices? Can we approach this process as designing for quality, instead of cutting for financial reasons?
The same can be said of the structure of our majors. I’ll show my age when I note that the entirety of a liberal arts major used to be around 30 credits. This slim approach to the major seems to have disappeared over the last 30 years, as we all added more specificity to our programs, trying to reflect the breadth of ideas and respond to new skills or other developments. Well, I have no hope of a 30 credit liberal arts major, but I think it might be time to rein things in. We all have program learning outcomes: how might we achieve those outcomes with fewer requirements? Can we redesign courses to that end? Will this allow us to produce schedules that deliver the promise of a well-rounded major, without overwhelming our students? Can we approach this as designing for learning, instead of reducing choices for efficiency?
As for our co-curricular programs, might we consider how they help students grow as individuals, professionals and leaders in a global society? Our habit is to let our co-curricular programs emerge with our students’ interests each year. Some of this is to the good, but attendance and participation levels tell us that we could be doing better. Is it possible to have fewer programs, but get them focused on specific university goals? Could this foster greater coordination and collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs? Can we see this as supporting our mission to change lives, instead of over-direction?
The questions I am asking are not specific to WCSU. Every regional comprehensive in New England is facing this demographic shift. Every regional comprehensive will need to figure this out in a way that leads to a sustainable future focused on great education. As we all adjust to the projected demographics and the process of designing ourselves for a smaller future, we might be well-served by focusing on the idea of design. Instead of focusing on what we currently offer and how it should be reduced, we should focus on what we want to achieve and design to that end. This will give us the map to how to be excellent, even as we get smaller.
It will also make clear what we don’t need to do anymore. That will be a result, to be sure, and one that is uncomfortable. But starting with the goals in mind could create excitement about what we are building. It might inspire our imaginations, leading us to something altogether new and interesting. Most of all, it might help us see the power of what we are building instead of just feeling the losses of what we are cutting. This might just be a productive strategy for imaging a smaller, more sustainable future.