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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Scott Carlson

Subject: Your Niche Is Not Enough

Hi. I’m not Goldie Blumenstyk. I’m Scott Carlson, also a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering the business of higher education. Subscribe here. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week:

Lessons from the closure of Green Mountain College.

In higher education, everyone is looking for a niche — to be that flower that stands out from the others in a meadow. For some institutions, like Dartmouth or Duke, it’s a spin on elite status. For others, it’s a way to be distinctive when name alone won’t carry the day: Education for women (or people who identify as women) at Mills College. Real-world work (and a rock-star college president) at Paul Quinn College. One course at a time at Cornell College (no, the other one, in Iowa).

Colleges with no distinctive identity — so say the consultants and pundits and brand marketers and quotable college presidents — are at risk in such a competitive market.

As niches go, Green Mountain College’s was an enviable one: At a time when young people were concerned about climate change, socioeconomic upheaval, and industrial agriculture, GMC had been consistently recognized as the greenest institution in the country. Last year, Sierra magazine put GMC at the top of its annual “Cool Schools” list, and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education rated Green Mountain College the most sustainable among master’s institutions.

It turns out that Green Mountain’s business model wasn’t so sustainable, however. The college announced last month that it would close after years of grappling with debt, declining enrollments, and all the other demographic and financial pressures facing most small institutions.

It’s a reminder that niche does not trump the fundamentals of sound business practices. It’s a lesson we learned through other distinctive institutions that have faced closure, like Antioch and Sweet Briar Colleges. It’s a lesson we may learn again with Hampshire College, a financially troubled institution that has not only national recognition, but also a long list of famous alumni. “Is there still room for unconventional schools like Hampshire College?” asks Jon Krakauer, an alumnus, in The New York Times. There absolutely is. The real question is less sexy: Can unconventional schools adopt mundane but solid and proven business practices to sustain themselves?

I had great affinity for Green Mountain. I visited the place several times — even stopped at the college with my family during a summer road trip in 2011 — and admired the courage and foresight the college had in the mid-1990s, when it decided to put sustainability at the center of the institution’s mission. Later, students and faculty ripped up the athletic fields to establish a fossil-fuel-free working farm. I once wrote about Green Mountain students who slaughtered their own farm animals — one of my favorite stories in my portfolio.

But I also knew the college was troubled.

Two years ago, I was inadvertently copied on a communication between board members, which said that they had to stop dwelling on past mistakes and rally to save the institution. Over the past few days, I spoke to several alumni and former employees, who said that administrators couldn’t handle the college’s debt, that key positions (in fund raising, for example) had gone unfilled for too long, that the college had trouble connecting to and getting money from its alumni, and that the mood within the administration had become toxic. Any astute observer of higher ed would notice warning signs from the outside: deferred maintenance on the campus, a tiny endowment, and declining enrollment amid the brutal demographics of the Northeast.

Goldie’s column is about innovation, and certainly higher education needs new ideas and directions. But to my mind, innovation in higher education is overrated — and frequently not all that innovative. Colleges don’t necessarily need some unusual academic program, newfangled technology, or unconventional way to recognize learning or count credit hours. They need the basics: Know the costs of academic programs, make sure revenues cover them, and streamline where possible. Have a solid connection to alumni, and find ways for them to contribute their energy or enthusiasm if they can’t contribute money. Show parents and students what they’ll get for that hefty tuition, and continue delivering on your promises even after a student graduates. And so on.

One of the best presentations at the Council of Independent Colleges’ annual conference for college presidents, held last month in Arizona, was by Lawrence Schall, the president of Oglethorpe University, in Georgia. He didn’t recite a lot of glittery language about mission or the specialness of Oglethorpe. He said that before he arrived at the university in 2005, the institution — which constantly operated in the red — had a fairly simple business model: Each time the college ran out of money, it would sell a small parcel of the 600 acres it had been gifted in the early 20th century. Today, Schall pointed out, Oglethorpe has 100 acres left. The last time it sold land, for $12 million, it burned through that money in a year.

Cut expenses

So he cut and controlled expenses — the key message of his presentation. Too many colleges operate with unsustainable student-to-faculty and student-to-staff ratios. He passed out his own analysis of the operating expenses per student at Oglethorpe — $21,581 — versus dozens of other private colleges: $37,145 at Gustavus Adolphus, $40,290 at Morehouse, $46,202 at Sarah Lawrence, and $59,945 at Agnes Scott, to name a few.

While many of the colleges he listed are running massive structural deficits, Oglethorpe has annual operating surpluses. That gives the college the freedom to find and support that coveted niche.

And now, a shameless plug from this week’s guest columnist: Until recently, I was mostly a lurker on Twitter — someone who gleaned tips and ideas, while occasionally gagging a little at the self-promotional, chummy banter between some higher-ed luminaries. However, I realize that we live in a self-promotional age, and I am a bit ashamed that @GoldieStandard has 10,000 followers while @Carlsonics has a devoted but paltry 443. So come be my friend on Twitter. I’m going to post pictures of fun and weird stuff on campuses and random thoughts about what colleges are getting right or doing wrong.

Quote of the week.

“While the student loan repayment system is in desperate need of simplification and overhaul, forced automatic payroll withholding misses the mark.”

From a report from the National Consumer Law Center, criticizing a recent proposal from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and others to require automatic deductions from student-loan borrowers’ paychecks.

A few this-and-thats from Goldie.

I’m stepping away from this newsletter for a few weeks to focus on another assignment. Before I leave, thoughts on a couple of recent developments:

— Laureate Education won’t be selling its online Walden University after all. Considering all the attention these days on working adult students, the company realized that the long-term income potential in keeping Walden was greater than whatever price it might have gotten. It did, however, complete its previously announced sale of the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.

— The company 2U, which manages online programs for colleges and had previously secured a deal giving those students access to WeWork facilities, announced that it will extend that access to the faculty members who teach the courses too. WeWorks are co-working spaces known for their groovy aesthetics and up to four glasses of free beer a day. That’s a nice perk — the working spaces, I mean — for instructors who are adjuncts and may not get offices at their campuses. I suspect the free beer will be welcome too.

Our fifth annual Shark Tank: Edu Edition at SXSW EDU seeks contestants.

We’re still accepting applicants to be contestants in our Shark Tank on Wednesday, March 6, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., in Austin, Tex. You can read more about it (and another session on the skills gap that I’ll be moderating) here. Do you — or someone you know — have a new company, a new organization, or even just a good idea to improve higher education? Please send a short description of your idea to chronicleevents@chronicle.com.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at goldie@chronicle.com.

A correction.
Last week’s newsletter mischaracterized Strada Education Network as a guarantor of student loans. Strada no longer guarantees loans, although much of its wealth was derived from that business, and a portion of its current income is based on revenues from a loan-guarantee portfolio that it sold in 2017.

Scott Carlson is a senior writer who explores where higher education is headed. Follow him on Twitter @carlsonics, or write him at scott.carlson@chronicle.com.