Reinventing Higher Education: Colleges and Universities Retool to Recruit, Retain Students

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Higher ed institutions are in the battle of a lifetime as they are coping with political and economic uncertainties, threats to federal aid, declining state support, higher tuition rates and increased competition from for-profit institutions. Amid all these challenges, these institutions are pressed to keep up with technological demands, including increased online course offerings and preparing students for a global marketplace.

In the face of mounting demands, universities must also recruit and retain students and meet and surpass expected outcomes for graduation rates. University leaders are finding their roles redefined as "fundraiser-in-chief" and "visionary" along with their long list of duties and result-driven responsibilities.

Institutions are plotting how to strategically move forward by trimming some program areas and adding offerings in high-growth fields such as STEM, as well as expanding online course options in order to attract more students.

These uncertain times present a unique opportunity for universities to also reinvent themselves into models that meet target market needs, operate more efficiently, identify strategic partners and position themselves on the global stage.

The challenges in higher education also rest on national goals set by the Obama Administration to help the country regain its place with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

"As the United States looks to higher education as the primary vehicle for maintaining its leadership in the globalized world, colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to expand access to a quality and affordable college education and to ensure students graduate in a timely manner," says Gretchen M. Bataille, senior vice president for leadership and lifelong learning at the American Council on Education.

In their favor, today's tight fiscal environment does create an opportunity for university leaders to think outside the box when it comes to reinventing programs, campuses and outcomes.

The adult learner

Sojourner Douglass College has a long history of evolving to meet the needs of the communities it serves. Born out of the Civil Rights Movement and its Saturday and evening Freedom Schools that taught Black history, Sojourner Douglass was established 40 years ago by its first and only president, Dr. Charles W. Simmons. The college has five locations in counties throughout Maryland, as well as a campus in the Bahamas.

"Our student population has not changed," Simmons says. "We started out serving the adult population from the beginning, with the average age of 38. We also recognized that there was a group whose needs weren't being met."

Though the mission and target market have remained the same, Sojourner Douglass is working to keep pace with technology for its 2,000 students.

"We are in the process of not changing our strategy, but adding to it with more online courses," says Simmons, who is currently going through accreditation approval to offer full degree programs online. "The difference is going to be the student services. Even though there are a lot of African-American students taking online courses, they are not always successful. We are looking at a concept we are calling 'Super Serving' students, creating strategies for that online community."

He added that through the super serving students program, the online community would be provided with live tutors who can assist with lessons beyond the traditional technology helpdesks in order to support the special needs of the adult student population.

Simmons has grown the college by meeting the basic needs of adult learners. Each location offers childcare to allow students to focus on their studies. In addition, Simmons says students are offered help with other pressing issues that could impact their ability to attend college. …