A Simple Plan
I write this in the curious time after our youngest alumni have just departed the campus and just before some of our oldest alumni are about to return for a reunion. Over 800 graduates will be returning this year for a few days of contemplation and quiet reflection - well, maybe a little more. And it has stopped snowing! As you know, when the weather in Vermont turns finally to sunshine and warmth, it does so quickly and is appreciated all the more when the winter has been a bit longer and deeper than usual. In Vermont the seasons are experienced with an intensity afforded by their dramatic difference, one from another. Not for us the tepid sameness of a southern California clime! We like our seasons to be up and down, to conform in their ways to the up and down hills that surround us. We like the extremes that have toughened these hill people for centuries, and even if our stay is but four years we are better fashioned for the world for the time spent in Vermont's seasons.
As I have previously discussed, Saint Michael's has been set on a course of preparing for what might lay ahead for small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast. The declining to stagnant number of high school graduates, the increasing burden of loans on students and families, the increasing call for an immediate economic return to on investment in a college education, the growing cost of remaining academically current as technology remains essential in many fields even while e-Learning scratches at the edges of what a college does, all interact to present a murky landscape through which we must negotiate. Yet while the terrain may be fraught with difficulties, it is also clear that we as a college can very much become stronger still in the near term. I firmly believe that we can stay ahead of this "crisis" and prosper by being both prudent and creative.
In our financial planning we will remain extremely conservative, steering a course that will permit us to flourish should some of the demographic projections be as dire as predicted by some. Hence we address the question, "If we had to maintain the quality of our Academic and Student Life programs what should we do with regard to the number of new students admitted each year?" The fundamental drivers here are the maintenance of the quality of our programs combined with the ability to provide financial flexibility to handle the inevitable stresses of a market decline. I believe the College is quite good at this as the community knows how to tighten its belt when times are a little tough, no doubt because we have all been through the seasons of Vermont. At the same time we want to be sure that our academic and student life programs are the absolute best they can be, that they reflect the needs and wishes of students and their families, recognize the advantages technology can bring when appropriate, and fully employ the ample capital assets of the College. To this end we are in the midst of an experiment called the Accelerated Summer College (ASC) designed to explore how a liberal arts college can take advantage of various eLearning platforms while maintaining the student/faculty intimacy that is at the heart of what a liberal arts college does. At the same time, we want to use our experience with the ASC to test the opportunities provided by having students in residence during the traditionally much quieter summer months.
Those of you who have been here during a Vermont summer know that for many the traditional academic year is mis-timed as summer in Winooski Park is warm and spectacularly bright. We are in the midst of this first experiment now with about 120 student enrollments in these somewhat different course formats. Early reports from students and faculty members are very positive but we have a lot more work to do to assess the quality of these experiences. The important point here is that we need to be adventuresome and prudent at the same time. Yet, as a liberal arts institution, keeping diametrically opposing ideas in one's head simultaneously is an everyday expectation. We have also been selected by the Consortium of Independent Colleges, (CIC) to develop two advanced liberal arts electives that could be made available to other liberal arts institutions on an online basis. The point here is to maintain or increase the number of liberal arts electives available to a group of institutions over what any single institution could provide.
As we plan prudently and strike out with academic initiatives that break new ground, we also will work hard at seeing that we affect our own destiny on the enrollment front. This is clearly not a time solely to be passive in the face of known demographic conditions, but rather Sarah Kelly and the fine Admission team Jerry Flanagan built have set out to try new approaches for recruiting students. A good deal of these efforts have been directed at being sure we are clear about what a liberal education is, how important the individual relationships that develop between a faculty or staff member and a student is to eventual student happiness, and how a loyal alumni network can really help new graduates. As recent graduate Liam Connors '14 said, a liberal arts education is not so much about what you want to do as who you want to be. The case that a liberal education is for a lifetime has not been well-made nationally. Yet, if our remarkable success this spring in enrolling a very large first-year class is any indication then we are off to a very good start.
In a nutshell the plan is simple: Be prudent with financial planning; Experiment and measure success on the academic side; And tell a true and good story in admissions. We are well launched, so stay tuned as the story develops.
- John J. Neuhauser