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Higher education responds to changing financial realities

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Scott D. Miller Scott D. Miller

Scott D. Miller is president and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges during the past 23 years. A consultant to college presidents and boards, he edits "Presidential Perspectives" (presidentialperspectives.org), a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.

Bethany College, the oldest degree-granting institution in West Virginia — older than the state itself, having been founded in 1840 — honors its 174-year commitment to the liberal arts and the kind of unfettered thinking and preparation for lifelong learning that our founder, Alexander Campbell, cherished. Employers today continue to value the broad-based form of education that empowers graduates to think critically, communicate well, solve problems and provide informed leadership, not only for their jobs but also for their communities.

A recent comment by NAICU, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, underscores the necessity of planning carefully for the future, however:

"Getting a targeted number of accepted students to commit to a college's freshman class — known as the ‘yield' — has become more crucial for thousands of schools. Enrollment rates for numerous smaller and lesser-known colleges and universities are falling this year, due to a decline in the U.S. college-age population, years of rising tuition, increasing popularity of Internet courses and a weak job market for recent graduates."

Clearly all colleges and universities must be proactive in addressing the difficult issues impacting higher education, most of which center around institutional finance, student recruitment and financial aid. Although Bethany College wishes to remain small by design, and we do not seek to "be all things to all students," we have developed comprehensive objectives for academics and student life, finance, communications and marketing, capital needs and corrective maintenance. Our plans will enable Bethany College to focus on meeting unprecedented challenges within our marketplace and within higher education itself while we seek new opportunities consistent with our core values. 

Despite increased competition from traditional and non-traditional education providers, Bethany sees value in remaining true to the historic, classical, residential learning experiences offered on our campus, along with partnerships that extend our academic reach. Because Bethany takes a holistic approach to evaluating high school students' potential as they apply to the college — factoring in not only an applicant's academic credentials but also activities, leadership potential and communication ability — we encourage a campus learning experience that is not confined to the classroom. 

The college recognizes that learning takes many forms and benefits from the exciting mix today of new knowledge bases, "smart" classrooms, interactive exploration of topics, collaborative research with faculty, intensive internships off campus and many other academic innovations, often supported by online technology. 

From the moment students enroll at the college, what we call "The Bethany Plan" aids them in becoming an integral part of academic, co-curricular and extracurricular activities. In addition to a January Term Freshman Seminar and Connections Class, students create career-development plans, draft resumes and begin to collect and organize in a professional way their activities, experiences and achievements. They can take advantage of global study-abroad trips, career-focused internships and research opportunities. Senior capstone projects and comprehensive examinations round out a student's education at Bethany. 

Simultaneously, we are mindful of the volatile job market and the competition our graduates face for desirable career positions. Unique Bethany programs, such as the Cooey-Davis Experiential Fellowships and the student-managed McCann Student Investment Fund for business students, who research and track investments using real dollars, enhance our students' preparation for rapidly changing job realities and mobility in the career marketplace. 

Bethany alumni and other professional friends of the college are generous in mentoring students, networking with them and assisting them in landing attractive positions. The result: the college has a high internship placement rate (communications and media arts had record internship placements the last two years), and many seniors secure jobs prior to graduation. 

To enhance our reputation as a student-centered living and learning environment, Bethany has improved facilities, instrumentation and services to meet the needs and expectations of our students. These include substantial upgrading of campus facilities, such as our athletic, fitness and wellness complexes, dining areas, bookstore and residence halls — including complete renovation of a historic campus structure into suite-style apartments for upperclass residents. 

We have added "smart" classrooms, widened our bandwidth capability, created mobile, student-operated TV production facilities to webstream campus events for parents and families and invested on average $1.7 million per year for the past five years in corrective maintenance. 

To foster affordability and added value in students' educational experiences, Bethany has initiated articulation agreements with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, several area community colleges — including West Virginia Northern — and seven international institutions. 

In addition, in 2012, Bethany signed an agreement with Carnegie Mellon University for six dual degrees offering accelerated bachelor's-to-master's programs. Growth of our equestrian program has led to a productive relationship with the stables at Oglebay Resort and Conference Center.

Our revitalized Bethany Choir and new marching band, "The Stampede," offer rich potential not only as vital co-curricular activities but also as recruitment tools. Like athletics, such programs enhance the value of student experiences; research shows that engaged students are likely to complete their undergraduate years. 

As with all colleges and universities, finance is a major factor in strategic planning. Because Bethany is enrollment-driven, and we cannot charge through tuition what it really costs to provide a quality educational environment, fundraising from alumni and friends is critical not only to balancing the budget annually but also to keeping the campus attractive and competitive.

Despite two major downturns in the economy during the past five years, "Transformation Now!: The Campaign for Bethany College" has reached the $46.5 million mark in gifts and pledges. Launched during the 2008-09 academic year, the campaign has a Phase I, five-year goal of $52 million for capital improvements, endowment and operations.

As a private college, Bethany also benefits from fundraising by the West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities, a consortium that since establishing the Circle of Vision Scholarship Program in 1996 has raised more than $3.8 million in scholarship support for students attending West Virginia's private higher education institutions (wvicu.org).

Auxiliary enterprises at Bethany include the Mountainside Conference Center and Gresham Inn, extensive use of the campus during summer months for high school camps and conferences, and hosting of Buffalo Seminary, an annual series of programs designed for ministers and laity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Bethany's founding denomination.

To increase energy efficiency, the college will convert its existing coal-burning plant to natural gas and has contracted with an energy company for resource development on college-owned properties adjacent to the campus.

Assisting families in meeting the cost of college, Bethany offered more than $10 million of institutionally funded financial aid last year. We will also freeze tuition for the 2014-15 academic year while intensifying recruitment throughout the Mid-Atlantic region of the country and abroad (initiatives are underway with some of China's top schools) and increasing retention of current students.

Colleges and universities have always been complex enterprises, often defying established business and organizational models. But the principle of client satisfaction prevails. Today's college campus is student-centered and student-sensitive, driven by intense enrollment competition which has a direct correlation to the financial health of the institution. 

Like any business, a college has to keep up to keep going. 

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