Dominican University’s Mary Marcy’s New Book Suggests Big Changes for Small Colleges

For almost a decade, Mary Marcy has been president of Dominican University of California, a liberal arts college outside of San Francisco. What began 130 years ago as a religious school for women now serves about 1,750 co-ed students, many of them first-generation.

Marcy’s work helping the institution adapt to attract and serve new kinds of students inspired her to explore how other small colleges are responding to today’s economic pressures and demographic changes. The result is a new book called “The Small College Imperative: Models for Sustainable Futures.”

EdSurge sat down with Marcy to learn which strategies are working for which liberal arts colleges—and why some end up merely tweaking their traditions while others morph into online behemoths. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Last fall, you were on sabbatical working on a new book. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Mary Marcy: We’ve heard a lot about the demographic cliff. We’ve heard about all of the challenges small colleges are facing. We’ve been told the business model is broken. I didn’t think we needed another book telling us what was wrong, although there are real challenges, and I don’t want to disregard those.

But I also realize that for many institutions, this information isn’t news. Many of us have been adapting to these headwinds for some time, and there’s a lot you can learn from institutions that have innovated to respond to the external challenges.

So the book’s focus is on institutions that have made fundamental shifts to respond to the primary external challenges: a shift in demographics, challenges to the business model, changes in the market and interest in the liberal arts—and to some degree, changes in education technology and how that affects the demand for small colleges. There’s a number of different ways small colleges can respond. The book evaluates those approaches and has five different models—from fairly traditional but still adapting to pretty radical—and gives institutional examples of each type and says why they chose the approach they chose and what are the outcomes.

Tell us about the models. Do they fall on a spectrum?

You can think of it as a continuum, from what we typically associate with small colleges to things that often involve fundamental changes to the mission.

So “traditional” is the most traditional. (These are not the most creative titles, perhaps.) The two institutions that are profiled in the book are Colgate and Whitman, [in] different parts of the country but both institutions with very strong histories in the liberal arts, very recognized as high quality, well-endowed, financially solid. What’s interesting about them is that they’re still changing in really important ways.

Colgate in particular is focused on tying its education more directly to career and has placed a new facility right in the heart of campus that’s focused on getting students from college to career. Whitman’s really focused on the changing demographic of students, in particular the diversification of students, and is making some very intentional steps to respond to that new student demographic. So in a sense, they’re traditional because they’re doubling down on the liberal arts. Their changes are also somewhat traditional because of their relative wealth; they can do a lot of things as additions rather than fundamentally changing their core.

As you get to the more radical models: they fundamentally change their institutional identities. “Integrative” really integrates the liberal arts and professional/pre-professional programs. A “distinctive” program looks like what we’ve done at Dominican. It’s a bit more agnostic about academic program and much more focused simply on student experience and student success.

The “expansion” model is very agnostic about academic program. It is explicitly market-driven. If there is a demand for a particular program at a particular space, it will move there. What they do is evaluate market need, evaluate time to get a program off the ground, and often they will add new sites, new locations, in order to serve a new student demographic.

And then the most extreme is the “distributed” model, which is Southern New Hampshire. It is all just-in-time education, competency-based, primarily online—although they still have a core campus. Southern New Hampshire’s not by any stretch a small college anymore, but it started as a small college.

How did your experiences at Dominican University inform your research and writing?

It, in many senses, is like many small colleges which have roots in a very kind of classical notion of residential liberal arts, but it’s evolved a lot in the last few decades to respond to changing student demographics and changing student needs.

It was founded by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael who really felt that education, ethical leadership and leading a meaningful life were intertwined, and had education and healthcare as very much a part of their mission. And that continues today, although the university’s actually independent from the sisters at this point and has been for a few decades. There’s still a very strong grounding in the Dominican values of study, reflection, community and service.

We often say that Dominican students look like California, which means they look like the future of the United States. Well over half of our students are students of color, most from underrepresented groups. About a third are the first in their family to go to college. Anywhere from a quarter to a third are Pell-eligible.

A big part of our work in the last few years has been saying, “How do you respond to that student demographic? How do you make sure that profile of student can be successful?” because our institutions were not initially developed to serve that kind of student.

What have you done to draw students to Dominican?

We have a signature program that we call the Dominican Experience that touches every student regardless of their major. Every student has an integrative coach from the time they enroll past graduation. That includes a peer mentor, but it also includes someone who helps them with more of a guided pathway through college. Every student has some type of community-engaged learning. Every student has a signature experience of their own before they graduate, and every student has a digital portfolio that works well with the integrative coach while they’re in college to help them reflect and see how they’ve changed and grown, but then also works as they graduate to look at graduate school or apply for jobs.

The student retention and persistence to graduation has increased dramatically in the last decade, and it is not only because of the Dominican Experience, but it’s largely because of that.

Are some small institutions immune from these pressures?

I think “immune” is probably a strong word, but maybe it’s like symptoms of a virus: some will get a cold and for some, it will be much worse. Certainly if you are an institution that is heavily endowed, very high status, you probably don’t need to worry too much. But there’s always a desire, and I think the appropriate one, in education to respond to changes not in the market so much as in student profiles. If students are changing, if higher education is the great equalizer, then that means that opportunity needs to be more equal than it is right now.

Speaking of changing student profiles, I think to some people, a liberal arts college is a place of relative privilege, or at least it has been historically. It’s where you can develop your passions and read great literature under beautiful trees, maybe not so concerned about your tuition bills or what you’re going to do with this education afterwards. To what extent do liberal arts institutions fit that stereotype, and do they have work to do to convince students that they do belong at these institutions?

Yeah, there is this kind of … bucolic notion of sitting and reading “Moby Dick” and discussing it. I think the reality is that the liberal arts are fundamentally something that was created in the United States to provide people with a more broad-based education—the capacity for critical thinking, analysis, communication, all of the things that people say they want in the workforce. Also, the kinds of tools you need to create a meaningful life.

The research shows that’s still needed. It says employers want it, but it also says that’s what students want. Even some of the folks that have been doing research that supports the more disruptive notion of higher education find that at least traditional-age students want to go to college. They don’t just want the credential, they don’t just want to check the box. Now what that means, to “go to college,” may have shifted somewhat, but it’s still a notion of expanding opportunity, expanding relationships, expanding your capacity and finding your way in the world. I think that much hasn’t changed.

By and large, student success is higher at these kinds of colleges because the student engagement level is higher. Often, their success post-graduation is higher as well, but it may not be as immediate. It may not be as linear.

Are any of the institutions you studied offering liberal arts online? Or if they go online, are those more career preparation or adult education programs?

Most of them are not offering the liberal arts online. They may be offering more targeted programs online—some business courses, some health sciences courses. So if the question is, “Is there an institution that’s been a traditional liberal arts institution that’s now liberal arts online?”, I have not seen it.

Do you think liberal arts is tied to this residential idea of small classes and dorm mates talking about philosophy late into the night, or do you foresee liberal arts working online?

I’m not sure it has to be a learning community where everyone’s in the same residence hall taking the same class, but there is a notion of reflection that is very hard to do independently, that needs engagement. A lot of the programs, even online programs that are really successful, have some type of limited residency or cohort model even outside of the liberal arts. It seems to me that it’s hard to have the kind of communication, analysis and engagement if it’s online. I don’t know if it has to be small classes in a residential setting and everyone living on campus. But is it a contact sport? Yes, absolutely.

What surprised you? What stories did you and your grad students unearth that were delightful or surprising or disappointing?

I was really pleased and surprised with the amount of change that institutions that had quite a few resources, like Whitman and Colgate, are using to embrace a new student population. Very explicitly saying, “We need to have more opportunity. We need to serve more underrepresented students. We think we have something to offer them.”

Another example of that is California Lutheran. They’re a Lutheran college in Southern California, so you can imagine the kind of historic profile of their students. They said, “Given the demographics of California and where we’re located, we’re probably going to become a largely Hispanic institution at some point in our future, so rather than waiting for that, we’re going to be proactive and become a Hispanic-serving institution with an emphasis on ‘serving.'” They did a lot of research on where they were needed, what kinds of programming, both curricular and co-curricular they needed to add, and over a period of six to eight years, very intentionally became a Hispanic-serving institution. I thought that was a fantastic story and a really impressive one.

They have new campus sites that are in primarily Hispanic communities, but they’ve also done a lot of work on their residential campus and had Eboo Patel, of the Interfaith Youth Core, come in and talk across difference so that Muslim students and Hispanic students who tend to be Catholic and their Lutheran students talk about what they have in common in their faiths and what[’s] different. But they don’t just talk about it; they choose a project in the community and do something in the community together that reflects those shared values. It’s a pretty powerful educational moment.

That seems like a good example of responding to the market, if you will, but with a liberal arts solution.

Yes, very much so. Yes.

You know, “We’re going to change, but we’re going to teach students how to do it with us.”

Yes. I like that phrase: “Responding to the marketing with a liberal arts solution.”

One last question for you: Is the solution for any small institution to simply close? Would you recommend that as a course to pursue?

I think sometimes it can be. The challenge is, and I think we saw it with Sweet Briar, is that they tried to proactively do that so that they could pay out their faculty and give everyone a soft landing. That was not particularly well-received. I think closures and mergers have gotten a lot of attention, and I suspect what we’re going to see more of is institutions that may be fundamentally changing their identity, or they may develop different types of relationships and partnerships than we’ve seen in the past. I think there’s a lot of fertile ground on that margin that’s not just closure and merger.

Closures, mergers are really hard. But is it going to happen? Sometimes it will.