The nation's liberal arts colleges are at a crossroads. As enrollment sags and the public increasingly questions the rising cost of a degree, more small private colleges are closing or getting creative with their program offerings and educational models to stay afloat.
There are a number of approaches to the latter. Five of them are detailed in a 2017 paper by Mary Marcy, president of Dominican University of California. They include pivoting online, doubling down on traditional education and adding professional programs.
Dominican, which sits less than 20 miles north of San Francisco, recently made changes to keep its curriculum current. Last year, the college teamed up with Make School, a San Francisco-based coding program, in a first-of-its-kind partnership to offer its students a computer science minor. In turn, Make School gets to offer an accredited bachelor's degree in applied computer science through Dominican.
Since the announcement, both institutions have tested new course offerings on their campuses, with plans to officially launch the programs this fall. Through a three-to-five-year incubation period with Dominican's accreditor, WASC Senior College and University Commission, the university will help Make School earn its own accreditation.
Earlier this month, we sat down with Marcy at an event in Baltimore to learn more about the partnership and her thoughts on the future of small colleges.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: How do the computer science courses fit with Dominican's programs, and how many students do you hope to enroll?
MARY MARCY: We want to make the computer science courses fit well with our students' interests and needs. For example, it makes sense to align certain coding courses with our strong major in biology and use data analytics courses to support some of the students majoring in business. We don't have a specific enrollment target, but we have a sense of what the minor will become and how it will integrate effectively with the institution.
What has been the biggest challenge throughout the trial run?
MARCY: It's just cultural. As much as we have really similar values and a similar profile of students, Make School is still a start-up that wants to move really fast and nimbly, and we're still an institution that's been around for over 100 years. We think we're really creative and innovative, but we still have to make sure everything is done according to state and federal government standards.
Make School is open to that, it's just not where they start from. We're both trying to be creative and obey the rules, but we are so firmly ingrained in one space and they're so firmly ingrained in the other. It ends up being complicated, and it's doubly complicated with a new entity that has no experience in this area.
Dominican now handles Make School's admissions. Has that changed the type of students it enrolls?
MARCY: Not really, because we talked about it a lot before we started the partnership, saying we didn't want to change each other's missions, we wanted to elevate them. We're trying to support who they were already becoming. There's a very diverse student body at Make School — that's part of what attracted us.
We make sure students meet admissions requirements at Dominican. But Make School identifies the students because they have the expertise and their own mission to look after.
Will this change the type of student Dominican attracts?
MARCY: We'll find out this fall. It's going to be interesting. We had a big entering class last year. This year's class looks like it's similar — maybe a little bigger. We're going to ask what attracted them, and we're going to see how much the partnership was one of the drivers.
This is a major partnership in higher ed. What kinds of institutions do you think will be drawn to these types of partnerships?
MARCY: Certainly, smaller colleges are going to be looking at these type of partnerships because they can augment their current offerings without the three- to five-year start-up and millions of dollars of upfront investment. There are more quality providers that can do that now than there were a decade or two ago.
Large institutions are doing it a little differently. It looks a little bit more like the Purdue-Kaplan deal, where it's more of a merger or acquisition than partnership.
What happens after the incubation period ends in three to five years?
MARCY: It dissolves because we both ideally will have the knowledge and the capacity to deliver independently what we're now delivering together. We built in a lot of professional development for faculty and staff in the memorandum of understanding with the idea that once they have exposure to Make School's expertise and networks, then we can offer these courses independently.
Similarly, Make School is going to develop its capacity to deliver a comprehensive gen-ed curriculum. The partnership also develops expertise in things they haven't had to think about as much, such as Title IX and other requirements. We're trying to build each other's capacity simultaneously.
Now that the university has tested the new course offerings, do you think there are any elements that need to be changed or altered?
MARCY: We'll look at the student feedback on the spring courses, but I would say the initial feedback has been really positive. Our faculty that have taught at Make School have been really happy with their experiences. They feel like students have been really engaged and interested.
I would say the bigger challenge is the back office stuff. That's just a matter of the day-to-day blocking and tackling you have to do — trying to figure how to get a course catalog aligned, and how to align their credits and our credits. It's a lot of logistics.
You wrote in 2017 that there are five pathways forward for liberal arts colleges. Do you still stand by those five pathways?
MARCY: I think they're evolving. In that piece, I had the colleges as kind of freestanding entities. Now I see it as more of a continuum, from the most traditional to the furthest from traditional.
The question for small colleges is: How much and what type of innovation is needed based on our actual internal capacity, our culture, who our students are and who we think they're going to be?
I don't think there's a best approach. It really depends on institutional capacity, location and how fast they need to change. Some places feel like they need to change right now, while others feel like they have time to really build a consensus about where they're going. Those are questions they have to bring to bear on what path they take.
Where do you see Dominican on that spectrum?
MARCY: It's a distinctive program, so it's focused deeply on the mission of student success and a little bit more agnostic about program and disciplinary mix. We're right in the middle of the continuum.
What do you think is the future of liberal arts?
MARCY: I don't think there's much doubt that small colleges need to adapt. They don't necessarily need to move their mission to do so but some will. If you're fully market-driven, you're probably going to add a lot of courses in the health sciences and technology, data analytics, maybe some business — and that really does fundamentally change your mission. But it also brings in students. If you're fully committed to the liberal arts, you may not be able to adapt enough to deal with the headlines, unless you're wealthy or elite enough that it doesn't matter.
It's a complicated landscape. Change and innovation are going to happen much more rapidly and aggressively than they have in the last two decades. It doesn't mean places are necessarily going to close, but they will look fundamentally different.