Market forces such as student and parent concerns about employability, students’ need for flexibility, and decreasing traditional-age enrollments in New England are causing Colby-Sawyer College to rethink its approach to liberal arts education.

Business terms such as market forces and concerns about finances do not always go over well with faculty. In fact, simply using business terms in academe can raise concerns about corporatization. However, the college has made progress in making changes that might be unsettling to some by framing the conversation not as the corporatization of the institution but as doing what’s best for students.

“I think one of the most persuasive ways to raise these issues and to sidestep the fear of corporatization is to focus on the students and the value we’re trying to give to students and their families. For a long time we’ve talked the talk that we want to work with students in all facets of their lives, but oftentimes, at least in the more liberal arts-oriented majors, that didn’t really include thinking about what their economic life would be like,” says Randall Hanson, chair of the department of multidisciplinary studies and coordinator of the liberal education program at Colby-Sawyer College. “We wanted to prepare them to be able to have rich cultural and intellectual lives after graduation but didn’t give enough thought to what is going to be the economic foundation of that. I think that really came home to a lot of folks. Can we honestly say we deal with the whole student and provide a personalized education when we’re not thinking about that very key aspect of their lives? That’s helped some folks get beyond the ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re going to become a business’ sort of thing.”

One recent change is that every major now requires an internship experience. The business department is one of the leaders in this area. When students do an internship it is in conjunction with a class, which features an online component. Students produce reports every week and are expected to apply their learning from their courses, not just business courses, to what happens in the internship. “When I’m speaking to my interns over the summer, I’m talking to them about their writing skills, communication skills, and problems of interpersonal interaction more than I am about business concepts,” says Elizabeth Crockford, professor of administration and associate dean of online education at Colby-Sawyer College.

The college does not place students in internships. Instead, students gain valuable experience with the job search process, and approximately 45 percent of business students are offered permanent positions from those internships. “That points out for me that the work we’re doing in integrating the internships as both a career and an intellectual academic pursuit has been really successful,” Crockford says.

Faculty in other disciplines have looked to the business department’s approach to internships as a model for their internships, adding in more reflection and looking at an internship from the perspective of a future career.

“I think a lot of us in the social sciences and the traditional liberal arts have kind of looked at [internships] as something to check off. You send the student off, you get a report at the end, and all is well. On an individual level, some of us in these areas who have overseen internships have started to add more reflection on what the internship means in terms of a potential job. I think that will be expanding. We had a gathering of our academic leadership team, and chairs from all sorts of departments were essentially saying the same thing: we’ve all got to make these internships much more focused on the future of our students. So I think in part it’s based on that sense that if we don’t change, if we don’t do what we’ve done better, we risk the livelihood of our institutions,” Hanson says.

Given that the majority of students are not going to pursue advanced degrees, internships that focus on future employment need not adhere strictly to the discipline. “When we originally started doing these internships in history, for example, it had to be in an archive or something of that sort. We’ve really gotten beyond that,” Hanson says.

Now history majors can do internships with a real estate company, a newspaper, or other types of organizations. “We’ve been totally open to that and step back and say, ‘Now let’s think about that. How might the skills you’ve been gaining in your history/political studies major relate, and how might you draw on those? How might we supplement or complement those skills?’ Deeper thinking about our students’ future needs have made us step outside the bubble we’re often in, recognizing that not everyone’s goal in life is to sit in archives all day and enjoy it like I do,” Hanson says.

Rethinking internships has changed the thinking about assessment, moving beyond individual courses and beyond looking at students when they graduate. “As institutions, as majors, as individual faculty, we have to have a better sense, a more systematic sense of what our graduates are doing, the sort of obstacles they’re facing, and the opportunities that they’re finding. We have to do a better job as an institution in gathering information and sharing it with individual faculty because this type of information is going to help us as we shape the learning outcomes of our programs of our individual classes when we talk about prospective students,” Hanson says. “We try to focus our conversations on opportunities that are being offered to us, for example, opportunities to rethink what our students mean to us.”

Distance education
Another initiative shaped by market forces has been the development of distance education programs. And inevitably when talking with faculty about change, particularly change precipitated by outside forces, there is tension about the need for change or the rate of change.

In terms of distance education, there is some resistance as well as people who are willing to move. “We’ve been fairly slow to get into distance education. We are a residential, traditional-age institution, and the traditional demographics have been hit the hardest—particularly in New England. So we have been looking at those external trends and realizing that something has got to give. We can’t go on doing things the way we’ve been doing them. We know we need to move on [distance education] because the external environment says it’s time. So, how do we get there quickly and bring some of the faculty along with us so that they don’t feel resentful? Part of the economic issues that are part of the higher education issues in our region have helped that a little bit,” Crockford says.

One of the issues with developing a distance education program is marketing. “We have a marketing effort, but to call something a marketing effort is language that creates tension in people. And so for me the implementation is becoming a problem because we’re trying to get people to accept the idea,” Crockford says.

Hanson adds: “We probably didn’t spend enough time up front discussing the relationship between distance education and our traditional vision, which we’ve defined as being a very personalized education—a lot of contact between professors and students, faculty advising, lots of office hours, lots of faculty presence—and I think that some of that resistance was that folks were saying, ‘Wait. What does this have to do with who we are as Colby-Sawyer?’ But, responding to these concerns, we have done a better job of articulating for ourselves how distance education relates to our traditional mission.”

Distance education has been one response to students’ need for flexibility. Another has been a curriculum conversion effort that has reduced the amount of explicit requirements in order to offer students more choice in suggested concentrations and different pathways depending on what students plan to do after graduation, such as attend graduate school.

“Having huge menus of courses that students have to take goes against the opportunity to study off campus. It goes against students transferring in credit. It goes against students wanting to, for example, double major in business and art.

“The idea [of the curriculum conversion] was to put us in a place that’s more flexible and most of all give students the greater opportunity that they’re telling us they want,” Hanson says.

The college has also created a multidisciplinary studies major. “The idea was to create something that was not your standard liberal arts major but to take the traditional goals of liberal arts and career-oriented goals and roll them into one major while giving students a lot of flexibility in choosing the types of courses and preparing for the types of careers they want,” Hanson says.

The major features a series of concentrations designed in part “around what employers seem to be saying they want,” Hanson says.

Reprinted from “Responding to the Market” in Academic Leader 30.4(2014)7,8© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.