Higher Education at Scale by David J. Staley

This autumn, my institution, The Ohio State University, welcomed the largest number of students ever to its Columbus campus: over 61,000 students.  For at least the last century, and certainly since the 1950s, Ohio State has been one of the largest campuses in the country. But today, even the size of Ohio State pales before the enrollments at Western Governors University (120,000), Southern New Hampshire University (104,000) and Grand Canyon University (90,000).  The very large enrollments at these institutions is made possible, of course, by their online course offerings.  But one cannot look at these numbers and fail to conclude that the trend seems to be toward larger and larger universities.  Higher education at scale, we might call it. 

Like any other business, some institutions of higher learning have been pursuing (or, attempting to pursue) a growth strategy. These institutions believe that increasing scale is the best way to survive and thrive in the ever-competitive higher education environment.  Such a strategy often means that colleges “Cut costs, start relevant new programs, roll out a lowered tuition price, push more programs online, and bring on more contingent faculty to make payroll flexible. After all,” says Chronicle reporter Scott Carlson, “much of the conversation about achieving scale is about keeping up with increasing costs in personnel.”

But as Carlson observes, growth comes with its own strategic challenges.  “A growing student body requires adding administrators, staff, and faculty members to serve them, along with structures to house new programs, colleges, and offices, which add debt that needs to be covered and space that must be maintained. Once buildings and bodies are added, colleges tend to hang on to them, forcing an institution to go looking for yet more students to support the new girth.”

Like Western Governors and SNHU, one way for universities to achieve scale is to build an online/virtual university.  Increasing numbers of remote students do not require buildings to host their lectures.  But, of course, even online scaling comes with costs—personnel, technological infrastructure—that makes such a strategy just as risky. 

While it might be tempting to project that the future of higher education is the growth of a few very large mega-institutions, there are signs that a different model is emerging.  Rather than an institution of tens or hundreds of thousands of students, we might see a greater number of colleges with only 100-200 students. 

Carlson has identified an emerging trend: that some institutions are making a bet that “getting small” is a winning strategy for surviving and thriving.  Sterling College in Vermont, for instance, has only 125 students.  Ordinarily we might wonder about the survivability of an institution under 1000 students, but “By staying small, controlling costs, and carving out a niche that appeals to donors — in this case, the pressing issues surrounding ecology, sustainable agriculture, and climate change — Sterling’s future will be more certain than those of bigger colleges with conventional aspirations for growth,” says the president Mathew Derr.

In some ways, more de-scaled colleges like Sterling would mark a return to an earlier American higher education pattern.  Most colleges in the United States before the late 19th century were quite small: a few dozen students, perhaps, and a handful of faculty.  Indeed, the first American colleges probably had only one professor, who also served simultaneously as president and instructional designer all at once. 

Will current small colleges, as a way to thrive in the current environment, seek a “de-scaling” rather than a growth strategy?  Such a de-scaling process proves difficult, of course: perhaps this would begin with reductions in administrative positions. The fundamental relationship—the reason for being—for a college is the faculty-student relationship.  All else—student services, athletics, food services, etc.—although necessary and important, are secondary, or at least in service to that fundamental relationship.  As institutions grow in size, the faculty-student relationship is often diluted. A de-scaled college would re-emphasize and re-assert the student-faculty relationship as the core of the institution.     

De-scaling would have implications for the campus physical plant. As an example, think of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  Today Antioch has about 150 students, but they reside on a campus that has buildings intended to accommodate over 2000 students (as was the case at the College’s height in the 1960s).  Rather than pursuing a strategy that seeks to grow to 2000 students, what if Antioch, like Sterling College, chose to remain a college of 150-200 students?  If that were to happen, what should the College do with these un/underused buildings?

The so-called Dunbar number—150–might guide the maximum size of these de-scaled colleges.  Robin Dunbar postulated that 150 people was the limit of the number of people any individual could know and with whom they could maintain a social relationship.   There is educational value in learning in an environment where all the students and professors know each other and with whom they have robust relationships.  We might discover that the most effective colleges might be those that adhere to the Dunbar number of students. 

In my book, Alternative Universities, one of the models I imagined was a series of “microcolleges.”  A microcollege is even smaller than Sterling College: it would consist of 20 students and 1 faculty.  A microcollege could be located anywhere, using existing physical capital.  That is, there would be no need to construct buildings housing dorm rooms or chemistry labs or food service.  A microcollege could be established in an architecture firm, for example, utilizing space at the firm’s studio or headquarters.  Or a microcollege could be designed inside an art museum or other cultural institution.  Rather than concentrating students in a single mega-university, a higher education institution could establish scores, hundreds of micro-constituent colleges, some concentrated in cities, others scattered throughout the country. 

A microcollege would offer education at human scale. 

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