Adrian College’s Shared Services Approach to the Liberal Arts

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The business model of higher education is simply broken — even with great colleges, wonderful staff, and terrific students, the numbers simply don’t work for many liberal arts colleges.

But how, then, can we fix the problem?

Dr. Jeffrey Docking, President at Adrian College joins the podcast to discuss how the survival strategy for small liberal arts colleges must contain a shared services approach to liberal arts education with other similar institutions.

What’s gone wrong for liberal arts colleges?

It’s no secret that the past few years have been difficult for our institutions. Through that adversity, many institutions have taken the following actions, some of which President Docking could be potential missteps:

  1. Increasing the discount rate: They’re buying students — 25 years ago, a 30% discount rate was considered high. Now, institutions are discounting up to 82% on their freshmen class.
  2. Endowment draw: Institutions should only be withdrawing 4-5% of their endowment every year, but are withdrawing up to 12% annually lately.
  3. Increased co-curricular activities and athletic teams: They’re simply trying to bring in more students who want to do something outside of the classroom, but give them an effective discount rate through scholarship that makes their economic situation even more difficult.

Becoming more collaborative with other like institutions

If a college were to conduct a standalone cost benefit analysis for each of their degree programs, it might be tempting to cut some of the classes that aren’t business, nursing, computer science, or STEM adjacent. 

But is this the correct way to solve the problem? Or could institutions take a more collaborative approach?

According to President Docking, for the past 150 years, schools have thought largely independently, being secretive about major and minor additions or how they’re going to sustain or grow their enrollment. But it’s time for a change for those committed to the future of their institution. 

The Lower Costs Model Consortium 

That change has come in the form of the lower costs model — Pulling 135 institutions nationwide together to provide courses that would be unsustainable at a singular college. 

“We can get the quality control that comes with having all 501(C)(3)s, traditional colleges with great infrastructure, and faculty, working together to bring efficiency so that families and kids can finally afford a college degree, bring down the costs, and offer more instead of less with respect to the changing economy,” President Docking explains.

A different kind of sharing model

Colleges have always been inherently collaborative, but the kind of sharing that President Docking suggests is a whole new level. In recent years, we collectively could have done more for our students. One way to fix this? Maintain that traditional four year experience, including:

  • Athletics
  • Traditions
  • Health care
  • Internships
  • Volunteer experience
  • Dining hall access

The sharing, then, can occur on the academic side in new majors, minors, introductory classes, and undersubscribed classes. Doing so will enable smaller institutions to keep liberal arts alive — something President Docking thinks the world can’t do without through these arduous times. 

Liberal arts teaches us how to listen, how to observe, how to measure, and reason. All the things a person needs to make a difference in their community. And the beauty of the lower costs model consortium is that it maintains that liberal arts agenda with just minor tweaks to the overall student experience.

Next steps for liberal arts institutional leaders

For those looking to improve their enrollment growth strategies, President Docking has some parting advice: Change is not optional, it’s inevitable. 

By working together and shaping how we move forward, we can bring in a new dawn for liberal arts systems — Keeping the traditions of the past, saving faculty positions in the long term, but with an even brighter future for institutions everywhere. 

“We can either take the future into our own hands and change as we want to change, shaping the future of small private liberal arts colleges; or we can be victimized by the future, forced to close just like many colleges have over the last few years.” — Dr. Jeffrey Docking


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Jeffrey Docking, President at Adrian College. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.