It’s a typical problem. The building spree at schools like George Washington has tapered off—Sightlines surveyed 28 large private universities and found that they spent 50 percent less on new space in 2011 than they did in 2009—but it is too late to change the strategy. Colleges like these now have every type of lab, facility, and teaching discipline, but they do not stand out in any one discipline.
Although Trachtenberg hasn’t rethought his approach, he now recommends another course for other schools: specialization. That is, schools on the brink of catastrophe—those where endowments and enrollment numbers augur bankruptcy—can be brought back by offering something that can’t be found elsewhere. As an example of someone who did this masterfully, Trachtenberg points to Ben Sasse, the new president of Midland University in Fremont, Neb.
Before Sasse moved to Nebraska, he was a sharply dressed, ruthless, 37-year-old crisis-management adviser to the Health and Human Services and Homeland Security departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. When he took over what was then called Midland Lutheran College in 2010, he had a history Ph.D. from Yale but no experience in higher-ed administration. The school was on the verge of bankruptcy, so Sasse applied what he learned in Washington (a cousin to Trachtenberg’s vodka analogy): The image of an institution is as important as the institution itself.
“It was a matter of competition. These sorts of facilities were being offered elsewhere. We were either in the game or we weren’t in the game.” — Stephen Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University
Sasse knew students wouldn’t choose Midland because of its academics; smarter applicants would keep applying to “smarter” schools. So Sasse studied what really drives students to colleges like his: scholarships, location, and a chance to play sports. “Some folks—well-meaning idealists—act as if their undergraduates are just brains without bodies,” Sasse says of college recruiters who emphasize academics to the exclusion of everything else. Sasse added bowling, competitive cheer and dance, men’s and women’s ice hockey, lacrosse, and trap shooting to the school’s offerings. He amped up the choir, band, and theater programs. He rebranded Midland’s location in Fremont (population 25,000) as the “rural choice for metro Omaha.” He dropped “Lutheran” from the school’s name because he found the title was deflecting more students than it was attracting. And he added a master’s in education leadership to qualify the school as a university, which he says lures more students than a college.
Through all this, he stayed cost-conscious: Midland offers a four-year graduation guarantee if students make passing grades and don’t switch majors.
The transformation worked. Sasse saw a 76 percent increase in enrollment between his first and second years at Midland. And the school is now out of bankruptcy without a significant rise in tuition.
George Washington isn’t on the verge of bankruptcy, so it hasn’t tried to differentiate itself in the way Midland did. Trachtenberg’s successor, Steven Knapp, has continued to raise tuition (he says the school is more cost-conscious now than when Trachtenberg was in office), because he says the amenities help form the school’s core identity. “It’s part of a seamless whole,” Knapp says, describing how a campus can affect education. He is in the middle of a $43 million gym renovation.
But how crucial, exactly, is the campus experience? This fall, MIT is launching MITx, a series of Web-based videos that will allow anyone anywhere access its instruction. A woman in Saudi Arabia could obtain a physics degree from MIT for free as long as she can pass and pay for a relatively cheap credentialing exam. Stanford is developing a similar program, and evidence shows the programs will be successful. Other schools have already launched similar online degree programs, including NYU, one of GW’s top competitors. As education migrates online, the campus amenities will matter less.
Even taking into consideration student debt, unemployment, and the financial strain on institutions, Trachtenberg is still reluctant to say that students could be attracted to a school simply because of the academics it offers.
“Not many students would have the vision to see that,” he says; in other words, they don’t think about education the way he did when he chose Columbia in 1955. Their expectations were raised and their visions were refocused by presidents like him. Trachtenberg says that colleges of the future will continue to expand their aid and their campuses. There’s nothing in that forecast about “international repute,” “academic gravitas,” or a “sense of serious scholarship.”