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How innovation and creativity can help us respond to the changing landscape of higher education

Small Colleges and Universities Division
September 20, 2019 Heather French St. Louis College of Pharmacy

When recently polling Student Affairs professionals about small college and university (SCU) topics most relevant to them, responses included such resonating themes as “decreasing student enrollment” and “programming on a budget.” This probably comes as no surprise to most as we find in the news, on social media, on list serves, within professional networks and on our many campuses that small colleges and universities are echoing a similar message: enrollment challenges are upon us and budgets are getting tighter.

It is true that the number of high school graduates across the country has plateaued and even declined in some states, resulting in fewer applicants. Furthermore, many SCUs are competing for the same students within regional and niche markets. The reality is that there is only so much magic that our Enrollment Management partners can make happen to bring in more students, and it is up to leadership across the academy to find the best solutions to meet our unique institutional needs. So what are the answers then to these dilemmas that are facing so many SCUs?

The time is upon us to consider how innovation and creativity might help shift our paradigm to respond to the changing landscape of higher education. Indeed, entrepreneurs and innovators have needed to master the art of executing smart and timely pivots, or knowing when to make sudden strategy shifts that reposition them in the marketplace, in order to remain viable and successful in business (Harvard Business Review, 2011). So, if we apply this concept to SCUs, what might a smart pivot in Student Affairs look like? How can we foster vibrant and inclusive campus environments and provide needed support services on a modest budget without sacrificing the student experience?

Here are three possible SCU Student Affairs pivots for your consideration:

  1.      Designate specific times of year when Student Affairs departments offer exclusively free or low-cost programming

Sure, those big ticket events are super fun, but not all programs and events have to be flashy or provide food and giveaways to be successful. In fact, many environmentally conscious colleagues would prefer to ban swag (aka “merch” or “drip” for my newer pro’s) altogether as a way to lessen our eco-footprint (Fast Company, 2018). Along those lines, Shane Britt, Dean of Student Experience at North Central Kansas Technical College recently posed a question on the Student Affairs Professionals Facebook group about free or low-cost program ideas during the first weeks of the semester, and the responses rolled in! It turns out, free and low-cost programming can be simultaneously creative, engaging and seemingly easy to implement on almost any campus. Some of the top ideas were:

  • First Day of School Photo Booth. Include a few fun props (i.e. school spirit items), signs to write in "my first day of ___ year" etc. You don't have to print photos and instead can have students use their own cell phones to take pictures. Paired with it, you could always have information about starting off the year successfully – including information/handouts about resources. At the end of the semester the photo booth could be paired with students writing how they survived Fall semester (tips and tricks) that could be passed along to other students at the beginning of the Spring semester. Students giving students advice! Laura Lyndon, Vice President for Student Affairs at Holy Names University also shares, “you could build on it with an Instagram opportunity for these tips to be posted during the summer for incoming students.”
  • Pass out free drinks or snacks negotiated from contracted campus vendors(preferably in reusable or compostable containers, making it more sustainable) and hand them out along with directions to classes during the first few days of school. Faculty and staff can sign up to help out in shifts. (And making homemade signs with supportive and motivating messages is another great pairing with this activity).
  • Work with the facilities department to schedule free midnight madness events - broomball in the recreation gym, soccer, football, swimming. Student groups could be invited to sell food for their own fundraisers while also advertising and promoting their events.

Let’s encourage creativity and innovation as we re-imagine programming on our campuses to focus more on bringing people together through meaningful interactions and less on pizza and tchotchkes. It may even be possible to pool funds and host an internal grant process, or to encourage team members to apply for the NASPA Innovation grant to support their new, great ideas. 

  1.      Partner with nearby Student Affairs or other related training programs to serve as an internship site

At SCUs we offer all of the same important services to students as do larger institutions, but typically with far fewer personnel resources.  Additionally, campuses experiencing enrollment decline and budget shortfalls have at times found that downsizing was called for to right-size departments and operational expenses with their current enrollment size. Understandably, this may result in reprioritizing the work Student Affairs professionals are able to accomplish, and perhaps even lead to setting aside some passion projects for later. However, by partnering with nearby Student Affairs or other related training programs, we can invest in our aspiring professionals and give back to the profession by offering them valuable learning experiences on our campuses that simultaneously help our institutions in times of need. Some of the reasons why this could be a viable solution are:

  • Allows for valuable on-the-job training for future professionals in our unique small campus environments where they have the opportunity to observe and learn from multiple professionals across different functional areas, allowing them to experience a broad introduction to the profession as they discern their own path beyond graduation.
  • Enriches our departmental and campus cultures by bringing in new energy and fresh perspectives as well as additional support to carry out critical student service initiatives when staff are operating as a department of one and/or wearing multiple hats.
  • Provides resourceful budgetary solutions to staffing needs at SCUs as common compensation for part-time graduates may include stipends, housing, professional development and/or other in-kind remuneration.

Go ahead and do a quick scan of the schools in your region offering graduate training programs and reach out to the Deans and Program Coordinators to inquire about how your SCU Student Affairs division could serve as a host site for interns from neighboring campuses. You can also think about recruiting graduate students studying out of the area who are looking for practicum opportunities when they come back to your hometown for the summer. In addition to all of the above reasons, it is a lot of FUN to work with aspiring professionals and such a wonderful reminder of why we chose this field as well as our own passion and love for the work.

  1.      Adopt a “Student Affairs Pro as Fundraiser” mindset

Last spring at the NASPA annual conference in Los Angeles, I took the opportunity to focus some of my session attendance on fundraising as this is one of my learning edges. I’m so glad that I did because not only did it help me reframe my thinking that fundraising only happens in the Development Office, but I was able to take away practical suggestions to bring back to my team. Of course, the Development Office will be a key partner in bridging relationships with any potential donors or fundraising initiatives. However, the major pivot is for Student Affairs professionals to actually see ourselves as fundraisers and as partners with the Development Office. After all we are the “emotional portal to our donors” as we are the connection between our students’ stories and their philanthropy (NASPA, 2019). Some tangible actions we can take to help in fundraising efforts include:

  • Engage: Find ways to bring stakeholders back to campus – work with Alumni Office on making the invitation.
  • Brainstorm: Who are recent alums that have been active with Student Affairs? Send notes about what’s currently happening, exciting news, and help create touchpoints back to the College.
  • Create: Every unit should create a one-pager that summarizes and highlights all the great work we do and provides suggested opportunities for donor consideration.

Be sure to also keep in mind the “3 T’s” (time, talent and treasure – e.g. monetary donations) when brainstorming ways potential donors can contribute to Student Affairs initiatives. And along with strengthening partnerships with Development to nurture fundraising and donor involvement opportunities, Student Affairs can also contribute to its own financial stability by working with other on-campus departments to build new revenue sources and collaborate on programs of shared interest while also sharing costs.    

Trying bold and new pivots in Student Affairs is a way to get out ahead of the curve that we all see coming. Even if a clever idea doesn’t work out as expected, so long as we are keeping our students’ interests at the center of our work, small failures will not be detrimental.  The key is to try several new ways of operating, evaluate the impact, and then keep on trying if the early ideas don’t fit your institutional needs well. Wishing you all luck as we search for the Student Affairs pivots that are best suited for our SCUs at this critical time!

Dimit, Angela, M. Building Bridges Between Student Affairs and Development. NASPA, Los Angeles, CA. 2019.

Fast Company (2018). Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/90260185/its-time-to-stop-spending-billions-on-cheap-conference-swag?fbclid=IwAR10BX7tZwTcQY2iZid0ShslUyqc Orxj9HNBDfXe85ntre5cQBHSmTxFDlE.

Harvard Business Review (2011). Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2011/02/how-and-when-to-pivot-rules-fo.