As students poured into Leighton 304 last Thursday to hear a comps talk, a smaller meeting took place in Leighton 305, where the Competition Working Group – one of 13 groups involved in Carleton College’s strategic planning process – presented its proposals to a mixture of students, faculty and staff.
In the words of its convener, economics Professor Nathan D. Grawe, the Competition Working Group is charged with finding out “what the competition is doing that Carleton should take note of,” deciding whether to emulate the changes made by competing colleges or take steps to present itself as an alternative.
The first trend that Grawe and his group identified was a movement towards what he called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs – online courses consisting of videotaped lectures and automatically graded multiple-choice tests, some of which enrolled thousands of people. Stanford, for example, offered an online course in artificial intelligence that had 160,000 enrollees.
The appeal of such courses comes from the fact that they allow students to learn from top-level professors without being accepted into the school or – just as importantly – paying the tuition associated with a top level college.
Although his group was initially worried about the impact MOOCs would have on enrollment at liberal arts colleges, Grawe eventually decided that MOOCs did not present a major threat.
“It’s like comparing McDonald’s to Four Seasons,” he said. “It’s an entirely different experience. Serving up content is not the same as shaping students into critical thinkers.”
In the town hall meeting, he added that only 1,300 of the enrollees in the Stanford course went on to complete it.
Some of the other attendees saw more danger – or potential – in online teaching.
English Professor George Shuffleton noted that if technology continues to advance, “Online courses have the potential to render our business model obsolete.”
Other students felt that Carleton might gain recognition if it encouraged its professors to teach small online courses, allowing students from around the world to learn from and work with Carleton professors.
Grawe’s group, however, was largely confident that liberal arts colleges such as Carleton would not be replaced by online courses in the near future. Their fears centered around a different threat: the shifting demographic landscape of the United States.
At the town hall meeting, Grawe displayed a map showing the projected changes in the number of 14- to 17-year-olds by state between now and 2030. Two of the areas where Carleton recruits most of its students – the Northeast and the Midwest – will experience a drop in eligible high school seniors, he warned.
However, Grawe was more optimistic about the West Coast states, which also supply Carleton with a large number of students.
“We have a toehold there, and it is an area of growth,” he said.
To recoup potential losses in enrollment from the Midwest and Northeast, Grawe suggested drawing more students from the Southeast.
The group’s consensus was that Carleton’s largest deficiency compared to its competitors was in the way it presented itself, especially to potential employers of Carleton graduates.
“Our competitors are much more aggressive in preparing students for life after college,” Grawe said, noting that other schools work to ensure that potential employers see their students’ alma mater in a positive light. “We need to do a better job of sharing our stories with potential employers.”
Part of that process is collaborative, Grawe said. Carleton could work with other liberal arts colleges to make employers aware of the benefits of a liberal arts education.
But raising the school’s profile will ultimately require us to compete with other colleges, involving “putting what we do into the news” – making sure that the achievements of Carleton students and professors are reported regularly in local and even national media.
One attendee at the town hall meeting suggested that Carleton should put more effort into publicizing the accomplishments of its alumni, as well. He also suggested that Carleton use Convocation speakers as a way of drawing attention to the school.
“We could use our resources for one high-profile speaker rather than two low-profile ones,” he said, since a high-profile speaker would catch the interest of the media.
Finally, he suggested that Carleton is not doing enough to raise awareness of its high standings among liberal arts colleges.
Grawe concluded his discussion by suggesting policies that Carleton could implement to better track its competitors. He noted Grinnell College’s recent rankings climb from 30th to 15th in the sciences.
“They’re improving their science program, and they just hired someone from the NIH [National Institute of Health] as their president,” Grawe said. “That kind of information is important for us to notice.”