Calling the Question: Collaboration as Systemic Change

Small colleges and universities suffer tremendously from a lack of scale in their purchasing, operations and facilities. From the library to the natatorium to Arabic studies, residential institutions are expected to provide a complete college experience. Since the majority of these institutions serve fewer than 2,000 students, often in rural settings, the financial reality is that they spend substantially more per student than most large institutions. Collaboration has emerged as the single most powerful tool in addressing these inefficiencies. These collaborations exist on three scales: local, regional and national.

One of the oldest and most respected examples of local collaboration is the Claremont University Consortium, founded in 1925. Today, it includes five independent liberal arts colleges and two independent graduate institutions. Their adjacent campuses share many facilities, including the Claremont Colleges Library, which ranks third among private institutions in California behind Stanford and USC. The colleges share health and counseling services, campus security, human resources, telecommunications and maintenance. Cross registration is popular, accounting for 16 percent of the courses taken. The Claremont Colleges serve more than 6,300 students and 700 faculty members.

The Five Colleges Consortium, founded in 1965, includes four independent liberal arts colleges and the public University of Massachusetts Amherst. Three campuses are located in Amherst, while the other two are within a 20-minute drive. They focus on shared use of libraries, cross registration and open theater auditions across campuses, as well as the creation of joint academic departments and a common transportation network. The Five Colleges serve about 30,000 students and 2,200 faculty members.

Regional collaboration typically springs from the concentration of a high number of institutions similar by type or purpose. Some of the oldest efforts to collaborate include groups like the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, founded in 1958, comprised of 14 independent liberal arts colleges in five states and the Great Lakes Colleges Association, founded in 1962, comprised of 13 independent liberal arts colleges in four states, whose leadership aims to promote liberal arts and the sciences through ongoing collaboration. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has been a primary supporter of these associations and other regional collaborations.

Pennsylvania provides an interesting example of regional collaborative efforts. In the eastern part of the state, the Southeast Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education brings together eight independent colleges, largely in suburban Philadelphia, that collaborate in academic programming, student access, faculty development, business operations and community outreach through shared activities, services, technology and information sharing. This group demonstrates the potential of scale, enrolling more than 18,000 students as the third-largest higher education provider in the Delaware Valley. In the Allentown area, the six colleges and universities of the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges collaborate in such disparate areas as academic calendars, cross registration, libraries and admission counselor tours to the Valley. In Pittsburgh, the 10 colleges and universities comprising the Pittsburgh Council of Higher Education look at ways to collaborate or take common positions on behalf of 54,000 full-time, 24,000 part-time and 20,000 non-credit students. Finally, smaller groups like the Tri-College Consortium of Swarthmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr and the Northeast Pennsylvania Education Consortium complete the Pennsylvania mosaic.

Tim Alexander, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania's vice president for finance and administration, is reflective on why there is a need to collaborate. Mr. Alexander speculates that "perhaps out of tradition or self-interest or maybe because it just made good common sense, the private colleges in Pennsylvania decided more than two decades ago to formally establish collaboration as one of the core missions of its trade association. From energy procurement, curtailment and conservation to software procurement and Internet connectivity – from regulatory compliance to employee and student services, AICUP enhances the common goal of strengthening its sector . . . collectively rather than what might occur one campus at a time."

At the national scale, the Coalition on College Cost Savings (CCCS) is one of the most interesting and innovative projects being undertaken. Its purpose is to leverage the collective buying power of private colleges in order to reduce operating costs, improve the efficiency of internal procedures and ultimately lower the cost of delivering education. CCCS is currently comprised of 30 higher education member organizations in 28 states and representing their 682 member colleges and universities. Vi Boyer, president of the Independent Colleges of Washington, notes that the Coalition's efforts are directed at looking for the best ideas and practices, rather than more narrowly looking first at where to save money. The bigger answers lead to transformative change and form new, sustainable business and financial models.

The Committee on Coherence at Scale for Higher Education was formed in 2012 to "ensure the programmatic, concerted and efficient development of large-scale projects that, if built as coherent elements of an emerging digital environment, will significantly enhance scholarly productivity and enrich teaching." The Committee is made up of leadership from colleges, universities and higher education associations. Its goal is to make national-scale collaborations more efficient and effective. Chuck Henry, Committee founder and president of the Council on Library and Information Resources, concludes, "The future of higher education rests on the ability to reconceive ourselves holistically." This re-conception is largely driven by the changing landscape of costs and revenue in higher education.

Cost Trends
From 2001 to 2013, higher education costs increased over 50 percent (based on the Commonfund's Higher Education Price Index) while median family income dropped from $48,900 to $45,800 in constant 2010 dollars (based on the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances). These combined trends lead to a distressing picture in 2014. Enrollments continue to be soft – in some cases seriously – translating to substantial and unbudgeted revenue shortfalls. Labor costs (up to 60 percent of the budget at some colleges), along with health care and retiree benefits, continue to rise well ahead of inflation.

For institutions that are increasingly tuition-driven, the solution is to delay and "do more with less." Since 2007, many found that the easiest route was to defer capital improvements, postpone capital projects and increase financial aid (thus increasing the discount rate). A few tinkered at the margins, asking faculty and staff to pay more for health care or prescription plans. Others flat-lined pay increases, postponed hiring and cut back on travel. They now find themselves in a significantly weakened position compared to the early years of the 21st century.

Looking Ahead
Options for the future are somewhat diametric. One approach is to duck and cover. Its supporters argue that eventually the recession will end, the number of applicants will increase, endowments (for those institutions that have them) will substantially exceed pre-recession levels and donors will return to their philanthropic levels of pre-recession support. However, the fact is that this is a dangerous and cowardly strategy to pursue. This group of higher education leaders may be able to move the pieces around on the chessboard to advance the game. But there is a difference between advancing the game and shaping a sustainable agenda for the future.

The alternate approach is to recognize the inevitable. The "new normal" is here to stay. The colleges and universities that survive and thrive will do so because they have thought deeply about their future rather than simply managing their present. The next wave of solutions in higher education will attack the status quo by recognizing the strength of what underpins it. Namely, colleges and universities are essentially resilient. They can do more with less because they can ask tough questions, deliberate through shared governance and generate a creative response that strengthens them while abandoning that which is deemed to be nonessential or even irrelevant in the 21st century.

The Power of Collaboration
Collaboration amongst these institutions only amplifies this powerful capability. The essential question is how to embolden faculty and academic leadership to do their best work within the framework of a well-articulated collaborative strategy. If no institution can be excellent in everything, how do we combine their individual strengths into whole that is greater than its parts?

One example is the Texas Language Consortium. Five small colleges and universities in Texas wanted to increase their modern language offerings without adding significantly to their cost structure. The solution was to share language offerings amongst the five peer institutions via high-definition video conferencing. With advice and facilitation from the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, they went from concept to sharing classes in less than a year. The results to date have been quite positive, and the individual institutions have been able to significantly increase their number of languages.

Another example of NITLE's long-term emphasis on collaboration to strengthen teaching and learning is Sunoikisis, a project conceived in 1995. Sunoikisis was established to reimagine the study of the Classics at small, independent liberal arts colleges where the department might consist of a single faculty member. Over its nearly 20-year history, it has used all manner of teleconferencing and Internet technologies to facilitate the shared courses. Now hosted at the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies, Sunoikisis currently involves nearly 130 faculty members at over 80 institutions, thus forming a virtual department as rich as any Classics department in the world.

What lessons do we draw then from efforts to organize collectively among colleges and universities across the country? The first is that efforts to increase efficiencies and create economies of scale must emerge from a clear, definitive statement within an institution's strategic plan. The consortial approach must grow organically, past the test of what is reasonable and achievable, involve the faculty and support the core academic program. Whatever steps are taken must be defined by metrics that both measure success in tangible ways and inform future decisions.

Further, it is critical that institutions choose their partners wisely when collaborating. Any marriage of equals must be a good fit that honors the terms of the marriage contract. In addition, collaborators can come with varied backgrounds – college and universities, other nonprofits, for-profits and other consortia – and may be local, regional, statewide, national or global, depending upon the programs proposed. And finally, it is important to collaborate with eyes wide open. Collaboration that produces systemic change is not free and should be planned out within a college's budget. But it also may well be the most efficient and politically adept way to strengthen participating colleges over the long term by making changes in common that would not be possible to contemplate alone.

W. Joseph King is a distinguished fellow of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE, and Brian C. Mitchell is a co-founder and director of the Edvance Foundation ( and the retired president of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA.

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