Trends Worth Watching in 2014

In the volatile, often uncertain world of higher education, many things remain constant. These include the need to build and maintain healthy enrollments and endowments, to teach well and to give our efforts an honest and thorough assessment. Each year, we strive to recruit the best students, faculty and administrative staff that we can; a mainstay of smaller, residential, independent institutions like Bethany College is the dedication of all members of the campus community to students' academic, career and life success. The challenge of securing needed resources in support of that mission is ongoing, and increasingly urgent.

With the arrival of January each year, we college presidents have our work clearly cut out for us.

But for everything that is predictable and knowable, there are many recent developments and trends that bring uncertainty, and demand vigilance. Most have a direct correlation to the future of private colleges like Bethany. All will have increasing influence in 2014.

Here are four that deserve our attention.

First, competition for the tuition dollar is accelerating from upstart education providers. The biggest factor is online learning, including the popular MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Although the traditional classroom format still holds true in the vast majority of American educational institutions, the appeal of convenient, low-cost, high-volume online enrollment is growing. Small, private colleges -- and larger, public ones, too -- must find ways to benefit from such technological innovations, not surrender to them. Many institutions have already incorporated such courses into their curricula, especially as students and parents increasingly demand more value and greater consumer convenience for their tuition dollars.

Second, most campuses today are expected to be more than academic institutions. They are, in fact, academies for learning life skills in a global society. This will accelerate in 2014. One distinguishing factor for the small college is its holistic approach to education, which offers a positive response to the growth of online institutions. No computer can replace the advising and mentoring found at Bethany and other quality liberal arts institutions. Our challenge, however, is to upgrade facilities and technology, create innovative programming and effectively promote our reputations as places committed to preparing students for satisfying lives as well as careers.

Third, the way we teach and our students learn is accelerating in new directions. In the past, a professor in a classroom was often the primary conveyor of knowledge. Now, with a world of instant information available to our multitasking students, the professor's role has frequently expanded. Superior classroom instruction is still paramount, but students' expectations of a more personalized approach to their education suggest that experiential learning, such as internships and options for career placement, are just as important. The McCann Student Investment Fund, in which Bethany students learn financial strategies using real dollars, is an excellent example of combining faculty instruction and supervision with the talents, career interests and technological capability of students. (The student-managed fund, made possible with a gift from Bethany Trustee and alumnus Dr. Robert McCann and his wife Cindy, is doing very well, by the way.)

Last, the regulatory climate that impacts so much of American enterprise has heated up for higher education, too. We recently tallied the number of mandatory report deadlines that Bethany College must honor for various accrediting and regulatory bodies. The total approaches 200 annually. We accept these responsibilities as necessary to the well being of our students, the quality of our academic mission and the assessment of our work. But a frequent topic in higher-education circles today is whether colleges and universities will find themselves overly regulated, drowning in data production of dubious value. For small institutions where staffing is typically thin, it can be a challenge to comply. On the other hand, colleges can often demonstrate excellent outcomes in numerous areas, supporting their strong reputation for accountability.

All of these trends, and many others, suggest that higher education must be creative, innovative and exceptional as never before. I am confident that America's private colleges, especially, will continue to find inspiration in their mission, in the devotion of faculty, staff, alumni and friends and in the energy and ambitions of students. How we teach, function as organizations and relate to our society will continue to evolve, as has been true throughout the history of American higher education.

Private colleges remain, however, centers of outstanding teaching where individual achievement is fostered, supported and valued, where the results of our work prove beneficial to many -- and where the greatest certainty is often the uncertainty of our very existence.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 23rd year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.