Why Small, Residential, Student-Centered Colleges Will Prevail

December on a small college campus, to quote the 1960's Andy Williams holiday song, "is the most wonderful time of the year."

Sure, the spring season of commencements and graduations is arguably more exciting because of what it is guaranteed to deliver--new beginnings, the launch of careers, colleges simultaneously honoring their historic traditions and celebrating the future, their seniors entering stage right as students and exiting as alumni, our version of the hundred-foot journey of transformation.

But it's the Christmas season that can truly bring a small-college campus together. At Bethany College, we host an early-December Light Up Night, open to the whole community, when we pause before the hectic final weeks of exams and winter travel to share refreshments, welcome Santa, and light our tree as a symbolic, interfaith illumination of hope and knowledge against the darkness.

Singer Andy Williams released his tune on the eve of the most cataclysmic period in American higher-education history, when many colleges and universities found themselves besieged by their own students demanding relevance, governance, and significance. Through the bullhorns, university presidents heard a mandate: save society by serving the student. Years of sit-ins, protests, and, yes, some needed campus reforms followed, swept along by the groundbreaking era of Vietnam and civil rights protests, the birth of populist environmentalism, and widespread disenchantment with complacency and what many perceived as antiquated notions of "normalcy."

That decade was not the most wonderful time for college and university presidents, so I've read, but it set the stage for much of what we now experience in a less convulsive but just as compelling epoch in which student choices and options rule.

In the Sixties, students took to the streets and began injecting social awareness and educational relevance into their campuses. More recently, our students took to their personal technology, determining self-awareness and the relevance of their educations through the keypad. We educators have encouraged them, and we are right to do so. In fact, we have no choice. That is because our students have more educational choices than ever, and even more personal and social responsibility for their outcomes.

The staid halls of academe, regarded as an adversary by many students a half-century ago, exist today for a lot of their descendants as a consumer option. Our goal, some observers would say, is less to educate the student person and more to elucidate the student's persona--to offer aid and comfort to the customer's needs. For our millennial consumers, critics point out, it's all about confirmation of what they desire as the target of marketers, not necessarily what they need as evolving citizens.

A New York Times piece by Courtney Rubin (Sept. 19, 2014) describes the latest campus "recreation center arms race" in which universities compete "to turn a piece of campus into something approaching a water theme park." Bethany College invested millions in facility upgrades that made a lot of common sense--we added lights, artificial turf, and an all-weather track to maximize student athletes' use of the stadium--but that we also knew would appeal to today's facility-focused student consumer.

We who lead colleges, it is true, are beholden to the students' inclination to choose our institutions. Indeed, residential colleges' competition for the tuition dollar is seemingly everywhere: online, at branch locations, through the for-profit sector. We ignore new student markets and their ever-increasing need for convenience at our peril. Can degrees delivered by drones be far behind?

Over the past 24 years as a college president, however, I have known students who not only prefer, but insist on the small, residential college model. For them, nothing else will do, though they may wish to accelerate that experience, to jump into the job market or enroll in graduate school faster.

Student-centeredness is the currency of the small college, where value-added is defined not simply by student creature comforts but by access to their fellow creatures--devoted faculty and staff who proudly commit to students' success in every arena of their lives, presidents who host, as I do, regular for-student-only "Ask Me Anything" roundtables, coaches like ours at Bethany who foster the often elusive balance in academic achievement, playing time, and personal fulfillment, and alumni who immeasurably contribute to today's beat-the-clock scholars who want out of the classroom and on to the commencement stage in under four years, attractive jobs and starting salaries waiting in the audience with their families.

Colleges offering the comprehensive, residential experience have always been student-centered. The stakes are higher today with a tighter job market, the need for high-tech skills, and the lure of entrepreneurship in such fields as business, communications, computer services, and others. Graduates today have to be smarter, quicker, more adaptable. Expected to perform at a high level, they need a complex mix of special skills to compete and broad perspective to flourish.

Their responsibility for our society is more pronounced than it was for their predecessors even during the protest era of the 1960's. Today's graduates will have to work out some practical solutions to incredibly complicated problems linked to racial understanding, economic and environmental sustainability, national security, and much more--including interpreting the worth of higher education itself, decades from now.

I value our colleges' being student-centered. It's our obligation to students as they leave our campuses all too quickly and join the global competition. Our role as faculty, staff, alumni, and other members of the academic community is to foster their success, to speak up for them where it counts as they make their way to meaningful careers, continuing education, service to their communities, and engaged citizenship. Our investment in them now will enrich us all later.

At the risk of dating myself, I still like the sentiment of Andy Williams' "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The holiday season comes and goes all too quickly, too, and there is special comfort in taking a few moments on a campus Light Up Night to embrace those for whom we exist as institutions, and to wish them well on their coming journey. It is one that, regardless of everything we can do to serve and support them, they must confront alone.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives" (www.presidentialperspectives.org), a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.