College Strategy

I was invited to wok on a strategic plan for the college a few summers ago. I couldn't attend the workshop and lost an opportunity to help steer the college to a more promising future.

The final strategic plan, just like most of committee work, is a mumbo jumbo of catchy phrases in higher education, such as creativity, diversity, internationalization, social justice, etc. These are all fine things to pursue, but can hardly be called as ground-breaking strategic goals. In business, a strategy is to place a corporation in a position from which it can better compete in the industry. For example, on a strategic map with cost and quality as the two axis, many companies would try to go to the low cost/low quality end. To survive in the crowded space, you have to be a true leader in cost, which is hard for most businesses because undercutting competition is so easy and rampant that you can't always be the cheapest. In the higher education market, all these lofty slogans are also easy and rampant. How does our college out-compete others on these liberal ideas? I don't see them bringing in more students or elevating the college to a higher ranking.

The other way to compete is to differentiate. In commercial products, you differentiate by offering premium products and services or increasing the variety of products. How do you differentiate our college from others? Not by offering programs others all have, but by offering programs that others can't think of.

We don't compete with every college or university. So when we are creating programs, we just need to focus on those similar colleges' offerings. If we narrow down our primary market, we can see that we are head-to-head with other small private colleges. This is a shrinking segment. It is shrinking not just because public institutions grab our potential students, but also because small private colleges are losing their allure. A liberal arts education per se is not the root of the problem. Limited choices are the real threat to small private colleges. The world is changing fast. Parents and students want to have plenty of career choices when it comes to college education. Restricting the options to only traditional liberal arts programs discourage them from even taking a look.

It is therefore understandable for small private colleges to go into health care and business programs. But again these are easy choices. Any sensible college president would see that and take his/her college to that direction. But it is still not differentiation. The real game-changer is an engineering program. An engineering program added to our college will immediately separate us from the crowd. If you want to talk about critical thinking with fantastic career opportunities, what can beat an engineering degree?

Building a robust engineering program also balance the left-leaning tendency of any liberal arts colleges. Engineering faculty and students tend to be more practical and by default less likely to be liberal extremists. Liberal arts students prize their critical thinking ability, but often just fall into the bad habit of criticizing everything. Engineering students, on the other hand, are solving problems. Combining the two will create the best college environment for students to learn and grow. 

An engineering degree was briefly discussed in the summer workshop on college strategy. It didn't get traction. I wonder why. Could it be because the idea is too distant from our liberal arts tradition or because it is too pricey? But it is exactly for those reasons that we should pursue an engineering program. Apple doesn't sell a $1000 smart phone by making easy choices. We are talking about differentiating premium products here! Remember what President Kennedy told us? "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

I have confidence that if Coe could expand our offerings to include 3 to 5 engineering majors, our ranking can jump a few dozen places and probably be able to lose the "enrollment-driven" designation. Unfortunately, the ship has sailed. We are not building any engineering program. My only hope is that some day some wealthy alum can see this post and donate to the college with the condition of creating engineering majors.