About 45 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, there is a small, liberal arts college that boasts 1,400 students. Washington & Jefferson College was founded in 1781 by a group of Presbyterian ministers. The College believes that a traditional liberal arts education not only supports individuals in their professional aspirations, but also prepares them for life. As the website states, “it develops the intellect and the soul.”
A recent Inside Higher Ed article featured Washington & Jefferson College as they prepared to expand their educational offerings. As the reader, you might be wondering what is so special about the move to extend an institution’s programs. The higher education marketplace is increasing in competition with institutions trying to meet perceived student and employer demands while maintaining relevance. Most institutions’ traditional mission statements are being replaced with a one-word mantra, “more.” This is far from a new phenomenon. We see it in business and various other industries. Organizations and businesses experience success and seek to aggressively continue expanding their products or services in an effort to retain public interest. It is the same for higher education.
Although on the surface it would appear that Washington & Jefferson College has “sold out,” upon a closer read, it is apparent that this recent decision to expand into graduate education is being made with caution. The College did not enter into this decision lightly. They had heard rumblings about “mission creep.” The possibility that the College would shift its attention away from its strengths in order to assure this curriculum expansion was successful. However, for 235 years, Washington & Jefferson College has been successful and become internationally known for its strong, co-ed, undergraduate liberal arts programs.
In order to address concerns, the College opened its decision making process to internal and external stakeholders. It understood that without comprehensive support, it was likely to be unsuccessful and had the potential to alienate those who believed in the College’s mission.
Washington & Jefferson College is unique in its approach to expanding its educational offerings. Instead of solely allowing outside factors to influence their decision, they are allowing their mission to drive their strategic growth. This may initially seem like common sense, however, as we look around the higher education industry, it is clear that this is more an anomaly than the norm. There are several lessons that institutions should learn when looking to Washington & Jefferson College’s road to growth.
- The Why: Washington & Jefferson College’s mission statement identifies their why, explains the how, and promotes the what. It is a mission statement that also conveys its target student population. The College is not the right fit for everyone. Since its founding, the College has offered high quality, liberal arts education and graduates “people of uncommon integrity, competence and maturity who are effective lifelong learners and responsible citizens, and who are prepared to contribute substantially to the world in which they live.”
- The Who: The College understood this was a departure from their current offerings. When entering into graduate education, the College had to understand the different student population, the additional costs, the administrative adjustments, and the impact that these additional programs would have on the overall institutional operations. A part of the College’s approach was assuring buy-in. This decision was not made in a vacuum or from the top-down. It was a collaborative decision that secured the support of faculty and students.
- The What: The College needed to come to terms with what these graduate programs would mean and what they would not mean. The addition of the graduate programs was not a desperate hail Mary to save the College. The truth is, the College could continue to serve undergraduate students seeking a quality in-residence, liberal arts education. The College is careful to develop programs that will attract a specific niche market of students. It does not want to add one more “vanilla M.B.A.” program. The College remains focused on its primary strength while carefully developing and offering graduate programs designed to further educational opportunities to its undergraduate students and alumni.
- The When: The College’s decision to offer these programs developed after years of discussion and while they are ready to launch the graduate programs, the work is not done. The College plans to carefully monitor the effectiveness of these programs for the next several years. The College is aware that it has responsibilities to its stakeholders to assure the responsible use of resources. The programs were selected based on the College’s mission and proven strengths. They are anticipating that the program sizes will be small and that is also their preferred approach.
We hear about institutions growing and adding new programs to meet changing market demands. We also hear about those institutions who overextend themselves into areas that were beyond their strengths. As with any industry, the most successful organizations are those who understand their why or their purpose. Too often these days, institutions are trying to be all things to all students. This is not what students want or need. They need institutions who embrace their purpose, understand their strengths, and focus their attention on those programs that are specifically designed to meet their needs. We think that a mission statement is just words on a page, a check box to mark. For many institutions, that is how a mission statement is viewed. However, a well-crafted mission statement is so much more. It has the power to inspire, to establish an institution’s identity, and to carefully guide its growth. It is easy for an institution to take the road always traveled, the one that rushes programs to the marketplace, but in the end, the institutions that remain strong will be those who use their mission as their GPS, seek input from the locals, and take their time to appreciate their surroundings. The key to success is the journey and the people you involve along the way.
“All organizations start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year. Those who forget WHY they were founded show up to the race every day to outdo someone else instead of to outdo themselves. The pursuit, for those who lose sight of WHY they are running the race, is for the medal or to beat someone else.” ~ Simon Sinek
How does your institution use its mission to drive success?