The Hendrix way forward

In the Fall of 2018 and in anticipation of the Higher Learning Commission’s reaccreditation, Hendrix called in a consulting firm to address the college’s financial stress and dropping enrollment numbers. After reviewing the institution’s performance and current status, the firm suggested dozens of potential remedies. Now, the college has decided on a plan of action that “suits Hendrix’s character” and is economically feasible.

Hendrix has found itself in the same position as numerous private liberal arts colleges around the country. It’s experiencing falling enrollment numbers and a subsequent shortfall in revenue. According to official semester enrollment reports and common data sets found on their website, the college’s total enrollment numbers have slowly dropped since at least 2011.

In the Fall of 2011, total enrollment rested at 1,388. Six years later in the Fall of 2017, that number was 1,249. Last semester’s official total enrollment was 1,209. This meant that the college was losing revenue and could not operate on its own budget effectively.

To address the challenges facing Hendrix, the administration hired EY-Parthenon, a management consulting firm that strategizes to find ways of optimizing business practices and advises companies and organizations in creating sustainable and innovative solutions.

After reviewing Hendrix’s performance and current operations, the firm explored 38 ideas that might increase revenue while keeping the school’s budget in check. Hendrix’s President Tsutsui called some of these suggestions “wacky” like creating a campus presence in Northwest Arkansas. It was even suggested that Hendrix dive into Division I sports, but Tsutsui pointed to other institutions and their attempts to start those kinds of sports programs saying, “that’s just not Hendrix.”

Others, he said, were more practical like online courses, one-year masters programs, or an increase in the number of majors offered. Ultimately, these suggestions didn’t make the cut when put before a steering committee of Board of Trustees members, administrators, and faculty. When asked why online courses wouldn’t be a good fit for Hendrix, Tsutsui explained that Hendrix is more about “talking to a person, not a computer screen.”

In deciding which proposals would be accepted and put into action, Tsutsui said that each had to satisfy three criteria: does the plan fit Hendrix’s character, will it increase revenue, and is it financially and logistically possible? Eventually, it was decided that three of the proposed ideas would be implemented.

The first idea is meant to address the vacancy left by Arkansas Governor’s School, which had occupied Hendrix’s campus over the summer for the past 38 years. Tsutsui described a number of possible replacement programs from AGS-like curriculum to day camp for middle school students. Summer language programs were also suggested along with MCAT prep courses.

“AGS was good income for cafeteria staff, so we’re trying to find a way to keep them employed over the summer.” Tsutsui said. The development of these summer programs, whatever they may be, will be in the hands of Associate Director of Career Services and Employment Connections Coordinator Timothy Purkiss.

The second part of the college’s plan is to increase its social media presence. As it stands, Tsutsui said the college doesn’t have a large enough image on social media and hasn’t engaged in effective online campaigns that work to attract the attention of prospective students. Rob O’Connor, Vice President for Marketing Communications, will take the lead along with Sam Nichols, Vice President for Technology Services, in increasing online activity that works to utilize the power of social media platforms to recruit students.

Not only does Tsutsui think a more active Twitter feed would be good to attract high school graduates, but it could also be used to recognize current students and their accomplishments here on campus.

The final part of the plan and perhaps most appealing to future students of Hendrix is the launch of a co-op education program. “They’re essentially super internships,” Tsutsui said, “except you’ll be getting paid and you’ll earn course credit.”

While there are over 900 intensive internship programs around the country, Hendrix’s will be one of only a few co-op programs offered on such a large scale. These intensive paid internships could theoretically be tailored to any major. “Even a history major could find a position in a co-op program.” Tsutsui said.

Leigh Lassiter-Counts, Director of Career Services at Hendrix, said that Hendrix’s co-op will look less traditional than the normal co-op program, which was originally designed for engineering schools. “It’s our chance to make co-ops ‘Hendrix-y’ and put our spin on it (and be one of the first Liberal Arts colleges in America to do so).” she said by email.

In designing the program, Lassiter-Counts said they’re focusing on three different areas: admissions, academics, and employer/partners. Excited for what this co-op could provide Hendrix students, Lassiter-Counts said, “I’ve seen the impact an internship can have on  students’ lives – not just academically, but holistically as they think about what kind of people they want to be in the world, what kind of impact they want to make, what kind of problems they want to solve.”

The next step for the co-op program lies with a task force recently formed to design and implement it, the chair of which is Associate Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Engaged Learning Dr. Peter Gess. This task force will issue a preliminary report later in the Spring. The goal is to implement the co-op program by the Fall of 2021.

When asked whether a tuition reset, a dramatic cut in the cost of tuition to make the college’s “sticker price” more attractive, was ever considered, Tsutsui said yes, that they had been “studying it last year,” and that one could happen in the next couple years or so.

Despite the troubles facing Hendrix, Tsutsui stressed that we are not alone in our struggles and that Hendrix will continue to progress. “The Creative Quad is now entirely paid for by donors and the dorm renovations will keep going.” he said.

Schools like Hendrix are facing a reality where there are fewer high school graduates and fewer international students. At the same time, Tsutsui points out, “we face an image problem.” Arkansas isn’t the most appealing place to many prospective students, so Hendrix has to fight that perception.

At the end of the day, Tsutsui thinks Hendrix is at the “front end of change.” The biggest question for liberal arts institutions, he said, is “how in the age of changing families and demographics we overcome a revenue shortfall because with communities changing all around us, the world needs places like Hendrix.”

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