At the matriculation convocation on Sept. 17, President Laurie Carter announced the launch of five guiding coalitions meant to address impending challenges faced by higher education. These coalitions are in the process of beginning their work.
The five coalitions are each charged with a different mission: envisioning important institutional priorities, continuing the effort to meet the full financial needs of students, enhancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism initiatives, improving the athletic programs and preparing for the 175th anniversary of the university.
“The coalitions are really about bringing the community together around the pressing issues of higher education,” President Laurie Carter said. “Each institution has to look at its own strengths and weaknesses. How do you elevate the strengths; how to you better support the weaknesses?”
While each coalition works independently within their own area, the launch of the guiding coalitions seeks to initiate a coordinated effort across the university in addressing future challenges. These efforts include holding regular discussions and town hall meetings to solicit community opinions. The guiding coalitions plan to complete a report by the end of the term that will lead to an action-oriented plan.
A key purpose of the guiding coalitions is to collaborate to address future challenges with recruitment. For many years, higher education institutions, including Lawrence, have been preparing for the impending demographic cliff that is inbounded to happen in 2026, according to Carter.
The demographic cliff refers to the period beginning in 2026 where the number of traditionally college-age students starts to steadily decline as the children born during the Great Recession come through the pipeline, according to higher education expert Jeff Selingo’s report in his newsletter NEXT.
According to Selingo, the downturn will be especially severe in the Northeast and Midwest. Home to the highest density of colleges and universities, they will face increased competition over a smaller pocket of college-bound students.
In addition to the demographic cliff, recruitment also faces challenges with rising student debts and media narrative casting skepticism over the value of higher education, especially the return of investment of a four-year degree and liberal arts education according to Carter.
Higher education also continues to struggle with declining retention and graduation rates, as well as financial stress elevated by the pandemic, which Lawrence is not immune to either.
“The urgency was really more external than internal, but those external variables are quite significant,” Carter said.
The five guiding coalitions are meant to serve as a coordinated effort to address these impending challenges, according to Carter, and the first step is to bring the community together with a sense of urgency.
“President Carter is giving us an opportunity to dream… to envision what Lawrence should look like in the future… and seek input from the Lawrence community, from students, faculty, staff to alumni,” said Jason Brozek, Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs and Associate Professor of Government and the “Visioning our Five Priorities” coalition co-chair. “What this future vision looks like is not up to me, but up to the community… We are here to listen.”
The five priorities include expanding equitable student access to higher eduction and academic success , elevating brand awareness, bettering diversity and inclusion efforts, creating a more integrated university experience, and practicing strategic financial stewardship, per Brozek.
With retention rate being one of Lawrence’s weaknesses according to Carter, a more coordinated effort to expand and enhance equitable student access between different pockets of efforts across the university will directly tackle the issue.
While different pockets of the university, such as the Center for Academic Success and the support for scholar athletes from the athletic department, have been making efforts to maintain student retention, Carter said these efforts were never well-coordinated as a whole. With the guiding coalitions, Carter calls for a more coordinated effort across different fractions of the university.
The guiding coalitions will also ensure a more coordinated effort in recruitment. While the coalition works to enhance brand awareness, Lawrence also explore new ways to increase recruitments by seeking students from previously unrepresented regions or students from outside the U.S.
At the same time, one guiding coalition is specially dedicated to finishing Lawrence’s Full Speed to Full Need campaign. After ongoing fundraising since 2014, Carter said Lawrence was on track to meet the full financial needs of all incoming students but impeded with the federal government canceling the Perkin loans last year.
So far, only about 70 schools across the country are full-need institutions. Becoming a full-need institution will be a rare move by small institutions like Lawrence in a space highly occupied by Ivy League and other elite colleges with hefty endowments, according to Inside Higher Ed.
According to Cassie Curry, the co-chair of the Full Speed to Full Need coalition, becoming a full-need institution is more than fundraising. Since different institutions use different financial models in meeting full-need, it is critical for Lawrence to determine its definition of full-need by comparing peer and aspirational institutions like Carleton College, M.N. and Grinnell College, I.A. As a first-generation college student herself, Curry considers meeting full-need critical to making college education accessible for all.
As Lawrence’s current strategic plan is set to expire in 2022, the five guiding coalitions will lead a coordinated effort in seeking answers to future challenges and contribute to the next strategic plan.
“We are preparing by really strategically looking at where we are now, and where we need to be in the future,” said Carter.