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Henniker’s New England College begins a repositioning effort to draw new students and stay financially sustainable

New England College announced this month it has hired a vice president of enrollment, tasked with drawing new students to the school, roughly a week after the private college said more than a quarter of its full-time faculty accepted early retirement. The two moves are part of a larger repositioning effort the school is undertaking to attract students, strengthen academics and ensure the Henniker-based college’s long-term financial sustainability, said Mark Watman, vice president for academic affairs.

And it’s happening at a time when higher education institutions across New England are struggling to adapt to new financial realities and to compete for a declining student population, experts said.

“Higher education is really a market-driven industry . . . if your pipeline is shrinking, you have got to either think of ways to reduce costs or expand markets,” said Tom Horgan, president and CEO of the New Hampshire College and University Council who received his doctorate in education from NEC this spring.

Small private colleges in the state are realizing that they can’t do business as usual, Horgan said. “They have to look at new markets, expanding their base, creating a more identifiable niche.”

For NEC, it meant taking the past year and a half to assess its academic programs. “We thought about what are the shared commitments that we want to make as an institution moving forward,” Watman said.

Moving forward, the school plans to strengthen its flagship programs – such as education and business – consolidate under-enrolled majors and add experiential learning components to all of its courses in order to meet student demand for more hands-on education.

“Knowledge from the real world is what students are craving to learn,” Watman said.

Hard look at majors

The school will continue to build on its most popular programs, including education. This spring, the college graduated its first doctoral class that received degrees in education with concentrations in K-12 leadership or higher education administration.

At the same time, the school will be taking a hard look at its 36 major programs, evaluating those with low enrollment to decide whether to consolidate or possibly discontinue them. The mathematics major could be on the chopping block, Watman said. Over the past few years, it has attracted fewer students as more have became interested in programs such as engineering or computer technology, which both include applied uses of mathematics.

“We don’t anticipate a significant reduction in the number of programs,” Watman said. The administration has yet to make final decisions. “Over time, we are being more attentive to what we should offer,” he said. “Instead of necessarily having multiple small enrolled majors, we are looking at a more holistic view, to have separate majors with a shared core.”

Another focus is maintaining a sustainable number of full-time faculty, Watman said. To achieve that, earlier this spring the school offered early retirement packages to eligible faculty members. Nineteen accepted the deal, and many of those will stay on with the college in adjunct roles.

Several focuses

Overall, the move frees up resources for reallocation, Watman said, and gets the school to nearly the exact full-time faculty size it envisioned: about 45 members. “We will retain that size,” Watman said. “We do not have plans to grow it unless enrollment grows significantly.”

Another focus is on aesthetic improvements to the campus, such as construction on a new academic building, and recently, the hiring of a third-party contractor to manage the school’s grounds and facilities. The latter also gives a cost benefit to the school, Watman said, because the new manager, SSC Service Solutions, is larger and can purchase its own supplies. As part of the new contract, all of the school’s current employees were guaranteed work with the new manager, he said. “On a practical level of the institution, there is almost no difference.”

The changes the school is undertaking are to make sure the college is economically sustainable in the future, Watman said. This year’s budget has no shortfall, he said, and was already approved by the board.

At the same time, colleges and universities across the region are making similar changes, experts said, to make their schools more attractive to a shrinking number of eligible students.

Some are looking at new frontiers: expanding into different geographic areas to find new student pools or venturing into other education markets, such as online degrees, Horgan said.

Others are working with what they already have: adding experiential learning to their curricula or marketing their majors that are unique and distinct, said Edward MacKay, director of the state’s Division of Higher Education. But every institution is looking at containing their costs, MacKay said, costs that are ultimately translated to students in the overall price tag.

“I think the judgments made by NEC are the kind of judgments many New England colleges are contemplating now,” MacKay said. “How can we reach new audiences and focus on what we do best?”

Calling in reinforcements

To reach out to those new markets, NEC is enlisting the help of Brad Poznanski. The school hired him to take over as vice president of enrollment at a time when the college has been drawing record freshman class sizes, school officials said.

NEC enrolls about 1,000 undergraduate students, 600 online continuing education and 1,000 graduate students. This year’s freshman class hit the 350-student target, Poznanski said. And over the past year, undergraduate students paid $33,000 in tuition and fees to attend the college and about $13,000 for room and board, according to the school’s website.

“What we’re seeing over the last couple years is that freshmen enrollment is up at a time when the demographics actually contradict that trend,” said President Michele Perkins. “We’re delighted.”

Poznanski previously served as president for enrollment management at Saint Anselm College and at Southern New Hampshire University. At NEC, he will oversee enrollment, admissions and retention initiatives.

When he begins in July, Poznanski’s goal is to attract two different student markets to the college – the traditional 18- to 22-year-old student and the adult student – by “promoting unique advantages NEC offers,” such as online, hybrid or graduate programs, he said.

“I am going to do what everyone is trying to do: strengthen the market position,” Poznanski said.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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