Enrollment Realities Illustrate the Need for Relevant Research on Small Privates with John M. Braxton

A title of a June 29, 2017 article in Business Insider declares “College Enrollment has plummeted, and private universities are scrambling.” This article points to activities at Ohio Wesleyan University such as creating majors in high-demand fields, increased student recruitment activities abroad and in the United States, and the addition of two sports and marching band as responses to declines in student enrollments. Jon Marcus, the author of this article states “All of these changes are a response to a crisis few outside higher education even know exists: a sharp decline in the number of customers bound for small private, nonprofit colleges (p.2).”  

The enrollment pressures facing private colleges and universities create a great deal of uncertainty within this important sector of U.S. higher education. Uncertainty demands that scholarship guide the actions of leaders of independent colleges. Consequently, an urgent need for collaboration between scholars of higher education and practitioners in private colleges and universities springs forth. How are independent colleges adapting to these uncertainties and what additional research would help them not only survive, but also thrive? The Challenges of Independent Colleges: Moving Research into Practice edited by Christopher C. Morphew and I resulted from such a collaboration

Five noteworthy aspects characterize The Challenges of Independent Colleges: Moving Research into Practice. These aspects are as follows.

  • The genesis of this volume offers a template for collaborations between scholars and practitioners. This collaboration began as a preconference gathering of selected higher education scholars and officials of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) at the 2014 annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).  This preconference meeting was the initiative of Laura W. Perna, the president-elect of ASHE, and was chaired by Christopher C. Morphew for ASHE and Harold V. Hartley III for CIC.  The delineation of topics important to the viability of independent colleges that could be addressed by the literature of higher education as a field of study constituted the objective of this assemblage of members of the community of scholars of higher education (ASHE) and representatives of the practice communities of independent colleges (CIC). 


  • The chapters of this volume address important issues faced by independent colleges.  These issues include such broader topics as the public purposes and benefits of independent higher education, the meaning of the liberal arts, and institutional strategy and adaptation. Other topics include access and affordability, the assessment of student learning outcomes, ensuring student success, student demographics and equity, the use of learning technologies, and the role of faculty.  The authors of these chapter reviewed relevant literature on the focal topic of their chapter, identified challenges to independent colleges and universities, and offered recommendations for policies and practices to address the identified challenges. The goal of each chapter was to make the outcomes of the selected scholarship useful to leaders of independent colleges and universities. 


  • Themes emerged from the chapters of this book’s scholars that offer innovative approaches for independent colleges to follow.  These themes include create partnerships that save money and provide other dividends, reimagine and leverage historical mission as competitive advantage, and invest in systematic assessment.


  • Practitioner reactions to each chapter constitute an innovative aspect of this book’s design.   Presidents and provosts from CIC member institutions wrote reactions to the chapters that comprise this book. These practitioner reactions focus on the utility of the information contained in each chapter with attention to how the information might be used by institutional leaders to make decisions.


  • Practitioner reactions to each chapter provide the scholarly community with an opportunity to learn how practitioners engage with the work of scholars. Such practitioner engagement falls into two broad categories: shortcomings of the chapters and the value of the chapters to institutional leaders at small independent colleges. Shortcomings include lack of attention to institutional variation within the category of independent colleges and universities, a need to prioritize strategies, neglected considerations, difficult-to-implement recommendations, and inaccuracies about institutional realities. Practitioner reactions to the value of the work of scholars note some useful recommendations and new understandings.

Given these five noteworthy attributes, The Challenges of Independent Colleges: Moving Research into Practice stands as an important resource for higher education scholars and campus leaders at independent colleges and universities. Campus leaders at other types of colleges and universities should also find value in the review of relevant literature to the topics of this volume as well as well as the recommendations for institutional practice.  

Christopher C. Morphew is Dean, School of Education at Johns Hopkins University He is a coeditor of Privatizing the Public University: Perspectives from across the Academy. He is also co editor of The Challenge of Independent Colleges: Moving Research into Practice 

John M. Braxton is a professor of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations Emeritus, Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. He is a coauthor of Professors Behaving Badly: Faculty Misconduct in Graduate Education. He is also co editor of The Challenge of Independent Colleges: Moving Research into Practice.