College president: Why we're staying small in an era of growth

Scaling up while staying small

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the president of College of the Atlantic (COA) discusses what it means to "scale up" when leading an institution that chooses to be small.

COA caps its entire enrollment at just 350 students, making school officials' approaches to growing much different than on they might take on a larger campus.

"I think the beauty of the higher-education model—and the country—is in its diversity. There's no silver bullet that's going to fix our situation," COA President Darron Collins says. "I think about us and the role we serve to try and make sure that there are a whole different swath of approaches to higher ed."

But being different isn't enough to survive as an institution today. "You have to be different and excellent," he says.

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COA officials decided to restrict enrollment to 350 to limit the need to expand infrastructure and campus, to ensure students can play a role in college management, foster community engagement, and keep the student to faculty ratio below 10 to 1.

"It doesn't make sense for every college in the country, but for a COA, it makes a lot of sense," Collins says.

In restricting the school's size, the strength of the community can grow, he says. "Students learn what it means to be part of an institution. The world—when they graduate, they will very likely be part of an institution, whatever they wind up doing."

AT COA, students help hire faculty and make admissions decisions "so they see how an institution is organized and run, and that gives them definitely a leg up when they go off looking for work," Collins says.

Because COA is limited in size, "scaling up" takes on a different meaning. Institution leaders work to keep costs down—such as by partnering with external entities for laboratories and athletic facilities. Donations and the endowment can then be directed toward needs-based aid and faculty chair endowments.

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The school is also looking at expanding their global presence by creating campuses in strategic, global locations. Recently Collins visited Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, to consider placing one there.

"Not all colleges should and can follow our model, but if we can put it down in really important places around the world, we'll have a greater impact," Collins says (Carlson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/10).

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