Columbia College: Elevating the School Community Through Strategic Initiatives

Strategic Insights Blog | March 23, 2015

The willingness of a college or school to engage in real change that addresses the needs of students, rather than relying on superficial changes in communications, can make the difference between truly strengthening the institution’s ability to pursue its mission over the long term and coasting into irrelevance. For institutions in highly competitive markets, the stakes can be very high indeed.

Probably no higher education market is more challenging than that served by women’s colleges. Changes in students’ college expectations have presented considerable challenges to women’s colleges as they have attempted to remain relevant to college-aged women. In this climate, the number of women’s colleges has declined dramatically and left many of the remaining colleges struggling to meet both enrollment and financial targets.

We spoke recently about some of these challenges with Elizabeth Dinndorf, president of Columbia College, a small, United Methodist-affiliated women’s college located in Columbia, South Carolina. An attorney and former business executive, Beth came to the College at a time when it was having limited success in achieving key financial and enrollment goals. Having worked with Art & Science Group to tackle these challenges, Beth agreed to be featured here, in the third installment of our leadership series.

In this interview, Beth discusses major strategic initiatives the College pursued to strengthen its competitive position. She also reveals how developing and implementing these substantive initiatives, informed by robust market research, has enabled the College to reinvigorate the educational experience it offers young women and, in the process, strengthen its competitive market position.

 

A&S: How did Columbia College translate the proposed initiatives into actual programs?

President Dinndorf: Given the quality and depth of the recommendations, we wanted to make sure we executed them successfully. We contracted with a project manager right away to take the entire report, develop a detailed project plan and timetable, and assist us in the execution.

One of the key findings of the study showed that students are drawn to a core educational experience that combines liberal arts with professional knowledge and real-world experience. To give this substance, we established committees across the entire campus to determine how best to translate these recommendations into viable initiatives.

Based on the results of this work, we created the Institute for Leadership and Professional Excellence, designed to be a comprehensive approach to help every young woman transition from high school to college and from college to career. We wanted to help our students work more closely with faculty and academic advisors to integrate what they were learning in the classroom with real work experiences — internships, interactions with community leaders and alumnae, and engagement with the business community. We took the best of what we had been doing and created four centers focused on academic and professional advising, applied learning, career coaching and professional development and leadership.

The other major change we made: we began recruiting students differently, appealing to young women who were engaged and most likely to take advantage of the type of educational experience Columbia College offers. We created the Momentum Scholarship Program to attract engaged students with drive and potential who think big and want to take chances and grab opportunities. We want to know the student behind grades and test scores, so we consider extracurricular activities, community involvement, nominations from community leaders and the student’s essay, in addition to academic achievement.

The enrollment benefit of the Momentum Scholarship Program is that we have experienced a high yield on both those students nominated and those selected for the scholarship. Moreover, the Momentum Scholarship has helped us effectively spread the word about Columbia College to the kinds of young women we want to attract and enroll.

Critical to the success of our many new initiatives, we made a significant investment to reposition the College by adding a senior marketing executive and launching a multi-year strategic marketing campaign.

 

By undertaking a major re-positioning of the College over the last several years, what positive results has the College realized?

One of the best outcomes is that the academic profile of the young women we are attracting has gone up significantly. We are enrolling students who were very engaged in their high schools and communities and want to be engaged on our campus. We also are drawing students from a broader geographic region. By combining a great academic program with the comprehensive services and resources provided by the Institute of Leadership and Professional Excellence, we have created a distinct educational experience that truly differentiates Columbia College from competitors.

 

What single strategic initiative or program has had the most positive effect on the experience of students and the future of Columbia College?

Creating the infrastructure and support for the Institute. It was critical that faculty and other members of the Columbia College community were invested and engaged in developing this and other programmatic initiatives.

"We took our strengths and gave them programmatic substance, structure, and additional resources to ensure we could provide our distinct educational experience to all students. Once you identify your strengths and determine how best to leverage them, commit to make the substantive changes necessary to ensure you’re doing it better than anyone else.”

What differentiates the College from other institutions is that we provide this unique and comprehensive educational experience for every student. It’s our responsibility to prepare every student for that next step in life — either graduate school or her profession. We give each student access to the experience, exposure and the network she’ll need so that when she graduates she’ll be confident, prepared and ready to be economically independent.

 

Over the last few years, the College has successfully created and implemented many new initiatives. How does the College plan to build on those efforts in the next several years?

Now that the Institute is in its second year, we have some great metrics to demonstrate the success of our efforts. Moving forward, it’s critical that we continue to evaluate and adapt based on the changing needs of our students and the global marketplace. We have redesigned our leadership curriculum so that every student is involved in leadership development and their experiences are integrated into what we offer through the Institute for Leadership and Professional Excellence. Every student has leadership, service learning and real-world experience throughout her years at Columbia College. We are also developing a program to prepare our young women to be entrepreneurs. We’ve made this a focus because many students are starting their own businesses soon after graduation.

 

What important lessons can other colleges learn from Columbia College?

The most important lesson: leverage and build on your strengths. Take the time and undertake the campus and community-wide research necessary to determine your institution’s distinctions. Columbia College has a 160-year history and our unique strengths provide a solid foundation on which we continue to build.

Whatever you do as an institution always has to be relevant to students and subject to constant evaluation and improvement. We are continually asking ourselves: are we preparing our students for their lives and careers over the next several years and well beyond? We’re also having ongoing conversations with the business and community leaders who will be hiring our graduates.

We will continue to work hard to be relevant to students and employers by evaluating and refining our programs. It is important we align our educational experience with opportunities our students plan to pursue, expose them to new options that match their passions and prepare them for careers yet to be imagined.