Editor’s note: Vermont By Degrees is a series of weekly columns written by representatives of colleges and universities from around the state about the challenges facing higher education at this time.
With several private colleges and universities shuttering across New England, higher education’s existential crisis has never been greater.
There are many questions. How does higher education remain relevant in the face of concerns of affordability and value? How do colleges and universities contribute to the local economy and workforce development? And what role do we play in connecting and engaging the community via cultural events and programming, especially in a sparsely populated, rural state such as Vermont?
The future is challenging, surely, but not dire. The first question is addressed by answering the second two questions. And they are all related to the issue of the survival of an institution.
As far as a problem requiring a creative solution, this one could not be more critical.
But we at Norwich University stand as an example of how creative thinking, and careful planning, can pay off. If we can do it, other institutions can, too.
Norwich University just celebrated 200 years since its founding in 1819. Over the past 200 years, Norwich has survived significant challenges — a catastrophic fire, which moved it from its eponymous home of Norwich, Vermont, to Northfield, Vermont; financial ruin; and the anti-military Vietnam era, which impacted enrollment.
Nevertheless, Norwich has flourished, especially over these past three decades, by developing and implementing strategic plans that outlined enrollment, programmatic and physical-plant goals. Norwich 2000 got us from 1992 to the 21st century; NU2019 got us to our bicentennial; and now Norwich After Next lays the groundwork for the next decade and a half.
We were early in adopting a cybersecurity curriculum in 1999, and now boast one of the best in the country. As cyberthreats grow, we’re uniquely poised to help keep the nation safe and provide professionals to lead the charge.
We were also very early in online education, with our first program launching in 1997 with a master’s degree program in diplomacy and military science. Willingness to adapt is in our principles and in our DNA; our motto, after all is “I will try.”
Planning also helped us raise the money we need to adapt. Our recent Forging the Future fundraising campaign helped us remake and add buildings to serve a 21st century community. We renovated our Kreitzberg Library and Dewey Hall, built Mack Hall and put money toward scholarships that will help us attract new students. What’s more, we exceeded our $100 million goal substantially.
Our College of Continuing and Graduate Studies put learning online, spreading our top-flight learning far from Northfield to anyplace with an internet connection and a keyboard.
And we’re still planning. With our bicentennial celebration concluded, Norwich is implementing a new strategic plan designed to put us in a position of strength through 2035.
Our three tenets for success are flexibility, affordability and relevance. We have proved that if a higher-education institution is willing to adapt, it can.
Despite our success, we know we cannot rest. We are building out our research program with research centers in cybersecurity, environmental security, peace and war studies, volunteerism, and writing. One highly visible activity of that work: We took over the Resilient Vermont conference in 2017, which formed after Tropical Storm Irene.
We remain flexible to stay relevant. The more relevant we are, the more affordable we become. As we all know, affordability is of paramount importance to all students, but especially to Norwich students, 99% of whom (campus-based students) receive financial aid. Much of that aid comes from the university, which awards an average of just under $26,000 per student per year. The average total debt at graduation for 2019 graduates with financial aid loans was just under $40,000.
We know that is a significant investment. We also know that a Norwich education pays off. Now that has been quantified: At 30 and 40 years post-enrollment, Norwich ranked in the top 7% for best net present value among the 4,529 schools ranked in Georgetown University’s “A First Try at ROI” study.
Again, we’re forging forward. As we continue working to increase affordability, growing the endowment to provide more scholarships to students, we’re working to increase enrollment without expanding the physical plant. By sending more students to study away — whether abroad or stateside — we free up beds on campus, making room for new students who can expand the Norwich family and diversify the Norwich experience. New international students bring their languages and cultures; members of overseas military academies, here on exchange, compare training notes with our Corps of Cadets. Everyone on campus benefits and Norwich’s value continues to improve.
The more value universities bring to their communities, the more the communities will support the institutions and enroll their students.
Off campus, we’re connecting with local businesses to create internships and apprenticeships, which can lead to job offers and graduates who stay in Vermont. Our home is Vermont, so the state’s fate is intertwined with our own.
Vermont businesses are struggling to find employees in Vermont. To serve an aching national need for nurses as the aging baby-boomer populace grows and health-care needs surge, Norwich has designed two accelerated programs that reduce barriers to students enrolling and completing a program.
Beginning last summer (summer 2019), Norwich welcomed a new class of nursing students to campus. These are students who already have a bachelor’s degree in something else, who are eligible to attain a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) in 18 months. These students begin in the summer and complete five consecutive semesters to attain a BSN.
Norwich also offers an online Master of Science in nursing and a new online RN-to-BSN degree completion program designed for RNs who want to pursue their degree while working.
Beyond the job market, Norwich works to be a good neighbor. By offering free programming to our neighbors in presentations from world-class thinkers on vital topics including climate change, cybersecurity and cutting-edge leadership strategies, colleges and universities like Norwich University endow their neighboring communities with immeasurable cultural value. By leading community philanthropy, we help the most vulnerable — our men’s hockey team’s Sock Toss collected 1,500 pairs of socks, supplied by Northfield’s own Darn Tough, to help five central-Vermont charities. We delivered warm feet.
Our annual Legacy March, in which cadets and others retraced the university’s path from Norwich to Northfield, and a benefit concert by a Vermont-raised country music star raised thousands of dollars for a local shelter for homeless veterans. We also recently celebrated the completion of a tiny home located in Barre City that is part of a plan for wraparound services to house and support those who struggle with mental illness and homelessness.
This is all to say: Higher education is a valuable part of society and much more than academics. Norwich will always value its role in lifting up its entire community.
Daphne Larkin is director of media relations and community affairs at Norwich University.