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Bennett College: Boldly moving through complex moments

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  • National enrollment declines are placing pressure on postsecondary institutions and their business models. @BennettCollege, one of North Carolina’s 10 HBCUs, is not immune, but @BennettPres_SEW’s team has decided to take a new approach.
  • “We are designing our college to wrap itself comfortably around 200 students,” @BennettPres_SEW says. Find out how @BennettCollege is revamping its student experience in the search for sustainability.
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Bennett College is a private, historically black college in Greensboro. The college was founded in 1873 by Warnersville Methodist Episcopal Church and began as a co-educational institution, before deciding to focus solely on women’s education beginning in 1926.

With 200 students currently enrolled, the college offers 15 academic programs. The top degrees awarded annually are General Biological Sciences and General Business Administration and Management, according to the college.

Bennett is ranked No. 1 nationwide in social mobility and 38th among HBCUs in overall quality, according to the U.S. News and World Report.  The college was named one of the 50 most historically notable colleges in America, and it ranked in the top 20 for most affordable four-year colleges in North Carolina.

The average tuition is $18,513, but no student this academic year will pay the full amount, according to the college. Sixty-eight percent of Bennett students were Pell Grant eligible, according to IPEDS data.

Bennett’s current president, Suzanne Walsh, assumed the role back in August 2019. Before becoming president of Bennett College, Walsh’s experience included working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments.

Enrollment declines nationally are placing pressure on postsecondary institutions and their business models. Bennett is not immune, but Walsh’s team has decided to take a new approach.

Bennett College President Suzanne Walsh (Bridgette Cyr/EdNC)

‘We are a micro-college’

“We are designing our college to wrap itself comfortably around 200 students,” declared Walsh during our recent campus visit.

Walsh pointed out that the “arms race” among higher education institutions to build more and more buildings in an effort to chase enrollment growth isn’t sustainable. 

Declining enrollment and birth rates could lead to a reinvention for most higher education institutions, but periods of transformation are not new for Bennett, Walsh said. She noted that in the COVID-19 world, a number of shows and podcasts had invited her on to discuss declining enrollment, financial pressure, and a need to reconsider their business models.

“None of this is new for Bennett,” she went on to say with a wry laugh.

Bennett’s future, however, is predicated on learning from the challenges of the past and leaning in from there.

The leadership team at Bennett repeatedly noted they believe the college’s small size is its strength. Their message to prospective students can be boiled down to a few key points:

  • The college focuses on creating personalized experiences, in part by having a 7:1 student to faculty ratio.
  • The size of the college allows it to customize experiences for students from the beginning.
  • And personalization also allows it to focus on the whole student from the beginning.

From the time Walsh arrived at Bennett, she said, she continually referenced a phrase she first heard from a military leader: VUCA.

What does VUCA stand for? Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

Walsh preached the need for the college to prepare for, and thrive during, VUCA moments from the time of her arrival. When COVID-19 hit shortly after, the entire Bennett leadership team and staff understand what she meant.

Fortunately for Bennett, in the view of Walsh’s team, the college’s tradition had long focused on preparing students for moments that require being bold. 

“Our graduates have been leaders in positive societal change ever since our founding. For this tradition to continue, this VUCA moment calls for a profoundly different and bold approach to the college experience,” Walsh said.

The student experience

Meeting the moment for Bennett College has included radically changing the student experience.

Bennett leaders have leaned in on digital literacy and creating a comfort level with travel. They are providing a free passport to every student — and the Bennett team hopes they will be able to ensure an international trip for every student during their sophomore year.

Bennett also declares that “tech-enabled learning & support are critical to your success.” They note that the right tools and resources are required in order to reduce stress and anxiety for students, as well as assisting with student success. Every single Bennett student receives their own laptop — and digital textbooks are included with tuition.

The most radical change for Bennett was adapting a minimester model. In this model, fall and spring begin with an opening two weeks that are focused on gaining a credit and exploring a special topic. Minimester two and minimester three consist of a seven-week period where students take an average of two courses.

The minimester is laid out as follows:

The mini-mester model, explained by slides from Bennett College.

When Walsh and her team present this model to students, they explain it this way: “When you only take two courses at a time, it reduces your cognitive load– it reduces stress and gives you more time to concentrate on individual courses. You have more time for internships, work and other experiential learning.”

This change seemed radical for faculty and students alike, according to Vice President of Academic Affairs Laura Colson, but this shift has now become widely accepted as the students and faculty have seen the upside of the model.

The future

Walsh and Colson both said the future for Bennett College requires them to lean in on being “Bennett Bold.”

They will continue to lean in on the micro-college model. The hope is to build a business model that works for a 200-student micro-college approach.

“If our business model works for 200 undergraduates, then that allows us to avoid chasing after growth for growth’s sake,” explained Walsh. “This model would allow us to maintain our commitment to quality. We are then able to focus on adult learners and graduate programs.”

One innovative idea the college has explored for adult learners is the potential for subscription services. This idea is very much in the exploratory phase, but one potential pilot would be to involve their small business and entrepreneurship center by giving subscribers access to a coworking space, additional resources, and even audit academic courses.

Bennett College Vice President of Academic Affairs Laura Colson and Bennett College President Suzanne Walsh.

All of these ideas underscore that being bold is part of the Bennett College DNA in the 21st century.

“Bennett College is, indeed, bold. We are able to be that way because of a collective of very talented, students, employees and alumnae who make it all happen— these are folks who are willing to try some crazy things, push through the discomfort of change, and rally and celebrate on the other side,” Walsh said in a recent email. “Ultimately, we all do it because we share a commitment to helping our students to find their academic selves and succeed in the world post-Bennett College.”

Learn more about Bennett

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.