For colleges and universities that appear to be slipping down the ranks relative to larger, more popular institutions in terms of interest and enrollment, signature programs might be exactly what they need to foster sustainability and prosperity.
Many small colleges are adopting such programs, including the “Dominican Experience” at Dominican University of California, “City Edge” at Marymount Manhattan College and “Connections” at Connecticut College.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, these signature programs are much like pledges that come with “a commitment to make sure that all students benefit equally from data-proven, high-impact learning experiences.”
Small colleges and universities hope that their signature programs will show their distinction amongst not only other small schools but also larger institutions, where students may not have the ability to receive personal attention in an intimate environment.
“Summit,” a signature program of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, won a Transformation Award from the American Council of Education and Fidelity Investments in 2017.
Summit promises “young women a new take on a liberal-arts education.” The signature program was incorporated into the school’s curriculum to “highlight leadership and global awareness,” and even gave each student advising teams to help them succeed.
Unfortunately, signature programs alone are unlikely to increase enrollment.
The programs will not “pay off until [they] have been in place long enough that current students [can] become its advocates,” and there might even be varying results.
For example, Agnes Scott went a year without undergraduate enrollment growth, in 2017, despite their award-winning program.
There are also those who doubt the benefits of signature programs. Oglethorpe University’s president Lawrence M. Schall is “paying close attention to” institutions with signature programs.
“It’s not so much can you come up with a big idea. The big idea’s gotta work. And there are a limited number of big ideas,” said Schall.
Such a limited number of ideas can be a stalling point for schools who want to stand out in the crowd — it will hurt more than help schools if their signature program is too similar to or exactly the same as another institution’s.
Schall promotes maintaining low costs and increasing revenue over signature programs. “If you’re not growing your net tuition revenue, you’re not gonna make it,” he said.
On the other hand, Mary B. Marcy, the president of Dominican University of California, thinks signature programs are a “natural step for small colleges that have prided themselves on being high-touch, high-engagement with students.”
However, she acknowledges that it is still uncertain and that there is no “silver-bullet answer” to help small colleges succeed.
In addition, creating a signature program means that the colleges risk enticing students to their campuses for programs that are in their infancy.
If a college institutes a signature program, attracts students to it and then finds the program, say, financially infeasible, they are forced to either disband the program that attracted the students in the first place, or continue the program till its current students can graduate.
Either way, the programs are not risk-free, but seem increasingly like a necessary evil in order to compete with the gravitational pull exerted by massive state colleges.