1. The growth of Wesley Seminary, now approaching 500 at the end of our sixth year, is quite remarkable. The average seminary size last year was 155, and most are on a path of significant decline. David Watson of United Theological Seminary and I are actually going to co-present at a seminar this month at the annual CAOS meeting (Chief Academic Officers Society) on enrollment strategies. United has also experienced growth under President Wendy Deichmann.
So what is the secret sauce?
2. First there is what I like to think of as the core.
a. I've mentioned the cohort model as an important key to our success. You don't recruit random students. You recruit groups of students. You plan for a train to leave the station in January and you recruit to it. Once a group of, say, 15 is on the train, they are likely to stay on the train. None of this inefficient block schedule where students may or may not sign up for Professor Boring. It's one train and you know more or less where it's going.
Our core reached equilibrium at the beginning of Year 4. The number we expected in the MDIV at equilibrium was 255. That's two new MDIV cohorts every January and August and one new cohort in May, with attrition factored in. I'm also assuming regular MA starts.
b. A key note here. There's no way we would be in existence if we expected these students to come onsite. Indeed, we have had a wake-up moment in Year 6 in relation to onsite that I'll discuss in a future post. The demand is to take these degrees at a distance, online. IWU does online. IWU is thus positioned for existence and growth.
I can't wag my head enough at those who continue to resist distance education. If you're Duke, Princeton, or Harvard, no problem. You have a stable clientele. But you have to have a market to survive, and the general market of people who will uproot and move somewhere is seriously on the decline, especially for seminary. If we had to be an onsite seminary, we would likely close tomorrow.
c. There are threats to the core. They factor into growth but they are especially threats to decline if they are not in place. A competent and enthusiastic faculty, including adjuncts, is important. Students won't stick around if their overall course experiences are bad. There are too many other options. Things like timely feedback and faculty presence are key. Indeed, I would say that the competent administration of courses is more important in a professor for online students than professor brilliance. After all, the content for the most part is already pre-installed into each course.
In our case, we also have enthusiastic full-time faculty who are brilliant, competent, and are marketing machines in their own right. Bob Whitesel, Brannon Hancock--these guys market Wesley as well as a television ad. They create an enthusiastic environment that not only maintains the core, but brings growth.
d. I also believe that an institution can develop a legalistic, negative environment that dampens student enthusiasm. In my opinion, IWU as a whole was seriously in danger of a trajectory of this sort in 2012. The predisposition of a successful business is a "can-do," "we say yes" attitude. I hear that Todd Voss, President of Southern Wesleyan University, went there with this motto, "We say yes." In that kind of environment, growth is contagious.
I mentioned that the Seminary started with this attitude: "If they come we will build it." People don't want to go to a negative place. People don't want to be told "no" at every turn, especially in the name of rigid policies. Places that grow are places that are flexible and have a propensity to say "yes." To me, that's core.
3. Growth has come by new venues.
a. I once heard Dan Reiland of 12Stone® say that there was a certain gravity churches had toward an inward focus. If they didn't concentrate at least 51% of their energies toward evangelism, toward an outward focus, the inward gravity would take over and they would not likely grow. Discipleship is an important function of the church, but if the focus is not on reaching new people, decline was the likely result.
I suspect this principle applies to seminaries and universities as well. If they are not focused on finding the next thing, the next venue, the next degree, they will likely decline. I suspect that IWU can offer a case study on this one. About ten years ago, IWU paused its focus on growth for a moment to bolster its infrastructure, and we have only recently started to grow again after a couple scary years.
b. Wayne Schmidt, our fearless leader, has that growth orientation in his very DNA. So let's say that Wesley Seminary in 2012 had a stable core of 250 MDIV students and perhaps 120 MA students (4 cohort starts a year). To grow beyond this point would require addition. To do nothing would mean eventual decline. 51% rule.
In the traditional model of seminary education, you grow by adding people to the existing location and courses. Traditional seminaries also tend have high full-time faculty to adjunct ratios. This is death in our current climate. 1) Students aren't moving any more. 2) Full-time faculty are expensive. 3) There's no intrinsic motivation for a student to take specific courses.
Let me clarify on this last point with a story I heard sitting next to Terry Munday by sheer chance once on a flight back from Atlanta. Terry sustained the development program at IWU in the days when IWU didn't really have big donors. I believe if you bracket out a few major gifts (some of which Terry did the ground work for), IWU has yet to raise in a single year what he raised in his last year here before he retired.
If a pastor gets up in the pulpit and just asks for an offering out of the blue, people won't give as much as if someone is willing to go individually to potentially larger donors and ask for a number beforehand.
The story was about a church where the pastor needed about 1.1 million more to complete a building fund. The pastor, not wanting to face the awkwardness of asking for money of certain members in the congregation, was just going to make a general plea from the pulpit. Terry told him he would miss his need by some number like 6 or 7 thousand if he did it that way.
Instead, Terry went with the pastor to several homes, one by one, before the general offering, and they asked for a specific number, a number more than these individuals would have pledged in a general offering sitting in a pew. The end result was that the church was able to finish the building project.
He's written a book on fund raising if you dare to read it.
I mention this because students will register for a specific offering, a specific cohort, a specific venue. You'll get a lot more students this way than if you just say, "Come here and take whatever course you want." A targeted sale gets more customers than, "Come in; we've got stuff." It may sound crass to speak of seminary as a business. There's no question that we care about every student. But if someone at a seminary or university isn't thinking these sorts of things, even intuitively, there's trouble ahead.
c. In our fourth year, 2012-2013, Wayne facilitated the launch of two new venues for the Seminary--a contextualized, urban MDIV cohort in Indianapolis and a contextualized MA cohort based out of 12Stone® Church...
Previously on Seminary take-aways:
1. There are key moments of opportunity.
2. You need the right people.
3. Good leaders collaborate and navigate.
Year 1: Launch Year
4. Innovation requires some trial and error. (1)
5. Innovation requires some trial and error. (2)
6. Innovation requires some trial and error. (3)
7. New leaders bring new strengths. (1)
Year 2: Growing Pains
8. Administration never ends.
9. New leaders bring new strengths. (2)
10. New leaders bring new strengths. (3)
Year 3: The Year of Maturity
11. Complexity works against sustainability.
12. There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university. (1)
13. There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university. (2)
14. Our guinea pigs survived.
Year 4: The Year of the Faculty
15. Faculty share governance with administration. (1)
16. Faculty share governance with administration. (2)
17. Faculty share governance with administration. (3)
18. Faculty share governance with administration. (4)