Reinventing the Business Model for Small Colleges – Changing Higher Ed Podcast 114 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Jayson Boyers, former President of Rosemont College
Jayson Boyers is part of a new breed of higher education leaders who come from the business world. When Boyers was working with a financial services company, he decided to work with mentoring young people. He got involved with a program, then became its educational director, helping highly at-risk youth get into college. On one of their college tours, a school happened to need a dean, and they asked Boyers if he was interested. He is the former president of Rosemont College, a small liberal arts school in the greater Philadelphia area, and recently joined the Rochester Institute of Technology as Managing Director of RIT Certified, RIT’s workforce development initiative.
Boyers is driven by a desire to share the transformational power of higher education with young students, which he has experienced first-hand.
A Successful Business Model Includes Teaching the Whole Student
Boyers’ desire to help other first-generation students drove him to where he is today. Having never envisioned college for himself, he is able to connect the value of higher education on multiple levels. He has traveled all over the world and done many things that just don’t happen without a college education. His wife, also a first-generation student, has shared many of those experiences with him. He feels a certain responsibility to share the opportunity he has received with students like him.
“I don’t just want to be a college president as a title. I want to use this opportunity for as long as I have it to take big strides forward, so we can serve our students.”
Instilling the quest for knowledge and lifelong learning is part of Boyers’ mission. He is dedicated to equipping students with the skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow – many of which haven’t even been invented yet. The way to do that, he believes, is by helping students develop their whole being.
When Boyers got into higher education, students were being trained for jobs that didn’t exist anymore. At the same time, some jobs didn’t exist then, that now are essential career paths for students. Training the whole student means teaching skills but also teaching them to be adaptable and curious so they can apply those skills, including communicating and collaborating. Along the way, they’re learning specific vocational skills, and they’re also learning how to shift and change and adapt as they move through their career.
Transformational and Transactional Skills
Boyers insists there’s nothing wrong with transactional skills, but in today’s economy, higher education must go deeper than that. Boyers is interested in teaching students how to make a difference in their communities through their careers and involvement in organizations that support the community.
Students today have been through a global pandemic; some have been through wars, and many have experienced racial and social injustice on a large scale.
They’ve also experienced the debates raging across the country, and they are thinking about these conflicts in ways Boyers wishes politicians could do.
The students that Boyers wants Rosemont College to attract are thinking about ways that they can make a positive impact. They want to do what they love and support a family, but they also want to contribute to their communities. Because of these young people, Boyers has a lot of hope for the future.
A Holistic Education
Rosemont was recognized as the only college in the greater Philadelphia area whose students tend to move up in socioeconomic status.
“We know for a fact that graduating from Rosemont has helped people lift up their economic destinies.”
Students at Rosemont learn critical thinking, effective communication, the ability to work in teams, and how to analyze data and draw conclusions. These four essential life skills go beyond any major; unsurprisingly, they are the top four job skills employers seek.
In Boyers’ eyes, the debate over vocational education compared to liberal arts education is a false debate. Students need to develop every part of their being, and schools must teach future graduates to be people of value in their companies, communities, and families. That’s what Rosemont is doing through its liberal curricula.
Harnessing the Power of Small Colleges
The ability to look at revenue models and value propositions is more important than ever. The new breed of higher education leaders that hail from the business world has these skills in spades. While others are speculating how small colleges will survive and stay sustainable, Boyers believes Rosemont College is just the right size.
With fewer than 1,000 students, Rosemont excels where many larger colleges struggle to truly impact students’ lives in a positive and meaningful way. According to Boyers, figuring out what makes the college unique is more important than having a large student body. He focuses on questions like, what makes a student successful here? And what is our identity as a school?
Business Model With A Focus on Marketing and Brand Positioning
As president of Cleary University, a small business university in Michigan, Boyers helped to develop eight attributes of what they called “The Cleary Mind.” It was during this process that Boyers saw how critical it was not only to differentiate from other schools but to be very clear about identifying who they were as a school.
When Boyers got to Rosemont, he quickly brought in a collaborator with extensive experience in marketing and brand positioning. After talking with every type of stakeholder to understand the entire student lifecycle, she and Boyers were able to develop the attributes of six to eight personas, or avatars, with traits of successful students. They narrowed the scope even further to target students who would not only say yes to enrollment at Rosemont but also excel once they got there. That effort led to a doubling of the freshman class size with an astonishing retention rate of 91%.
For this coming year, Boyers says they are seeing that number increase, along with students’ GPAs – “and we’re still recruiting a very diverse class.”
Focusing on the Right Students
Instead of focusing on the top 1% of all high schools, Rosemont looked at traits like self-awareness, resiliency, and the ability to self-start. Many of their most successful students had dealt with adversity and severe life challenges but had been underestimated in their school careers. These students were likely to surprise people with what they were doing in their communities.
Boyers knows the importance of being anchored in a strong identity and believes it is not only something to be proud of but that it attracts the right students. A strong sense of identity also helps keep the school deeply rooted in its mission. For Rosemont, the century-old mission has been to “meet the wants of the age,” meaning the school must adapt and change with the needs of today’s workforce.
Rosemont College serves traditional students, but there are unique needs for others, including graduate students and adult students who are completing their degrees. The school’s strong understanding of its own identity translates to all those populations in different ways, allowing Rosemont to grow the various segments of its student body. One of the key pathways for that growth has been developing strong partnerships.
Relationships, Partnerships, and the Power of Collaboration
Rosemont is one of only 27 colleges and universities that form the Federal Academic Alliance, which works to serve the federal civilian workforce of over two million employees. Long-standing relationships with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which Boyers had cultivated as a vice president of another college in Burlington, made this partnership possible. Relationships, Boyers says, are where you grow. Strong partnerships and collaboration allow Rosemont, and other colleges, to extend their value propositions.
Rosemont offers different modalities for students wherever they are in life, including online programs and stackable certificates that can build into a degree. Through their strong partnerships, Rosemont has been able to offer these stackable credential programs to adult students in the police forces across the United States. Rosemont created a partnership with the national FOP, or Fraternal Order of Police, to create a pathway toward a degree while working as a police officer.
“We want to tell these organizations, you keep focused on your mission, and we’ll focus on educating your workforce so you can meet the talent and skills gaps as you evolve.”
Rosemont has replicated this model by partnering with OPM, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and other federal agencies. Because these employers have already vetted the college and Rosemont is invested in the success of both the employees and employers, these partnerships are frictionless and geared toward student success.
The Business of Higher Education
Boyers believes in opening the curtain to the business model so faculty can understand where the college is and where it needs to be. This allows them to see why certain programs make sense, what’s going on in the marketplace, and where the college can innovate and offer value.
Strong leadership from the academic side is critical to success. When creating innovative programs that keep the school competitive, making faculty a part of the conversation is a way to tap into their energy and expertise.
Not everyone likes to link the words business and education, but Boyers points out that having a good business model is especially important for schools like Rosemont. The better the business model, the more resources the school has. Unlike a corporation, those resources aren’t returned to shareholders but reinvested into the students, faculty, and staff.
Meeting the Changing Needs of Incoming Students
Rosemont graduates become valuable assets as part of the talent supply chain. Still, most importantly, the school must meet its changing needs, especially when it comes to mental health and overall wellness. Early in the pandemic, Rosemont expanded its counseling services and offered mental health services to every student, free of charge. Boyers notes that the education experience extends from the classroom into student life. “College has to be more than just memorization and theory; it has to be about developing the whole person.”
By focusing on students’ emotional and mental well-being, Rosemont is helping to develop all aspects of its students as human beings. This, in turn, builds resiliency and self-awareness and teaches those students to take better care of themselves going forward. As Boyers puts it, “Being grounded in who you are and how things impact you helps you act in a better way.”
Three Takeaways for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
- Be grounded in your identity as an organization. A strong sense of self keeps schools rooted in their mission, helps attract the right students, and acts as a key differentiator.
- Don’t be afraid to have an open dialogue about your business model as a college, and bring faculty into that conversation early and often.
- Nothing happens outside of relationships. Honoring and cultivating relationships is how Rosemont has built such strong partnerships, and developing relationships is perhaps the most important skill its students can learn.