Q&A with Bennett College President Suzanne Elise Walsh, JD on the Microcollege Model, Retention, and Minimesters 

By: Bennett College

Q. When talking about Bennett College, you’ve been known to say, “Our smallness is our strength.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

If I think back to my philanthropic beginnings, one of the things I learned was that in the world of innovation, one of the ways to turn an idea on its head is to say, “How do you take something that’s seen as a negative and turn it into a positive?” So, I looked around and thought, “Is there a way to look at smallness as a strength and not a weakness?” Because it has always been framed in higher education as a weakness. The specific phrase, “Our Smallness is Our Strength,” came out in an interview I did with a local newspaper. One of my responses to a question that the reporter asked was, “I see our smallness as our strength.” I truly believe that. It has become a tagline – the thing other people picked up on. Students use it. Faculty and staff use it.

I think of higher education institutions as being in categories. There are “mega” institutions, whose focus is all about growth. And then there is a group of institutions that focus on their existing group of students, not growth. I call that group “lean” institutions. There are others in between these, but those are the extremes. One model is not better than the other.

Part of being lean is being deliberate. I considered Bennett College and said, “Okay, we’re going to be deliberately small.” Ultimately, if Bennett is for Black women, what can we do that’s different for Black women. Where are we wrapping ourselves around them? Where are we improving our services? Can we live within our means?

When I first appeared in front of the TRACS Commission, our current accreditor, they said to me, “Okay, President Walsh. We see where you were able to reduce expenses by $2.5 million in each fall semester. Great job. However, you’re not doing it in proportion to enrollment.” They didn’t ask how I was going to grow enrollment and fundraising. They had more of a lean mindset. They weren’t asking, “Okay, but how do you build up your enrollment to take care of all of your buildings on campus?” The mission isn’t the buildings. The mission is – are we providing a quality education for this group of women of color? Can we do that within our means?

Q. Even “mega” universities have an appreciation for smallness, considering one of the indicators of quality is class size – big universities love to tout small class sizes. Share more about your connotation of growth. How do you get others to embrace that, given that most people think in terms of numbers?

The thing we wanted to look at first and foremost was retention. If you’re this small and you lose students, that’s dangerous. That’s not effective.

Focus on Retention

We had to get clear on our value proposition. We had to get clear on what we were going to offer that’s different because we have to distinguish ourselves. You cannot be a micro college and try to do what everybody else is doing, because you’re never going to win like that. So, we’ve really focused on retention. Our retention rate last year was 86%. This year, it is 92%.

It has to be a deliberate, whole-college effort. Everyone in senior leadership was assigned a group of students last summer to contact and say, “We look forward to seeing you in the fall. Is there anything that you need help with? Is there anything that is getting in the way of you returning?” Everybody had to reach out. Students were surprised. But I think that was critical.

Reducing Cognitive Load through Minimesters

Another part of focusing on retention was blowing up the semester model. Everyone knows that traditional semesters are 16 weeks. What I learned in my first semester at Bennett was that by the middle of the semester, students were dropping out and stopping classes at week number eight. Most were stopping out for physical or mental health reasons. I said, “What can we do to reduce cognitive load? Reduce stress?” We broke up that semester model and went to a “minimester” model – each semester starts with a two-week session where students take a one-credit class. Then, they do a seven-week session and another seven-week session. And, with that, the number of incompletes has gone down.

Q. The higher education landscape is vast with all kinds of institutions — public, private, large, small, for-profit, and nonprofit — competing for a changing student demographic. What would you say to someone who minimizes Bennett College because of its smallness?

In the higher-ed world, the number one question you’re automatically asked is, “What is your enrollment?” Before I answer, I start by asking people why that is important. What does it tell you? And it always throws the person – they get a little defensive. A gentleman told me, “I think people ask because it says to them, ‘Should I pay attention to you or not?’” I’m really trying to uncover what the assumptions associated with smallness are, so before I even talk about a number, I try to talk about other data first.

First, I talk about our mission. I talk about the students we’re here for and how they are performing. I talk about what our retention rate is, and I talk about our students who have gone on to graduate schools and jobs. I also tell people that Bennett was only built for a little over 800 students. It was never built for 5,000. No matter what, the classrooms aren’t built for anything bigger. We were not intended for that.

Our size makes us nimble

Our size makes us nimble; it allows us to pivot quickly to seize opportunities. We leverage our smallness as our strength to focus on providing wraparound support for each student to ensure academic success and a healthy whole-student experience. And we’re budgeting for and living within our means.

Ultimately, I talk to people about the outcomes. What is it that we’re seeing for a group of students who have all of the potential in the world, but often have not been given opportunities? That’s who we’re here for. I’m most interested in the students and the faculty and staff that we have. Because the women who need us – we need them. It’s mutual.

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