Higher education has become a big business, and like any business, schools must develop market niches to attract customers, otherwise known as students.
This is especially true for private, liberal arts colleges at a time when many people are more interested in job training than classical education and students and parents are anxious about the return on their ever-growing tuition investment.
“We are facing this wave of criticism over liberal arts education and there all these questions about the value,” said Seamus Carey, who two years ago became president of Transylvania University, the Lexington liberal arts school chartered in 1780.
Carey writes often for national publications about the value of a liberal arts education in helping people learn how to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to succeed in life beyond the narrow confines of a specific career.
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So Carey was intrigued when Michael Bell and Deana Ison, who handle special projects for him, came up with this idea: Transylvania should seek ways to partner with International Baccalaureate programs.
International Baccalaureate is an educational curriculum launched in Switzerland in 1968 that offers diploma and certificate programs for high school graduates. The IB curriculum is taught in 4,460 schools in 151 countries and territories.
The United States has more than 1,700 IB programs. There is one elementary, three middle and four high school programs in Kentucky. The only ones in Lexington were started at Tates Creek High School in 2007 and Tates Creek Middle School in 2010.
IB education is academically rigorous, and it stresses open-minded inquiry, research, creative and critical thinking, global perspective and community service.
“This is exactly the sort of preparation we would love for our students to have,” Carey said. “It’s what we reinforce in terms of how we talk about liberal arts education.”
Transylvania is putting money behind that belief: For qualified Tates Creek High School IB seniors seeking admission in the fall of 2017, Transylvania plans to provide four-year tuition scholarships worth at least $60,000.
Exact amounts haven’t been determined, Carey said, and diploma graduates might get slightly more than certificate graduates. But the scholarships will be at least $15,000 off Transylvania’s annual tuition and fees, now priced at $35,830. He said plans call for the offer to gradually be extended to other IB high school programs in Kentucky and elsewhere.
“We are excited about the possibilities Transylvania discussed with us,” Delores Minor, who directs Tates Creek’s IB program, said in an email. But she declined further comment until a formal agreement has been reached.
Carey said he knows of few other universities making such a commitment to IB graduates. His staff plans to attend the IB Conference of the Americas next month in Toronto to make contacts and explore synergies.
It’s nice to talk about how we were the Athens of the West in the past, but what are we going to be going forward?
Seamus Carey, Transylvania University president
Carey thinks the partnership makes good business sense all around: The scholarship offer could help boost high school IB programs, especially in Kentucky, and give Transylvania new visibility in a global education community that already shares its academic values.
“The identity question is big for me, because I feel like we’re being undersold,” Carey said of Transylvania.
He took over Transylvania’s presidency from R. Owen Williams, a former Wall Street banker whose four-year tenure was marked by an overwhelming faculty no-confidence vote and strained relations between him and everyone from students to city officials and campus neighbors.
Carey has spent much of his time working to repair those relationships and position Transylvania for success in a rapidly changing higher education landscape.
Transylvania’s enrollment is now about 1,050, up by nearly 100 students from a recent low. Carey would like to add about 50 more students in the near future — and at the same time reduce by 5 percentage points the number of students receiving in-house scholarships and grants.
Carey has expanded internship opportunities and created a mentoring program to help students transition from college to the workplace. Transylvania also is negotiating agreements with the University of Kentucky’s major graduate programs to allow students to move into them more seamlessly.
The best way for Transylvania to succeed in the future, Carey believes, is by creating a reputation for outstanding academic accomplishment — the kind of reputation it had in the 1820s when it was considered one of America’s best universities. This time, though, that reputation must extend beyond this region and even this country.
“I really think there are opportunities with what exists in Lexington to create an identity here of serious intellectual activity, and this (IB partnership) is one avenue to do that,” Carey said. “It’s nice to talk about how we were the Athens of the West in the past, but what are we going to be going forward?”