Coming out of a five-year downward spiral of financial, legal, accreditation and enrollment troubles, Bethune-Cookman University is emerging amid new signals of renewal.
Revenues are up, student enrollment appears to be headed in the right direction and the 118-year-old Daytona Beach school’s Board of Trustees has untangled some of the most challenging court cases. But a new existential hazard has emerged: the changing landscape of higher education.
University officials addressed that issue at “Re-imagining B-CU: Now, Next and Beyond,” a kickoff event for what they expect will be a revolution in what the school offers and how it gets delivered.
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To B-CU interim President Hiram Powell, the signals are all around. The student-consumer is increasingly demanding flexibility in course delivery — whether that be more online course options or moving away from a system of credit hours toward credentialing.
“One of the things that is taking place is that there are new entrants into the higher education marketplace. Amazon has entered into the marketplace and delivered education at cost. Walmart is engaged in a process to enter the marketplace. There will be others,” Powell said. “Coursera, who used to support education, is now a competitor in offering courses.”
Reversing downward trend of enrollment
Enrollment at B-CU was about 30% lower in 2020 than it had been six years earlier, a reflection of some of the university’s troubles, but also the product of wider societal trends.
The National Center for Education Statistics has reported that between 2009 and 2019, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions dropped from 17.5 million to 16.6 million, or 5%.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped schools like B-CU, either.
Anthony Jones, vice president of enrollment and the student experience, said this year enrollment appears to be stabilizing and there are good signs ahead.
“We have put together a very aggressive recruitment and outreach program for this upcoming fall and we’re already seeing results. Applications are up over 176% over where they were at this same time last year,” Jones said. “And deposits are up by 11% over last year.”
School officials have discussed the possibility of doubling B-CU’s enrollment “in the next several years,” expanding to approximately 6,000, Jones said.
Retired Judge Belvin Perry, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said better days are ahead.
“There is no doubt in my mind and there should be no doubt in your minds, that together we will move B-CU to its rightful place in the academy and the global community.”
But that doesn’t happen without change, officials said, encouraging students, faculty, staff, alumni and the wider community to participate in B-CU’s strategic planning process.
Powell, who describes himself as a “voracious reader” of higher education trends, said in addition to looking at course delivery options and academic programs that address the 21st century consumer, the school will have to bolster its technology.
“If we don’t recognize all of those signals and we ignore them and we stay in the traditional mode, we will be gone,” he said.
Enrollment pro, business dean head effort
The project sponsors for “Re-imagining” are two relative newcomers to B-CU: Jones, who arrived from Howard University last summer, and the new dean of the College of Business and Entrepreneurship, Lawrence Drake.
Drake’s career has spanned both academia and the business world, where he helped found three private enterprise firms and served 21 years with The Coca-Cola Company, including a stint as division president/CEO of its Nigeria and Equatorial Africa division.
He reflected on another world-traveling B-CU ambassador, its founder, Mary McCleod Bethune, quoting a speech she had given in Switzerland in 1954, one year before her death.
“She said the fateful decision of our day is whether or not we will change. She said, ‘I’ve always worked for the betterment of my people. Today, however, we must upturn the world,'” Drake said. “… ‘We must remake the world. The task is nothing less than that.'”
Fast-forwarding to 2022, Drake said her words remain relevant.
“We are in a moment of remaking the world. Our student learners, those who come here, come here to live upon this legacy by faculty who are dedicated to that purpose,” he said. “… The word reimagining means rethinking. It means we have to get out of what we did before in order to think about what we can do now and much longer afterwards.”
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