President speaks at Chamber of Commerce luncheon

DAVIDSON – Davidson College is evolving the way it teaches and prepares graduates to meet the needs of a changing society and the emphasis on technology.

College President Carol Quillen spoke to business representatives during a power luncheon about “The Entrepreneurial Spirit of the Liberal Arts,” hosted April 25 by the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce at River Run Golf and Country Club.

Quillen, who has been the college president since 2011 and also serves on President Barrack Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, outlined some of the issues and how they are ensuring Davidson College can continue to prove the worth of the $55,000 annual tuition rate with a student body of 2,000.

While colleges previously wanted to compete with Ivy Leagues, flagship public universities or private research universities, Quillen said now there is a differentiation as more online educational opportunities and credentials for specific skills are becoming available. A person can take a 12-week “boot camp” to be a software engineer at a fraction of the cost of a four-year engineering degree, she said. The change forces colleges to think more like businesses by proving their value proposition, analyzing competition and finding new strategies in a competitive marketplace.

“That differentiation is putting pressure, good pressure, on traditional higher education to make really clear to say what we do, who we serve and why it is what it costs,” Quillen told the sold-out crowd. “I don’t think pressure in that explicit way has existed before.”

Quillen said they have moved away from disciplines to a more question-based curriculum, added computer studies and increased extracurricular entrepreneurship opportunities in an effort to prepare students for jobs that may not yet exist, many that they will create for themselves.

“We really want to help them understand entrepreneurial thinking, which to me means creative problem solving,” she said. “And give them opportunities to exercise those talents and skills while they are still in college. Part of lowering the boundaries between our campus and our community and the world is giving our students opportunities to apply the analytical talents they are developing in class to real-world problems.”

Among the college’s community relationships are working with Ada Jenkins, offering computer help through Eliminate the Digital Divide, teaching the Freedom School and working with community leaders and business representatives. The school is also putting a focus on internships and adding activities like summer ventures and fund competitions to help students start their own business ideas.

Davidson College measures success in part by the fact 97 percent of graduates have jobs that are career-related within six months and are able to pay back their loans. Quillen said the college also looks at the large effect its small student body has on the community and the world.

Quillen said an estimated 17 percent of students go on to medical, law or business graduate schools directly from Davidson, a decrease from before. Instead, they go straight to the workforce and may opt to look at healthcare policies or regulations in lieu of going to medical school.

Despite the changes, Davidson College still works to maintain its mission of making education accessible to everyone.

“For Davidson to be worth it for our society to support, we have to be accessible to talented kids irrespective of their financial circumstances,” Quillen said. “It’s simply wrong to make education available only to the affluent. It’s not democratic, not just, not American. It’s not morally justifiable.”

Even with its steep tuition, the college has need-blind admission that pinpoints talented students to meet the college’s challenging curriculum regardless of socioeconomics to provide a diverse student population. The trust and other programs allow students to pay for college with little to no loans, though Quillen said, they do expect contributions from parents.

Based on their strategic plans, Quillen said she doesn’t think the Davidson College student body will grow so as to keep the same experiences, offer scholarships and keep a low student-to-professor ratio.