Fresh off enrollment surge, Thomas More College in Northern Kentucky looks at becoming a university

Posted at 8:00 AM, Sep 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-06 08:00:50-04

CRESTVIEW HILLS, Ky. -- Thomas More College, fresh off a 46-year enrollment high, might build on the momentum by becoming a university.

The 95-year-old Catholic liberal arts institution faces competition in the coming years, President David Armstrong said, and it will have to evolve to survive and thrive.

Thomas More President David Armstrong

"We have to make sure we're offering relevant programs for the modern world and that our graduates are placed in graduate programs or into careers," he said.

Colleges can be two- or four-year institutions that offer associate or bachelor's degrees, or both. They can also offer graduate degrees.

Universities are generally divided into multiple colleges divided by disciplines, each governed by its own dean. They must offer graduate degrees.

Thomas More's change to a university would have to be approved by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the regional accreditation organization.

Armstrong formed a committee led by Vice President Academic Affairs & Dean Kathleen Jagger to study the ins and outs of converting into a university. The committee's work might stretch out one or two years, Armstrong said.

New domestic prestige and access to Europe

If the change takes place, Thomas More would be following in the footsteps of Mount St. Joseph University, which became a university in 2014. Baldwin Wallace became a university in 2012, and Mount Union became one in 2010.

"Obviously it has more prestige associated with it in our country," he said.

Universities might have an easier time catching the eye of students in Europe, where the equivalent of U.S. high schools are often called colleges.

More nimble, fewer turf battles

Until now, Thomas More has managed every major from theater to biology under one big tent in the same college.

That creates the potential for unnecessary turf battles, he said, with leaders from different disciplines deciding on the merits of each other's budget requests.

Separating into multiple colleges, he said, "gets rid of turf battles because then everyone handles their own turf."

Typically, small liberal arts universities operate four or five colleges along the lines of colleges of science, fine arts, business and allied health sciences.

Armstrong said breaking into smaller colleges could make it easier for newly formed colleges to rapidly adjust to changing demand, adding and eliminating majors. He cited the college's popular marine biology track as a likely candidate to be made into a full-blown major.

"It allows us to reexamine our governance and organizational structure to become more effective and more efficient," he said.

New bureaucracy

One downside is creating a new layer of bureaucracy with a dean and associate deans in every college.

But Armstrong argued the new layer of management could be an overall benefit, especially to faculty members who carry out administrative duties right now.

"We want our faculty to be able to teach," he said. "It could create another layer of administration, but it also takes pressure off teachers so they can teach more."

Enrollment hit its highest level since 1970, part of a three-year growth trend that has seen the number of traditional, four-year students soar to about 1,100 this fall from 842 in 2013.

Thomas More has a sticker price of $28,000 a year tuition, a cost that's out of reach for many families. But like most private colleges, financial aid packages cut deeply into the price. In fact, the average student pays just half of that $28,000.

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