Trinity College fits the profile of a certain kind of liberal arts school found in many places along the East Coast: Its history dates to 1823, its campus is somewhat Gothic and its reputation is esteemed. With enrollment of about 2,300, the college in Hartford, Conn., seeks to ensure that students will encounter small classes, explore subjects in depth and bond with classmates and professors.
Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity’s president since July 2014, wants to keep all that. At the same time, she wants to reinvent how the private college is run. She believes liberal arts colleges must adapt to new demographic and fiscal realities. Many are finding there are limits to how much tuition revenue they can generate to cover fixed expenses.
“It’s essential to be nimble and flexible,” Berger-Sweeney said in a recent visit to The Washington Post. “Traditionally, we are not a set of nimble and flexible institutions.”
Trinity ranks 43rd on the U.S. News and World Report list of national liberal arts colleges, tied with Occidental in California.
Its tuition and fees total $52,760 a year, not counting room and board. About 40 percent receive grants or scholarships from the college. The average grant for students in financial need is about $40,000 a year. A small share of students without need also receive merit scholarships worth tens of thousands a year. All of that largesse affects the college’s bottom line.
So how can Trinity raise more revenue? School leaders worry that growing undergraduate enrollment could change the character of the school. “It would be hard to grow with quality,” Berger-Sweeney said.
But growing master’s degree programs is an option. The college offers such degrees in American Studies, English, public policy and neuroscience.
The college could expand summer offerings for college-bound students, including academic camps. It could expand the use of its historic chapel for weddings, and other facilities for community events. It could enroll some undergraduates to start in January, taking advantage of seats that open up in the spring semester when students often go abroad. The president also said the school must be mindful that an increasing number of students might want to take “gap years” or “gap semesters” before they start, following the highly publicized example of President Obama’s daughter Malia. That affects tuition revenue too.
As with all private colleges, fund-raising is crucial. Trinity’s endowment stood at about $560 million last year.
The college also is exploring online education. Trinity is a member of the edX consortium, a group led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, which offers massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to the world for free. Distance learners who want to take these courses for a verified certificate pay a small fee. Among Trinity’s MOOCs are “The Conscious Mind — a Philosophical Road Trip” and “Mobile Computing with App Inventor – CS Principles.”
Berger-Sweeney said the MOOCs have drawn wide audience and have helped the college engage with alumni. “We were thrilled,” she said. “We knew it would give us a digital presence.”
A neuroscientist, Berger-Sweeney is Trinity’s 22nd president. She holds a doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and served as dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University. She is the first woman and the first African American to serve as Trinity’s president.
Berger-Sweeney describes Trinity as “a liberal arts college with an urban pulse,” a school located in Connecticut’s capital, providing students with opportunities to engage with the city, the state government and the insurance industry.
Trinity has drawn notice lately for changes under Berger-Sweeney.
In September, she reversed a decision that had been made prior to her tenure to convert fraternities and sororities to co-ed organizations.
In October, the school joined the test-optional movement, eliminating a requirement for applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Berger-Sweeney said the test-optional move helped the college’s recruiting. Forty percent of applicants for the incoming class chose not to submit scores, a higher share than officials had anticipated. “We were very surprised,” she said.