Moving Forward with Purpose
When Covid-19 hit the United States early last spring, colleges were forced to move fast. Students vacated campuses, faculty developed online courses almost overnight, and the next academic year seemed painfully uncertain.
After briefly reeling—along with hundreds of other higher ed administrators—Provost Eric Boynton challenged himself and his fellow college leaders to help Beloit get out in front of this tough situation.
Strategic planning the college had done over the previous summer provided a solid foundation. Smart decisions that met the moment did the rest.
The result is the Beloit Action Plan, a five-part promise to students designed to make their Beloit education more meaningful, purposeful, and affordable. The plan was launched in April and drew significant national attention to the college for its innovation and quick response.
For the 2020-21 school year, the fall and spring semesters are divided into two modules, each containing two courses. “We realized early on that it was an immense challenge for our students to move four courses online,” says philosophy professor and faculty leader Matt Tedesco. “Mods give us flexibility in a variety of ways.” The two-course model also represents a kind of “happy medium,” says Tedesco, between the traditional four-course program and the one-course-at-a-time, block-style plan that some faculty leaders had proposed.
The Mod idea also proved highly popular nationally. Within days of Beloit’s plans being mentioned in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, Boynton was fielding dozens of calls from peer colleges and media. “I’ve given 50 interviews in the last three months,” he says. By the time the dust had settled, another dozen colleges—including Macalester, Bates, and Smith—had implemented Beloit’s Mod plan.
Whether Beloit will continue offering Mods is uncertain, although Tedesco, for one, is a strong supporter. “I’m really bullish on it,” he says. “I know firsthand how students struggle with tracking four classes. I’m interested in this as an academic experiment, separate from Covid. What can we learn from it?”
Advanced Mentoring Program
As soon as students commit to Beloit, they’re connected to the Advanced Mentoring Program (AMP). Within 72 hours of making their deposit, future first-years will be contacted by a faculty advisor, who will serve as their guide for the next two years.
Groups of nine or 10 students meet weekly with their advisors to learn about such matters as school resources, time management, and study techniques. Another advising hour each week is devoted to “AMP Connections,” which are learning sessions and activities led by various campus groups. The Connections program, says AMP faculty leader and associate professor of biology Rachel Bergstrom, is “designed to help students develop and practice skills to be successful in college and to prepare them for the transition to professional life.”
The AMP program, in conjunction with the college’s new Career Channels, reimagines how advising and mentoring work for students, says Leslie Davidson, Beloit’s vice president for enrollment. AMP both orients students as they enter Beloit and guides and supports them through all four years, keeping their focus on the outcome of their education from the very beginning.
“We want to be really clear about what a Beloit education is all about,” adds Boynton. “So we make things explicit for students as they enter our institution: What should they focus on? What are they here for? How can they access college services?”
Davidson says AMP served as a structure this summer that allowed the college to build programs to keep students engaged during the pandemic—everything from special summer courses to initiatives that connected international students until they could return to Beloit. “AMP is exactly the program we would have created if we’d known Covid was coming,” she says. “From before students arrive until after they graduate, we make sure their time at Beloit, as well as their transitions, are supported and successful.”
Bergstrom sees “a lot of potential and possibility in the program. Connecting with advisors in the summer [before school starts] is incredibly powerful and meaningful for students, especially this year, with all its uncertainty. We want to get them thinking of themselves as Beloiters right away.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that a liberal arts education, with its wide-ranging content and emphasis on analytical thinking and intellectual agility, prepares its graduates for many futures, but not for prescribed careers. Today’s students want both.
“Students’ concerns about first jobs and career success are legitimate,” Davidson says. “We need to respond to those concerns, while still preserving the integrity and spirit of a liberal arts education.”
Beloit’s response to that growing imperative is called Career Channels, which helps students center their coursework, jobs, internships, and extracurricular activities around a certain theme. The five established career channels are business and entrepreneurship; health and healing; justice and rights; sustainability; and the arts. Three more channels—sports; curating and communicating; and world building (including writing)—are still in the planning stages.
Ellenor “Ellie” Anderbyrne’05, Channels co-director and director of Institutional Research for the college, says the program explicitly connects students’ activities inside and outside the classroom to help move them into careers. For example, Anderbyrne says that campus guest speakers also lead a second, career-focused event, directly addressing how they ended up in their field and found their first jobs.
Midwest Flagship Match
This is the first of two financial components of the Beloit Action Plan, and arguably the most powerful. The college is promising prospective students living in six states—Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota—that the cost of Beloit tuition will be no higher than that of their state’s flagship university. For example, a Wisconsin student will pay no more than $10,742 (the University of Wisconsin’s annual tuition) for Beloit tuition, despite the latter’s sticker price of $52,858, for the 2020-21 school year.
“We realized that Covid is presenting significant financial hardship for our families,” says Boynton. He and other administrators also recognize that in these unsettling times, many parents prefer to see their kids stay close to home—which is why the college has focused on states within easy driving distance.
Davidson said the flagship match guarantee is costing the college very little additional money, while offering families clarity, simplicity, and certainty in an uncertain moment. “Many students were already receiving merit and need-based aid that brought the cost of tuition down to in-state levels, but they had to wait until after being admitted to Beloit to find that out,” she said. “Now they’re able to see upfront that we’re an affordable option—and an incredible investment.”
The college is also taking some of the fear out of finances through the Beloit Promise, which both guarantees that no current student’s tuition will rise this academic year and provides other monetary supports including deferred payment dates and up to two months of payments on a student’s behalf. “We knew this year especially we needed to step forward as a caring, student-focused institution,” says Boynton.
Recognizing that campus life will feel less rich and varied during Covid, Beloit added one final feature to the Beloit Promise in early August: a ninth and tenth semester tuition-free to students enrolled full time during the 2020-21 school year. “We’re working hard to build an interesting fall on campus, but we know it’s going to be different,” says Boynton. “This initiative ensures that every student can experience the many dimensions of a Beloit education, which go far beyond the classroom.”
The tuition-free term[s] must start in the academic year immediately following a student’s eighth semester; participating students also must live in residence halls while in the program.
The college has received plenty of positive feedback for its Beloit Action Plan, says Boynton, and he thinks he knows why. “To prepare yourself for the complex global reality, come to a college that is really shining in this challenging moment, where innovation, agility, speed, and thoughtfulness are being demonstrated in institutional innovations,” he says. “At a place like that, you can expect as a student and a parent you are going to get the kind of education that prepares you for the evolving complexities of the world we live in.”
Lynette Lamb is a Minneapolis writer and parent of a Beloit graduate.