Innovations in Higher Education: The Grinnell Story

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Cindy Wagner

Cindy Wagner

Fundraising like a seasoned politician, President Raynard Kington of Grinnell College recently delivered a report on the state of the college to local alumni in Washington, D.C.— a savvy constituency he jovially called “my people.”

Unlike many higher education institutions, Grinnell is in an enviable position for a lot of reasons, Kington remarked. The college boasts consistently high rankings not just on academics and quality of campus life, but also on a range of increasingly significant measures. For instance, this small, liberal arts college in central Iowa is ranked number two in both economic diversity and graduation rates.

“At Grinnell, low-income students graduate at the same rate as high-income students,” Kington reported.” We’re determined to eliminate differences.”

Innovation at Grinnell toward increasing this economic diversity includes work by the Posse Foundation, a program that has successfully expanded the size of the pool of students with economic needs.

But a challenge to this work is to simultaneously attract “full-ride” students—i.e., those from families with sufficient wealth to pay the current tuition of $50,000 a year. (Kington noted that expenditures per student are $66,000, so even the full-ride students get a $16,000 scholarship.)

To ensure all students’ success, the college added a new measure on its survey of incoming enrollees: Grit.

This understanding of students’ intrinsic drive to achieve, or of when short-term failures may thwart long-term success, will enable the school to do a better job of predicting who will need help. “We a want 100% graduation rate,” Kington said.

This year, Grinnell’s focus on increasing diversity has turned to working with students with disabilities, Kington said. More such students are attending Grinnell than ever, but the services necessary for them to succeed are costly.

“We want to make sure that all students have every support necessary to succeed,” he said.

Plans for innovation in facilities include rethinking the century-old architecture of the buildings housing the principal teaching spaces for the arts and social sciences. Kington likened the “Alumni Recitation Hall”—comprising long corridors and boxlike classrooms—to a World War II hospital.

“Teaching takes place organically, with spontaneous interactions,” he noted. “We need to make rooms more flexible.”

Student life on campus is another area ripe for innovation at Grinnell, including handling sexual assaults and improving mental health care. Addressing a growing nationwide concern for campus safety, students and faculty came up with a lot of solutions, such as night-time lighting in the dorms that could be dimmed instead of having to be turned all the way off.

Another simple solution being replicated on other campuses is a two-part information card that can be torn apart: One half gives instructions for teachers on what to do and say when a student comes to them to report an assault, and the other half provides help and resources for the student.

Because Grinnell College is in a rural community (about midway between Des Moines and Iowa City), neither the school nor the town is able to attract sufficient health-care providers, and the problem is particularly acute for providing mental-health services for students, said Kington. Right now, nurses on call at the Student Health and Counseling Services (SHACS) must do triage, but in the future, the school hopes to partner with the local hospital, rather than “continue pretending to be a health-care provider.”

The final area of innovation that Grinnell College is pursuing is its own brand marketing. One important measure of value that has been disappointing is in getting the full-pay applicants to decide to attend, when so much attention has been paid to increasing the pool of lower-income students.

“We need to rethink how we talk about ourselves. We weren’t doing a great job of promoting the brand,” Kington observed. At the same time, “We don’t want to send the wrong message to high-need students.”

From this alumna’s point of view, President Kington’s most promising innovation has been his vision: “We focus on sixteen hundred students at a time. If we get it right for them, they’ll affect the lives of millions.”


Cynthia G. Wagner is a graduate of Grinnell College, where she majored in English (and minored in “Intro To…”). Follow her on Twitter at @CynWag1. The Foresight SIGNALS blog is an occasional supplement to the AAI Foresight SIGNALS newsletter.