The College is setting institutional records for applications, selectivity, diversity, and the academic profile of admitted students; the budget is consistently in balance and the endowment is among the nation's top 100 in size and performance; the faculty enjoy national and international recognition for scholarship, research, and creative achievement; alumni and friends have supported College programs and initiatives with almost $55 million in the last two years, including a record $30.8 million in 2006-07; students are winning national fellowships and scholarships in record numbers; graduation and retention rates are high, and students report high levels of satisfaction with their Hamilton education; the College is increasingly well known; and the physical plant includes beautiful new facilities and little deferred maintenance.
There is good reason to be optimistic, then, about Hamilton's future. But Hamilton – indeed, all of higher education – faces at least two extraordinary challenges: shifting demographics and a severely weakened worldwide economy.
The student body is undergoing a purposeful transformation as we seek to achieve a demographic mirroring the coming generation of college-bound students. Hamilton students are increasingly diverse, and we want to continue that trend so that all our students – minority and majority alike – are prepared for citizenship in a global community. Ultimately, we want to foster an intellectual atmosphere that reflects our commitment to exploring and acknowledging the significance of different ideas and perspectives. We expect Hamilton to be transformed, even as it transforms those who come here.
We need to be mindful of other demographic trends, too. The opportunity for learning disabled and physically disabled students to pursue a college education requires appropriate services and an ongoing commitment to inclusiveness, while the gender balance that has characterized our student body has shifted as fewer men pursue bachelor's degrees.
Demographic trends also have implications for the people who teach and support America's college students. The baby boomer generation, which includes a significant percentage of Hamilton's faculty and staff (30 percent of current employees are 55 or older), is nearing retirement, and there will be competition to replace valued, long-time employees. We must consider not only Hamilton's attractiveness to future students, but our ability to recruit and retain faculty and staff who want to make their careers at Hamilton.
The second challenge facing American higher education is financial. An historic downturn in the economy means more students needing financial aid, moderate or negative endowment growth, constraints on tuition revenue, and a possible decline in philanthropic support. Colleges such as Hamilton may be especially vulnerable to these new financial realities because of their cost. At the same time that we seek to maintain a national profile, we are committed to cultivating, and expanding where appropriate and mutually beneficial, our partnerships with the local and regional communities.
The tendency in such times is to retrench and protect the status quo; our purpose in planning strategically is to identify those areas that have the potential to strengthen the College further. Hamilton has faced challenges in the past, but never from such a position of relative strength. Over the next several years we will focus on those areas that give us the greatest strategic advantage: the academic program and the community.
The defining feature of the academic experience is a curriculum that allows and encourages talented and motivated students to draw thoughtfully on their abilities, interests, and aspirations in shaping a course of study. The College's return to the open curriculum, beginning with the Class of 2005, has coincided with the rapid rise in the academic profile of entering students. The average of reported standardized test scores (SAT math and critical reading) has increased from 1314 in 2002 to 1366 in 2008, while the percentage of students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class rose from 68 percent to 77 percent over the same period. These students report that the curriculum was an important factor in their decision to attend. Indeed, an open curriculum is best suited for students who are independent, motivated, and committed to the ideals of a liberal arts education. But it requires a high level of faculty advising. Research shows increasing satisfaction with first-year advising, but decreasing satisfaction with advising for the major, and one recent survey indicated that first-year students found their course work less challenging than they expected. Clearly there are problems that need to be addressed.
It is incumbent on the faculty to assess the effectiveness of the advising and academic programs and, if necessary, recalibrate them to match the intellectual talents of this new, better prepared generation of Hamilton students. Hamilton faculty must continually evaluate the intellectual level at which their course materials are set so that all students report being challenged.
The subcommittee charged with reviewing the academic program characterized the open curriculum as the centerpiece of a Hamilton education and acknowledged the curriculum's role in "providing a first-rate liberal arts education in which our students balance the depth of their knowledge in specific disciplines with the breadth of learning necessary for living in the intellectually and culturally diverse world of the 21st century." Four classes (2005 through 2008) have now graduated under the open curriculum, providing a large enough cohort to conduct a review and assessment of the academic program. Such studies are being planned or, in the case of advising, course availability, and curricular breadth, are already under way, and the results will provide direction for further strengthening the curriculum.
Hamilton's beautiful and historic hilltop campus encourages a communal sense with spaces designed to bring people together around shared interests. But the Hamilton community extends beyond College Hill. Our involvement with the Town of Kirkland and the Village of Clinton helps sustain the college town atmosphere that is part of our appeal to students and employees, and expanded engagement with the Mohawk Valley and Adirondack Park will give texture and breadth to our curricular, cultural, social, and recreational offerings. More broadly, President Stewart's signing of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment speaks to our daily efforts to reduce consumption in concert with the worldwide sustainability movement and to encourage individual responsibility toward green initiatives.
Hamilton alumni remain connected to the campus, their classmates, and their professors. As guest lecturers, scholarship donors, internship providers, Board of Trustee and Alumni Council members, and in other ways, alumni maintain a high level of engagement with their alma mater.