Graceland faces many threats from both internal and external forces. Higher education is changing rapidly as are student expectations. Shifting demographics, internal culture, and an unsustainable financial model led Graceland leadership to CHALLENGE THE STATUS QUO and explore a new strategic path forward.
Graceland’s administration and Board of Trustees announced a new strategic framework for the University at the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester, aimed at ensuring the school’s financial sustainability for future generations. This announcement was accompanied by internal documentation outlining how Graceland could address the challenges that it faces alongside many other institutions across the country.
The first question I think many people have asked is, why now? What is the rush of rolling out a new strategic framework?
PRESIDENT DRAVES: The rollout of this new approach cannot happen fast enough. Every university in the United States is hyper-aware of the demographic enrollment cliff that has been well documented. 2026 is 18 years after the 2008 recession, which resulted in a significantly lower number of births and thus, fewer high school seniors ready to go to college in 2026.
But this isn’t the only issue. The perceived value of a college degree has fallen over the last several years. Add to that changing student demands and we’re facing a pretty big uphill climb. Thankfully, Graceland has started this process early. I talk pretty regularly to other college and university presidents and they are all facing similar challenges, but they’re further behind in the planning process than we are.
When did this process start?
DRAVES: We formed a strategic planning committee all the way back in 2019. We surveyed alumni, faculty, staff, and students and started identifying themes we saw emerging. That early work informed this strategic framework and led to the Board of Trustees forming the Next Version of Graceland Task Force.
Ultimately, Graceland’s financial model has not been working. Expenses have repeatedly exceeded revenues and we can no longer cost-cut our way to sustainability. For Graceland to live well into the future, it was critical that we take some pretty radical steps.
Why the radical approach?
DRAVES: We had three options: 1) we could make minor adjustments and hope those incremental changes help, 2) we could make some more substantial changes to get Graceland on par with the “new normal” for higher education, or 3) we could redefine and transform how we fulfill our mission by proactively creating an innovative future for ourselves. Graceland is an institution that takes bold steps. We felt that transformational change was the best path forward, especially if our path forward is mission-focused, market- driven, sustainable, strategic, and innovative.
What are the things that you are most excited about in this new framework?
DRAVES: I think the new academic model is probably the most exciting shift. One of the things I heard about a lot when talking to alumni and students is the importance of the Graceland Experience. As I enter into my fifth year as Graceland’s president, I have seen first-hand how that experience directly impacts the lives of our students and how they carry those intangible lessons from residence life, athletics, and leadership roles into the workforce and their daily lives outside of our campuses. The Graceland Experience effectively develops our graduates. Part of the framework involves codifying those outside-the-classroom experiences into integrated and holistic learning.
Additionally — and this is super exciting — we plan to offer every student that attends Graceland’s Lamoni campus a second major. This is a completely unique experience that will combine three major elements — a streamlined general education that continues to be rooted in the liberal arts, a set of life and leadership courses, and strategic courses in social responsibility, health and wholeness, and digital citizenship. We believe this second major will not only give our students a leg up in the competitive job market but also will develop the kind of bold, empathetic, responsible graduates that the world is seeking.
Students will still get a major in some area of expertise — chemistry, elementary education, business — but this secondary major contains courses in transformational leadership combined with the co-curricular experiences at Graceland.
What would you say to those concerned about the majors being phased out?
DRAVES: I understand how hard it is to see programs phased out. Institutions across the country are experiencing similar pains. But we must make sure the resources we have available to invest are in programs with a clear and sustainable path to growth. We are placing a heavy priority on programs to bring students to Graceland. It is critical we have the types of programs that students are seeking in order to grow our enrollment. We also asked all our programs and academic leadership to streamline our existing majors to be clearer and more distinctive in the marketplace.
What are the outcomes that you are hoping to see?
DRAVES: We have some pretty aggressive growth goals — 10% growth on the Lamoni campus and 7.5% growth on the Independence campus, which also includes all of our online programs. But we believe these goals are very much within reach. The pandemic tested all of us at Graceland, but I think we are looking forward to brighter days ahead.
But this framework isn’t just about academics, correct? What are some other key elements that you think alumni should know about?
DRAVES: One of the key efforts that will help make us successful is modernizing our technology and systems. Graceland has already taken several important steps in digital transformation. This means we are using technology to be more efficient and more importantly, to serve our students better. I’m thrilled to have our Chief Information Officer, Talia Brown, leading that effort, which is no small undertaking. We are also fortunate to have some of our alumni play key advisory roles in this process. Some of Graceland’s technology systems are nearly two decades old, which places an immense burden on our information technology services team. Modernizing our systems will help us recruit better, understand our students better, and grow our enrollment. It’s an important investment in our future.
We’ll also be rolling out an integrated enrollment plan under Deb Skinner’s leadership that will encompass both of our undergraduate and graduate offerings. Deb and her team have a big challenge ahead of them, so it’s critical for us to approach our enrollment strategically.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our alumni and friends?
DRAVES: I have worked closely with the Board of Trustees and I chaired the Next Version of Graceland Task Force as well as the Operational Task Force that followed it. I know, and the Board knows, that there are certainly risks associated with transformational change. But the risk of doing nothing is far greater. The threats and challenges we face are real. How we respond will allow us to not only survive but thrive into the future.
On numerous occasions in the past year, I’ve said the world needs more Graceland graduates. I believe that with all my heart. The students that I interact with, that I have witnessed walk across the commencement stage — they are the people the world needs. Our task is not to fundamentally change the Graceland Experience. It’s in changing how we deliver it.
The World Needs Graceland
As I approach my retirement from the Graceland Board of Trustees after 10 years on the Board, I am reminded again, as I have been repeatedly over the years, of what a gift the University is.
We live in a world that calls all its citizens to engage with each other with love and compassion, and to uphold the ultimate value in human worth and dignity.
Graceland answers that call. Throughout its history Graceland has built a community that offers hope, wholeness, and a sense of personal fulfillment. It inspires people to live passionately the values and mission of the institution. It teaches people to be lifelong learners who embrace the world with wonder and appreciation, with skills in specific disciplines that are productive and meaningful.
Graceland has created a place where relationships are nurtured and sustained over a lifetime. It instills a sense of purpose and meaning that sustains life in times of need and crisis.
Graceland does all these things. As we continue to grapple with the major challenges around us, may Graceland be forever in our lives. May we remain committed to its values and mission. May we devote ourselves to its cause. As we continue to live with and adapt to the world pandemic, we joyfully begin to find ourselves together again. And, with this power of being together, we move forward, offering healing to a world in need.
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