New London - Mitchell College is once again rethinking what sort of college it should be.
Fourteen years after it went from a two-year, private junior college to one offering four-year degrees, Mitchell is changing its mission statement again, this time to appeal to a broader range of students.
The college has restructured its academic support program and plans to offer graduate courses for the first time.
Mitchell also has laid off employees who worked with students with learning disabilities and will no longer emphasize the support they offer these students in the school's mission statement.
But school officials say they're not de-emphasizing that part of their mission, but instead are trying to be more inclusive of all students.
Facing economic pressures and changing demographics of the college population, many colleges are thinking about their future, said Judith Greiman, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges.
"Mitchell is doing exactly what it should be doing," she said. "They are saying, 'Where are we at today, given the financial climate and the demographics climate and our particular market, and where can we grow?'"
Mitchell offered its first baccalaureate program in 1998. Today, a minority of students graduates with a two-year degree.
"We're actually returning to a time when the college had a broader regional base of students, adult students, many of whom were coming to do two years and move on to do four years elsewhere," said Laurence Conner, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college. "We believe we're basically the regional college."
Mitchell is nationally known for educating students with learning disabilities, and its mission statement highlights that strength, saying the college "supports individual learning differences" and "nurtures untapped academic potential."
About one-third of Mitchell's students have a diagnosed learning disability.
But the faculty felt the college needed a new mission statement, "so it doesn't look like we're only a college for learning disabilities," said Marilyn Percy, secretary of the Board of Trustees.
When prospective students see the statement on the college website, "They say, 'I don't have a learning disability. I don't need that,'" Percy said.
"The community at large wanted a mission statement that was broader in focus and yet that really was laser-like in terms of what we do really well," college President Mary Ellen Jukoski said. "What we really do well is engage our students."
The new, one-sentence mission statement does not mention learning disabilities. It says the college is a national leader in creating an engaging learning experience for all of its students.
The college's strategic plan, which was revised along with the mission statement, says the college should offer more continuing education courses and start offering graduate programs.
"It's not about de-emphasizing," Conner said. "It's about expanding our services to the region."
Earlier this month, the college laid off roughly half of the two dozen specialists in Mitchell's academic support program for students with learning disabilities.
Several specialists who work at the Bentsen Learning Resource Center said they were told the "restructuring" was due to a decreased number of students at the center. They spoke on the condition their names would not be used.
In a statement in response to questions about the layoffs, Mitchell said "our enrollment fluctuates each academic year, as do most institutions of higher education," and some of the center's services were transferred to tutoring, advising and disability services, resulting in "approximately four or five fewer positions in the fall of 2012."
The changes were discussed before the college changed its mission, the response stated, and reflect the college's commitment to supporting students with diverse needs since the levels of academic support have been redesigned to better meet the students' needs.
The specialists said they were worried about the impact on the students, some with severe learning disabilities, who will now have to visit several offices on campus instead of just the center.
Instead of writing specialists and learning specialists, the center will have only one type of specialist, whose job will be helping students become more independent academically.
In a review of the center's effectiveness, the college found that the specialists had taken on advising and tutoring duties for which other staff members were responsible, Conner said.
"There's a process going on currently where we have streamlined that area, and that has made a difference in staffing in Learning Resources," Conner said. "But we've expanded in advising and our tutoring center and disability services. Whether the people who come out of that area are placed in those different positions we have open remains to be seen."
The specialists who were laid off are working until May 8. Some described a negative climate at the center because people are upset about the changes.
Louis Ahearn, a freshman who is tutored at the center, said he was told he would have one adviser to help him with his studies, instead of a writing specialist and an adviser. The change will take some getting used to since he knows his tutors well and they know his learning style, he said.
"It's unfortunate," said Ahearn, a 19-year-old from Derby. "We pay a lot to come here and they're having problems."
Ahearn plans to stay another year and then most likely transfer. About 59 percent of starting freshmen return the following fall to the riverside campus on Montauk and Pequot avenues. A stated goal of the college is to increase the retention rate.
"It's a good school to start out at when you're just out of high school and not sure," Ahearn said.
Reliant on tuition
After having more than 800 full-time students from 2009 to 2011, enrollment dipped to 780 this year. Mitchell's administration wants it to increase to 1,000.
Both Percy and Rick Milner, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said the college is very much "tuition driven" because it does not have a large endowment.
"It matters how many kids show up," Milner said. "That's an issue for us every year, but it's an issue for a lot of schools."
Students who live on campus pay $40,206 per year while commuters pay $27,714.
Jukoski said Mitchell has a balanced budget, the college's investments are doing well and there are no plans to sell the college, a rumor she said she has heard.
The additional revenue from more tuition-paying students could be used to renovate facilities and support programs, she added.
Nearly the entire $24 million operating budget - 99 percent - comes from tuition and fees. Many of the alumni of Mitchell's two-year program donate to the schools where they earned their four-year degrees, Jukoski said, leaving Mitchell with a $6 million endowment.
Mitchell is part of the independent colleges conference, which represents 16 accredited, nonprofit, independent colleges and universities in the state. Five of the 16 have endowments of $10 million or less while six have endowments of $100 million or more.
With the federal and state governments cutting grant programs, most colleges are spending a significant portion of their endowments on financial aid, Greiman, the conference president, said. Mitchell may be hindered in attracting prospective students by the fact that it can't offer as much aid as other schools, she said.
Jukoski said there will be funding to develop the continuing education program, for retention activities and later on to market the new graduate courses, which could begin in a year, after the college figures out which courses are feasible.
"This is a success story," Milner said. "We were struggling as a two-year school. We were trying to find a space for ourselves. We expanded into a four-year school, went out, raised some money and built some new buildings. So we're just in a little bit of a different place than we were 10 years ago."
The fact that the college is revising some of its programs, Jukoski said, doesn't necessarily mean it is dramatically changing.
"What it really means is that you're going through a discernment process," she said. "You're asking yourself as an institution, 'What's your purpose? What do you do, how do you do it and what makes you different from other institutions?'"
"We're not going to be Harvard or Yale or even Connecticut College," Milner said. "We're going to stay a small school with a new variety of programs."