College Reimagined: A Study of Affordability & Radical Organizational Change

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Wymore, Joshua Aaron
Graduate Program:
Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
October 03, 2016
Committee Members:
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Liang Zhang, Committee Member
  • David S Guthrie, Committee Member
  • Glen Kreiner, Outside Member
  • higher education
  • affordability
  • student debt
  • innovation
  • change
  • small private
  • liberal arts
  • leadership
  • transformation
  • sensegiving
  • ASSA
  • academic capitalism
  • crisis
  • tuition dependent
In the U.S., rising student debt and growing public dissatisfaction with the cost of college are pressuring colleges and universities to change. While most leaders of postsecondary institutions would like to innovate to meet this affordability challenge, such change is intrinsically difficult due to the structural inertia that mires the entire field of higher education. This predicament is especially arduous for small private institutions without large endowments or donor bases to offset their reliance on tuition. These institutions are already struggling to survive, making affordability a secondary priority at best. However, one of these small, non-wealthy institutions reinvented itself in an effort to meet these affordability and viability challenges. This dissertation examines that institution. Faith College, a small and relatively unknown Christian institution in the Midwest, remade itself rapidly over the course of a few years to offer affordable, three-year degrees to students. By redesigning its curriculum and reimagining its value proposition, the institution became both more affordable and viable in a few short years. Using a mixed-methods case study approach, this dissertation blends grounded theory and existing conceptual frameworks to analyze the driving forces behind the institution’s transformation during this period. Based on 16 interviews, hours of observation, and several hundred pages of institutional documents, this research distills three core findings from Faith’s example. First, high levels of social capital between administrators and employees created trust between leaders and followers. Second, a compelling sense of urgency within the institution helped overcome the structural inertia that typically constrains colleges and universities. By engaging in sensegiving, leveraging the exogenous shock of the Great Recession, and building a change-minded culture through the process of attraction-selection-socialization-attrition (ASSA), senior leaders cultivated an openness to change. Finally, the institution developed a mentality of academic capitalism that provided a focused, data-driven framework for decision-making and contributed additional resources through partnerships with local businesses. This study demonstrates how social capital can be exchanged and transferred; how organizational inertia can be overcome through a combination of leadership, sensegiving, and contextual advantages; and how academic capitalism can benefit small, non-wealthy, private institutions.