Chapter 9: The Dominican Experience for All: A Distinctive Program Approach to Innovation

by Mary B. Marcy, Ph.D.

Posted on April 04, 2018

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Much of higher education is grappling with the tension between a fragile business model and a quality educational model. These two concerns have been on a collision course as student demographics have shifted, the traditional-age student population has declined, the cost of college has outstripped inflation, and as students see college primarily, if not exclusively, as a path to employment. Our knowledge of what is most effective in college teaching and learning has increased, even as our ability to supply that level of intense education is financially and philosophically challenged.

These tensions are particularly acute at small colleges and universities, those campuses that take pride in their close relationship with students and customized approach to teaching and learning. It is no longer enough for a small institution to proclaim it offers a highly personalized education or to emphasize small classes taught by full-time faculty. In the noisy academic marketplace, small colleges and universities must distinguish themselves while honoring their core mission and educational values.

Our knowledge of what is most effective in college teaching and learning has increased, even as our ability to supply that level of intense education is financially and philosophically challenged.  

The search for a sustainable business model has led many small campuses to explore new programs and initiatives. One of the most promising is creating a distinctive program model that builds on core strengths, identifies a strong niche for the campus, and distinguishes the institution from its competitors. These campuses – including my own, Dominican University of California – are implementing current educational research about effective teaching and learning and defining the institution around those practices, across all programmatic and disciplinary areas. The approach requires creativity, collaboration, and intense effort, but it is proving to be both educationally powerful and financially sustainable.

This evolution began at Dominican University of California in 2010. The institution was poised for transition; a presidential search was underway, and the campus had just approved a new strategic plan. In the decade leading to 2010, Dominican had seen a significant increase in enrollment, from just under 1,200 students in the late 1990s to more than 2,000 students in 2010. The new strategic plan embraced a continuing growth strategy, envisioning online programs and an enhanced business school as the primary means to increase revenue.

The growth the campus realized in the early 2000s mirrored growth in the traditional college-going population in California. This growth was important, for it created a critical mass of students. But it also revealed the problems of a standard growth model for a small university with limited infrastructure. Any future growth could no longer ride the demographic wave, because the college-going population in 2010 was beginning to decline. The University hoped for growth in online programming, but we lacked technological sophistication or the capacity to invest sufficiently for success in this area. The growth that had already occurred was concentrated in a few high-demand programs, particularly programs in the health sciences, yet the university lacked the infrastructure to provide sufficient technology, classroom, faculty, and staff support for the new programs and quickly encountered accreditation challenges in some key disciplines. Meanwhile, more established programs languished. Budgets were stretched thin as the campus tried to support the new offerings and at the same time build an online presence, and financial ratios were on the margin. The result was a critical mass of students, but also new concerns about programmatic accreditation, a budget still out of balance, a high concentration of adjunct faculty who were not well supported, and a weak infrastructure.

The years since that time have led to a focus on distinctive institutional identity; with that focus has come a dramatic improvement in retention and graduation rates, stabilization of financial ratios, and the creation of innovative new programs, both academic and non-academic. The question in 2010 was how to creatively re-establish institutional identity and stabilize for the future, while using the increased enrollment as a base to craft that future. The result was the Dominican Experience for All.

The Strategic Plan approved in 2010 was appropriately ambitious. It had some important core educational commitments and identified strategic capital improvement needs. But like all plans, it needed adjustment as conditions evolved. And the plan was overly broad, with 36 priorities. After I arrived as president, we reviewed that list and narrowed it to five priorities that were institution-wide and academic in nature. We reasoned this would inspire us to focus on quality and the student experience, highlighting our historic strengths. We were right.

The cornerstone of our refined vision became The Dominican Experience for All, ensuring that every student, undergraduate and graduate, would experience four essential elements in their education. Those four elements are integrated coaching, community engagement, signature work, and digital portfolios. Each element is essential to the integrity of our distinctive educational model. Its ubiquity is equally essential. These are not buffet offerings, or an add-on set of programs that are a supplement to the student experience. They are the heart of the student experience—the common and central feature of a student’s education at Dominican, regardless of whether the student majors in political science or nursing, marketing or education, biology or English literature.

The Dominican Experience for All ensures that every student experiences four essential elements in their education: integrated coaching, community engagement, signature work, and digital portfolios.  

The addition of the phrase “For All” was central to our approach, for it established the expectation that every student would have a common educational pathway. It is worth exploring the four elements of the Dominican Experience in more detail.

Integrated coaching is a comprehensive approach to mentoring and advising. Students retain their academic advisors and, in addition, are assigned a peer mentor when they enroll, connect with alumni or a professional mentor prior to graduation, and work with an integrative coach throughout their time on campus. The integrative coach anchors their experience, helping students explore opportunities on and off campus, reflect on their own development, assess their work beyond grades and awards, and integrate their educational experience to prepare them for life beyond the University.

Each student also has at least one fully immersive community engagement experience. Along with a robust service-learning program, each academic year the campus adopts a common curricular theme that includes a community service component; the last two years have focused on the topic of democracy and equity. Engagement may be local, national, or international. For example, the Barowsky School of Business features a global practicum, where all students participate in an international consulting project as part of their MBA. Students from across the campus helped create College Debate ’16, a social media initiative designed to educate college students around the country about political issues. Natural science students have conducted field research in partnership with government agencies, and health science students support a community wellness clinic.

Signature work is our promise that every student will graduate with a tangible expression of his or her academic attainment; it may be a capstone project or a research collaboration, a conference presentation or an original piece of art. These experiences are designed to challenge students to put into practice the breadth and depth of their learning. They also provide students with a specific outcome that can be shared with graduate and post-graduate programs and with prospective employers.

All of these activities are compiled in a personal digital portfolio. Portfolios hold the full range of the student’s educational journey, with papers, grades, videos, reflections, activities, and achievements. They are initiated in a student’s first year and serve as a repository and reference throughout their educational journey. The portfolio serves as a tool for integrative coaches and the student to evaluate a student’s path through college, plan for further courses and experiences, and create a narrative of growth and development that will last well beyond their time on campus. It is also a valuable means of sharing information among faculty, advisors, coaches, and mentors.

The implementation of the Dominican Experience is still underway, but the results have, to date, been powerful. Since we have begun to implement the program, our four-year graduation rate has seen a 78% improvement, moving from 34% to 61%. In that same period of time, we have moved to a 71% six-year graduation rate, another dramatic increase of 45% since the Dominican Experience began. Both programmatic and institutional accreditation status has significantly improved as the change in student success became apparent.

Our four-year graduation rate has seen a 78% improvement, moving from 34% to 61%.  

We believe much of this success is tied to initial implementation of the Dominican Experience. Our most recent data show that 75% of undergraduates and 60% of graduate students experience community engagement, and we plan for full participation by 2020. To date, 94% of our undergraduates and 80% of our graduate students leave Dominican with some type of signature work, and we are well on the way to full participation in this element of the Dominican Experience.

It takes time to develop and implement an educational model as ambitious and comprehensive as the Dominican Experience. And time requires support and investment as well. Buoyed by the promise and vision of the Dominican Experience, we have had tremendous fundraising success, including the renovation of an iconic campus building into a home for the health sciences. This renovation represents the largest non-debt-funded capital project in campus history. We are in the midst of renovating our campus library into a permanent home for the Dominican Experience, another project that will be funded through the generosity of our Board, alumni, and friends.

While building this program for the long term, we have simultaneously supported new financial initiatives and program innovation. We have launched new academic programs that include a physician’s assistant degree, a limited-residency MFA, a healthcare leadership track, a minor in social change, and a global public health degree. We have also put a great deal of energy into developing non-degree revenue. By building our certificate and summer programs and creating new partnerships, we more than doubled our revenue not directly tied to enrollment or the endowment; other revenue has grown from $1.6 million to $3.3 million in just four years. As a result, our debt service ratio and financial stability scores have all seen significant improvement.

The model of innovation illustrated by the Dominican Experience is one derived from educational research about high-impact practices that focus on student engagement, reflection, and hands-on learning.

The model of innovation that is illustrated by the Dominican Experience is one derived from educational research about high-impact practices for students, practices that focus on student engagement, reflection, and hands-on learning. Our students are highly diverse; over half are students of color, and most are from groups under-represented in the academy. Research indicates that these high-impact practices are especially effective with students like ours, and the results of the Dominican Experience certainly reinforce that research.

Other colleges and universities are exploring or beginning to implement high-impact practices not as an additional offering, but as the central component of their educational work. These campuses are comparing progress and lessons learned as they commit to a “distinctive program model” of teaching and learning. Both an educational commitment and a marketing tool, this approach is yielding strong results at several campuses across the country beyond Dominican, including Agnes Scott College, Furman University, and Connecticut College. Further information about this approach can be found in an AGB White Paper on the topic:, and in a recent Change Magazine article:

At Dominican, our work is not yet done. The faculty is in the midst of curriculum revision, an essential step to aligning our curricular requirements with the larger vision and ensuring the integrity of the degree. We have just developed a new marketing effort to capture the distinctiveness of our program. We are still aligning budgets and programs with the new vision.

In the next three years, we will complete implementation of the Dominican Experience. In the process, we believe we will continue to strengthen the educational experience and the financial core of the University. Dominican University of California will be 130 years old in three years. The next era will arrive with the campus’s historic ideals of study, reflection, community, and service embedded in a new and distinctive educational model of The Dominican Experience for All. Our historic values have aligned with contemporary needs in a profound and sustainable way, shaping a hopeful future for the campus and its students.