Some colleges focus on niche majors, like classic car restoration, to… – The Hechinger Report

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MCPHERSON, Kan. — So polished is the finish of the traditional car that, like a mirror, it reflects the reverential faces staring at it.

Only 203 of this version of the iconic 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300S Cabriolet were ever built. They sold for three times the price associated with a Cadillac and were snapped up as status symbols by the likes of Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant plus Gary Cooper.

Those famous names aren’t what interest the people in this garage bay, though. Their obsession is the particular car, which has been under repair for six years by students at this college in sparsely settled central Kansas, in the hope that it will win the world’s most prestigious classic car event next summer: the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

That’s an unusual ambition with regard to a small college — which is exactly the point. This particular small college has what it says is the country’s only four-year bachelor’s degree in automotive restoration, a major that will combines engineering, history, business, communication, art and other disciplines.

It’s an example of the particular way a little regional higher education institution can stand out in a crowded field of competitors in a time when many other schools appear intent on trying to attract applicants by becoming more alike than different.

Brian Martin, director of recovery projects from McPherson College, with the 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300S Cabriolet the college is restoring. Credit: Chase Castor for The Hechinger Report

“There’s an entire culture around the classic car, and at the center of that world is McPherson College, ” declared Michael Schneider, president of the particular college, which is home to this particular one-of-a-kind program in auto engineering.

Not many people outside associated with its hometown of 14, 000, named for Civil War Union General James Birdseye McPherson, have likely heard of the school. But there are enough devotees of traditional cars, students who want to learn how in order to restore plus preserve them and employers who need workers with those skills that its uncommon specialty will be paying off.

At a period when some other colleges and universities are struggling for college students, McPherson’s enrollment has already been steadily increasing. Because its program is usually unique, it can cast the wider net than additional colleges the size; its 851 learners — up 18 percent over the particular last five years, according to figures provided by a spokesperson — come from 33 states and seven countries. Nearly twice because many apply to the automotive restoration program as can get within, and between 97 and 100 percent of graduates in each of the last three years have landed jobs in the industry.

The particular college just received a pledge worth up to $500 million , which usually appears to be the particular largest single gift actually to the small private college within America, from an anonymous donor represented by philanthropists who learned about McPherson from its work with cars. The program is definitely increasingly attracting industry funding for research, and the connections along with well-known collectors, including longtime supporter Jay Leno, give it celebrity cachet.

Related: Panicked universities in search of students are usually adding thousands of new majors

While a niche major can help a college stand apart, some institutions seem intention on blending in. Many have added bachelor’s level programs, often based on their perceived popularity — 7, 749 of all of them from 2012 to 2020, or an increase associated with 11 % in the total number, according to the particular advanced schooling consulting firm Eduventures. This with a time when registration of bachelor’s degree-seeking students has been flat . There are now more than 400 programs on various levels in cybersecurity, for instance.

“Every institution wants to become like the next institution up — more comprehensive, more elite, ” said Colin Koproske, managing movie director and strategy research lead at EAB, another higher education talking to firm. “Everyone wants in order to be more nationally recognized regarding everything, plus all of them use ubiquitous language that doesn’t help them stand out. ”

Or, afraid of risk, universities and colleges insist on proof that an unusual system has already succeeded somewhere else, stated another consultant, Jeff Spears, founder associated with CFO Colleague and a former CFO himself at several organizations, who frequently encourages client colleges to develop unique majors. “The school will say, ‘Can you provide us the names of three people who do that currently? ’ And I would think, ‘Therein lies the problem. ’ ”

It’s the stark contrast with various other industries in which competitors rely upon what economists call comparative advantage, mentioned Sandra Peart, an economist and dean from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond: “It’s important to emphasize what’s different, ” Peart said. “You want in order to say, ‘We do all of that will, but we also have this other thing. ’”

Leadership is another example of a distinct segment major, one that University associated with Richmond officials credit with helping drive a record number of candidates in 2021, up 16 percent even when higher education enrollment overall was falling sharply; similar numbers applied again this year, an university spokeswoman said.

Related: Struggling little colleges are joining the particular ‘sharing economy’ — teaming up to share courses and majors

When Lauren Oligino was deciding among a list of colleges she eventually pared down to Richmond, she stated, “I did find all of them as various variations of the same theme. I didn’t really notice that until We found something that stood out to me. That is the reason so many people are coming here, is that no one else offers this. ”

Jeremy Porter had a similar experience. He was considering studying chemical engineering or pre-law in universities plus colleges that will included from least 1 within the Ivy League. Yet “there has been nothing inherently unique about them. It is the exact same exact point. ”

Porter ended up with McPherson, where he is now a junior in the automotive repair program. Visiting the school convinced him that he wanted to work along with his hands, he mentioned.

The program started in 1976, when a local oil and gas magnate called Gaines “Smokey” Billue gave the college part of his vintage vehicle collection. “It was hard for him to find people who could work on old cars, and those that could had been dying away, ” said Brian Martin, McPherson’s current-day director associated with restoration projects. “That ability to use their hands had been dying. ”

Students cycle through learning about engines, sheet metal, chassis, paint, trim, electric systems, assembly plus woodworking and bend over sewing machines to re-create upholstery. The particular collection of cars on which they train spans the period from 1890 to 1973, meaning that parts have to be salvaged or made from scratch; shelves round the shop sag under the particular weight associated with old components and engines.

Around 1998, the college was contemplating dropping the program. “It was a black sheep on the campus, ” Martin stated. “We didn’t know what in order to do with it. ” Then Leno contributed money for scholarships. “He helped the school to realize all of us do possess something special and distinctive. ”

Related: A new way to help university students transfer: Admit them to two colleges at once

That distinctiveness is evident from simply inside the entrance to the building where the labs and classrooms are housed. There, the glass-walled space called “the showroom” contains a bright red Austin Healey 100M that competed at Le Mans, a Ferrari 365 GT, classic BMW plus Honda motorcycles from the particular 1950s and 1960s, since well as the naked chassis of a Corvette whose body can be across the hallway in the paint shop.

It’s also clear from the enthusiasm of the college students, self-described gearheads who survived a selection process that required these to submit portfolios of their past projects.

Jimmy Pawlak, a McPherson College junior. “If I was going in order to college, this was going to be this, ” Pawlak says. Credit: Chase Castor intended for The Hechinger Report

“If I was likely to college, this was going to be it, ” mentioned junior Jimmy Pawlak, who has his own 1967 Chevelle.

“This is certainly our passion. Back when we were within grade school this is what we all did with our dads, our brothers. We’re doing this particular because we love it, ” said Colby Marshall, the senior who else transferred to McPherson from a college in Texas.

Sophomore Adam Hughes had never heard of McPherson, but as soon as he discovered it, he concluded that will, “for aged cars, this is pretty much the only place to come. ”

Students here “are doing something that all of us love, ” said Victoria Bruno, a senior which already has a job waiting for her after graduation rebuilding vintage Ferrari engines in Los Angeles.

Victoria Bruno, the senior on McPherson University majoring within automotive recovery. Bruno already has a job awaiting her after graduation rebuilding vintage Ferrari motors in Los Angeles. Credit: Run after Castor for The Hechinger Statement

It’s a far cry from the gymnastics learners elsewhere sometimes have to go through to explain why they’re in university, other compared to that their own parents or even high college teachers said they should proceed.

“Some kids grow up plus they want to play football at Notre Dame or study science at MIT, ” stated Schneider, the graduate associated with McPherson himself who favors loafers and a sweater instead of a suit and tie plus bears a passing likeness to the particular actor Matthew McConaughey. College students here, this individual said, “can’t wait to come in order to McPherson and study the car. There’s the stickiness there that lots of universities don’t get. ”

Plus it’s not confined to the classroom. There’s a C. The. R. S. club — it stands for College Auto Restoration Learners — that hosts events, and the complex of storage sheds across the street from your campus where numerous students keep and work on their own cars in their free time. About 20 percent associated with the students here are usually majoring in automotive restoration.

“Come more than here upon a Saturday afternoon, go over to the sheds plus our kids are talking about engines that will they’re swapping out or even paint work that they are doing, ” said Schneider, who provides a 1966 Pontiac Tempest at home and a vintage Mercedes-Benz poster on their office wall.

They also move to car events from coast to coast and shadow mechanics during shows, tours and rallies, which usually leads to careers.

“It’s like a fraternity where former classmates plus graduates help each other out, ” said Matn.

The school is interwoven with the particular industry “because they have this niche, ” said Cameron Luther, a senior who also spent the summer working for a company that sells classic cars. “There are alumni almost all across the world from here. ”

Cameron Luther, a senior at McPherson College. The school will be interwoven with the industry “because they have got this niche, ” he or she says Credit: Pursue Castor for that Hechinger Record

The instructors seem equally ardent. Martin’s colleagues say he’s been known to come in at 2 the. m. in order to check the particular temperature within the bay exactly where work is usually under method on that Mercedes, which he declines a photographer’s request to lean against for fear of dulling the finish. (A comparable car, within worse condition, recently sold for $800, 000. )

The money from the $500 mil pledge will certainly not just help support a new climate-controlled building in order to store the college’s vintage vehicles and a center for the future of engineering and design, but also provide funding to get financial aid, a 55, 000-square-foot student center that will broke ground in November and a middle for rural and community health technology.

That’s component of the particular “halo effect” unusual majors can bring to colleges that offer them, said Schneider and others.

“You might come right here because of your interest in the car, and then you discover out, oh, they’ve got this major in multimedia design or business, ” Schneider mentioned of how the particular auto repair program helps the more than 40 other majors at McPherson. “It’s not so much different through Apple having an iPhone so you buy their earbuds and just about all the other things that Apple sells. It is a business strategy. ”

Other examples include writing at the University associated with Iowa, journalism in the College of Missouri, music in Oberlin College, dance band on the University or college of North Texas plus the commercial songwriting main at public Middle Tennessee State University.

The songwriting program has in previous years attracted more out-of-state students than any some other department, said Beverly Keel, dean of its parent College associated with Media and Entertainment. “People come here just pertaining to that. ”

“It’s not really enough to be different, ” she additional. “You need to be very good at what you do. You have to be the particular best from it. ”

Some market majors may actually be loss leaders, not earning a lot more than they cost to offer, Koproske stated. It can still be a valuable strategy, however.

“I don’t know if they’re making money off these things, ” Koproske said. “But, man, are they on the map because of all of them. ”

This story about small-college niche majors was produced by The particular Hechinger Review , a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality plus innovation in education. Sign up for our advanced schooling newsletter .

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