MCPHERSON – It’s a highly polished classic car finish that, like a mirror, reflects the respectful faces you see.
Only 203 of this 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300S Cabriolet version were built. They sell for three times the price of a Cadillac and have been snapped up by status symbols such as Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper.
Those famous names are not what attracts the people in this garage bay. Their obsession is the car itself, which has been under restoration for six years by students here at McPherson College in rural central Kansas, hoping to win the world’s most prestigious classic car event next summer: the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
That’s an unusual ambition for a small college — exactly the point. This small college offers the nation’s only four-year undergraduate degree in automotive restoration, combining engineering, history, business, communication, art and more.
It’s an example of how a small regional higher education institution can stand out in a crowded field of competitors at a time when many others seem more interested in attracting applicants by being more similar than different.
“There’s a whole culture around the iconic car, and at the center of that world is McPherson College,” said Michael Schneider, president of the college, home to its one-of-a-kind automotive engineering program.
Named for Civil War Union General James Birdseye McPherson, many people outside of his hometown of 14,000 have probably never heard of the school. But there are enough devotees of classic cars, students who want to know how to restore and protect them, and employers who need workers with the skills of those who are paying a special price for it.
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Attracting them, putting them to work
At a time when other colleges and universities are struggling for students, McPherson’s enrollment continues to grow. Because the program is unique, it can cast a wider net than other colleges, with 851 total students — an 18% increase over the past five years, according to a spokeswoman — from 33 states and seven countries.
Nearly twice as many entrants apply to automotive restoration programs, and 97% to 100% of graduates have found jobs in the industry over the past three years.
The college received a pledge of up to $500 million, the largest gift ever to a small private college in America, from philanthropists represented by an anonymous donor who learned about McPherson while working with cars. The program is attracting industry funding for research, and its ties to prominent collectors, including longtime supporter Jay Leno, give it celebrity cachet.
While a large education can help a college stand out, some institutions seem intent on merging. Many have added bachelor’s degree programs, often due to their popularity — 7,749 from 2012 to 2020, or a total increase of 11%. No., according to higher education consulting firm Eduventures.
This is when enrollment of bachelor’s degree-seeking students is flat. For example, there are more than 400 programs on cyber security at various levels.
“Every institution wants to be like the next institution – more inclusive, more elite,” said Colin Koproske, managing director and strategic research leader at EAB, another higher education consulting firm. “Everybody wants to get more national recognition in everything, and everybody uses languages everywhere, which doesn’t help them stand out.”
Or fearing risk, universities and colleges insist on proof that an unusual program has already been successful elsewhere, said Jeff Spears, co-founder of CFO and a former CFO himself mentor at many institutions. The main ones. “The school said, ‘Can you name three people who do this?’ He says. I also think ‘therein lies the problem’.
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Sandra Peart, an economist and dean of the University of Richmond’s Jepsen School of Management Studies, says it’s in stark contrast to other industries where competitors rely.
“It’s important to highlight what’s different,” Peart said. “We do all that, but you want to say we have this other thing.”
University of Richmond officials have credited leadership with helping drive a record number of applicants in 2021, with higher education enrollment up 16 percent even as overall higher education enrollments are down sharply. A university spokeswoman said the same numbers were applied again this year.
Stand out from the crowd
When deciding on a list of colleges, Lauren Olegino ultimately settled on Richmond, saying, “I find them to be variations on the same theme. I didn’t notice that until I found something different for me. That’s why so many people come here, because no one else has it.
Jeremy Porter had a similar experience. He plans to study chemical engineering or pre-law at at least one of the Ivy League universities and colleges. But “there was nothing inherently different about them. The real thing is the same.
Porter ended up at McPherson, where he is now a junior in the automotive restoration program. Visiting the school convinced him that he wanted to work with his hands, he said.
The program began in 1976, when a local oil and gas magnate named Gaines “Smokey” Billu donated his vintage car collection to the college.
Brian Martin, McPherson’s director of restoration projects, said: “It was difficult for him to find people who could work on old cars that were dying. “That ability to use their hands was dying.”
Students rotate through learning about engines, metalwork, chassis, paint, trim, electrical systems, assembly and woodworking. The collection of cars they train on spans the period from 1890 to 1973, meaning parts must be salvaged or built from scratch; Shelves around the shop sag under the weight of old parts and engines.
By 1998, the college was considering discontinuing the program. “There was a black sheep in the yard,” Martin said. “We didn’t know what to do with it.” Then Leno contributed money to the scholarship. “The college helped him realize that we have something unique and special.”
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This distinction is only visible at the entrance to the building where the laboratories and classrooms are housed. There, a glass-enclosed space called the “Showroom” displays the bright red Austin Healey 100m that competed at Le Mans, the Ferrari 365 GT, classic BMW and Honda motorcycles in the 1950s and 1960s. It also features the Corvette’s stripped-down chassis. Whose body paint is in the hallway.
It’s also clear in the enthusiasm of the students, self-described gearheads who survived the selection process and forced them to submit a portfolio of their past projects.
‘There’s a sticking point.’
“If I was going to college, this would be it,” said junior Jimmy Pawlak, who came to school from Illinois and owns his own 1967 Chevelle, and wouldn’t have wanted a degree any other way.
“It’s our passion,” said senior Colby Marshall, who transferred to McPherson from a college in Texas and said he wasn’t interested in other subjects and wasn’t happy. “That’s what we did with our fathers and brothers when we were in grade school. We do it because we love it.”
The students here are “doing something we love,” said senior Victoria Bruno, one of Los Angeles’ former restorers of vintage Ferrari engines.
It’s a far cry from gymnastics lessons that students elsewhere have to explain why they go to college, except because their parents or high school teachers say they should.
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“Some kids grow up and want to play football at Notre Dame or study science at MIT,” says Schneider, a McPherson graduate who favors loafers and sweaters over suits and ties and bears a striking resemblance to actor Matthew McConaughey. Students here say, “They can’t wait to come to McPherson and study the car. There’s a stickiness there that most schools don’t get.
And it is not limited to the classroom. There’s a CARS club — it stands for College Auto Restoration Students — that hosts events and a complex of storage sheds across the street where many students from campus own and operate their own cars. About 20% of the students here are involved in automotive restoration.
In the year “Come here on a Saturday afternoon, go to the sheds and our kids are talking about the engines they’re swapping or the paint jobs they’re doing,” said Schneider, who has a 1966 Pontiac Tempest at home and a 1966 Pontiac Tempest. Vintage Mercedes Benz poster on the office wall.
They also go coast to coast to car events and shadow mechanics during shows, tours and demonstrations, which often leads to work.
“It’s like a brotherhood of former classmates and alumni helping each other,” said program director Martin.
The school is intertwined with the industry “because they have this niche,” said Cameron Luther, a senior who spent time working for a company that sells classic cars. “There are students from here all over the world.”
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The ‘halo effect’ of niche majors
The teachers seem equally diligent. Martin’s colleagues are known to arrive at 2am to check the temperature in the bay where work is being done on that Mercedes, refusing the photographer’s request for fear of disrupting the finish. (The same car, in worse condition, recently sold for $800,000.)
The $500 million pledge will not only fund a new climate-controlled building to store the college’s vintage cars and support the future of the Center for Engineering and Design, but will also provide financial support for a 55,000-square-foot student facility. Center and Center for Rural and Community Health Sciences, which broke ground in November.
That’s part of the “halo effect” that can bring them to colleges that offer unusual majors, said Schneider and others.
“You might come here with an interest in the car, and then you find out, oh, you’ve got this major in multimedia design or business,” Schneider said of how the auto restoration program helps more than 40 other professionals. McPherson. “It’s not much different than Apple having an iPhone, so you can buy their headphones and other things that Apple sells. It’s a business strategy,” he said.
Other examples include creative writing at the University of Iowa, music at Oberlin College, dance band at the University of North Texas, and a commercial songwriting major at Middle Tennessee State University.
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The songwriting program has attracted more out-of-state students than any other department, said Beverly Kell, dean of the Parent College of Media and Entertainment. “People come here just for that.”
“Identification is not enough,” she added. “You have to be very good at what you do. You have to be the best at it.”
Koproske said some majors may actually be loss leaders.
However, it can still be a useful strategy.
“I don’t know if they’re making money off of these things,” said Koproske, the consultant. “But man, they’re on the map because of them.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on educational equity and innovation.