Agnes Scott College is rebranding itself from a liberal arts college for women to an institution of higher learning for women who aspire to become leaders in an increasingly globalized world. And early results show that the strategic shift known as SUMMIT is paying off: the 127-year-old Decatur, Ga. school with deep ties to Coca-Cola welcomed its largest-ever freshman class to campus last fall, boosting total enrollment to 915 students.

The journey to the SUMMIT began back in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis. Agnes Scott, like many small liberal arts colleges in the U.S., was forced to rethink its business model and recruitment strategy. Several marketing approaches had failed to break through, and enrollment plateaued around 800 students.

“We were seeing some of our largest classes in history, but we were not delivering the growth we needed to be financially strong and sustainable,” said Agnes Scott President Elizabeth Kiss (pronounced "quiche"). “We needed a big idea to differentiate us in a competitive applicant marketplace and provide a clear, compelling answer to the question: ‘Why Agnes Scott?’”

The college’s board of trustees, chaired by Clyde Tuggle, SVP and Chief Communications Officer at The Coca-Cola Company, formed a task force of some of Atlanta’s sharpest business minds to craft a strategic roadmap. In addition to trimming operating expenses, eliminating select curricular and non-curricular programs, and reducing both the college’s annual endowment draw and discount tuition rate, the plan set forth an aggressive enrollment goal of 1,100 students by 2020.

Agnes Scott College

Agnes Scott College

“It required a complete overhaul of the admissions function,” Tuggle said. “We had to understand what we needed to do to attract more students.”

Tuggle organized a retreat for trustees and faculty members to brainstorm ideas for what the school’s transformation would look like. A consulting firm, Arts & Science Group, tested eight concepts with 1,000 high-school women. Two emerged as clear favorites.

“The surveys showed that if we focused the Agnes Scott experience on global learning and leadership development, then we’d see substantial enrollment growth,” Kiss said.

Agnes Scott initially considered launching a certificate program for women’s global leadership, an idea that had been percolating since 2007. But as the SUMMIT framework began to take shape, Kiss and her team realized they could scale the offering to all students by baking leadership and global awareness into the college’s curriculum and graduation requirements.

“As we thought about our mission as a women’s college in the 21st century, the concept that came to the forefront was that we need to be educating women to be leaders in a global society,” Kiss said. “Thoughtful citizenship has always been at the heart of what a liberal arts education should be, and today that means thoughtful global citizenship.”

She added, “We need to be educating graduates with a nuanced understanding of our global society. The world is getting smaller, so the worst thing we can do is to educate very parochial students.”

Agnes Scott College

Agnes Scott College

Recognizing the fact that the window to catch prospective students’ attention was limited, Kiss challenged her team to move quickly. They set an ambitious launch target of fall 2015.

The faculty landed on five skills essential for leaders — teamwork, critical thinking, writing, public speaking and digital literacy. They seamlessly integrated these skills into the existing curriculum and added new courses. “A lot of things we teach in a liberal-arts education are leadership skills — we’ve just never thought about them that way,” Elizabeth Hackett, associate professor of women’s studies and philosophy, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As part of SUMMIT, all Agnes Scott students take leadership and global-awareness courses in her first year and travel with her class during the spring semester. Each incoming student designs an individualized course of study and co-curricular activities designed to develop leadership skills and an understanding of complex global dynamics.

“Millennials want to curate their own college education, so one of the most compelling aspects of SUMMIT is that it gives students an opportunity to design a personalized pathway that goes well beyond choosing a major and includes experiences both inside and outside the classroom,” Kiss said.

An overhauled advising system assigns each student to a four-member advisory panel – which includes a faculty member, upperclassman and mentor alumna – to offer one-on-one guidance on academic course load, career path and more.

Agnes Scott classroom

Agnes Scott College

“Each student has a team working on their behalf, not just on class selections, but on her total development and life plan,” Tuggle added.

Last fall, the college tested the new framework and found more first-year students who worked with an advisory panel returned for the spring semester than those who did not.

Agnes Scott students are also required to document their work in a digital portfolio, a natural exercise for the current generation. “This gives students – who are already capturing their lives on social media – a more rigorous and intellectually grounded way to reflect on their learning journey,” Kiss said, “and connect the dots between what they pick up in the classroom and the world around us.”

While the school is years away from realizing SUMMIT’s full impact, initial feedback and results are positive. Two-thirds of the current first-year class of 272 students cite SUMMIT’s unique portfolio of learning experiences as a key reason they chose Agnes Scott.

Looking ahead, Kiss says the goal is to become known as a “thought-leader institution for global learning and leadership development” for a socioeconomically diverse student body of entrepreneurial problem-solvers. “SUMMIT will inspire our students to aim higher and enable them to go further faster,” she said.

President Kiss Clyde Tuggle Soldedad Obrien

Agnes Scott College President Elizabeth Kiss (left), Journalist Soledad O’Brien and Coca-Cola’s Clyde Tuggle at a recent commencement ceremony.

Agnes Scott College

A Refreshing Partnership

The link between Coca-Cola and its neighbors at Agnes Scott College dates back to the late-1800s. Coke’s secret formula was created at an Atlanta pharmacy in 1886, and three years later Agnes Scott opened its doors a few miles east in Decatur.

“It’s impossible to imagine Agnes Scott without The Coca-Cola Company,” Kiss said.

In the late-1890s, Lettie Pate married Joseph Whitehead, a Tennessee attorney who obtained the rights to bottle Coca-Cola. When Whitehead died in 1906, his widow assumed control of his business interests. In 1934, Coca-Cola President Robert W. Woodruff appointed Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans (she married Col. Arthur Kelly Evans in 1923) to the company’s board of directors, making her one of the first women to serve on the board of a major corporation (she held the post for 20 years). An Agnes Scott trustee from 1949 to 1953, she donated funds to build the campus dining hall that today bears her name, and left $100,000 in her will to maintain the facility.

Woodruff and Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans 604
Robert Woodruff, Coca-Cola's longtime leader, joined Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans at the famed Stork Club in New York in the 1940s.

Emory University

George W. Woodruff (brother of former Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff) served on the Agnes Scott board in various roles, including vice chair, from 1939-1942 and 1947-1974, when he was named trustee emeritus. When he died in 1987, his estate bequest of $14 million to Agnes Scott during its Centennial Campaign became the largest gift ever received by the college. A $1 million bequest of George Woodruff’s wife, Irene, was earmarked to provide financial aid for women who enrolled at Agnes Scott later in life. Initially called the Return-to-College program, it was renamed the Irene K. Woodruff Scholars program. Today, the main quad on the Agnes Scott campus is named for the couple.

Irene Woodruff’s mother, Clara Belle Rushton King, attended Agnes Scott from 1892 to 1894. She was a lifelong friend of Frances Winship Walters, George and Robert Woodruff’s maternal aunt. In 1954, Walters – an Agnes Scott trustee and alumna – left a bequest of $4.5 million in Coca-Cola stock and other investments. The gift doubled the college’s endowment and helped save it from the decline that shuttered many women’s colleges in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The college’s president at the time, James Ross McCain, called Walters Agnes Scott’s second founder.

Walters Hall

Frances Winship Walters Hall, built in 1956, is dedicated to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. George C. Walters.

Agnes Scott College

At one point, 60 percent of the Agnes Scott endowment was invested in Coke stock. Walters’ will specified that her gift could not be sold solely for the purpose of asset diversification – only to directly benefit Agnes Scott. In the early 2000s, the college sold a portion of the Coke stock to help pay for a new $36.5 million science building.

In 2011, The Coca-Cola Foundation provided a $1 million grant to support study abroad programs aligned with SUMMIT’s focus on global awareness. And a $2 million grant in 2014 from The Goizueta Foundation (established in 1992 by former Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta) funded two new programs: the Goizueta Global Leadership Project, which will launch of a campus-wide curriculum focused on global learning and leadership development, and the Goizueta STEM Success Initiative, which will encourage more women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Agnes Scott also offers a Goizueta Foundation Scholarship each year to a Hispanic woman who has excelled in academics, leadership, character and personal achievement and who also demonstrates financial need.

The relationship between Coca-Cola and Agnes Scott extends well beyond financial aid, however. Over the years, Coke leaders with a personal stake in the school’s success have helped guide its strategic vision. Tuggle, whose mother pioneered Agnes Scott’s Return-to-College program in the mid-‘70s, has served on the board of trustees since 2004. He succeeded Joe Gladden, former general counsel at The Coca-Cola Company, who was a trustee and board chair from 1992 to 2002.

“Coca-Cola is proud of our leadership legacy, our investment in women’s education, and the fruits of our partnership with Agnes Scott College over the last century,” Tuggle said.