Episode 75 – The Looming Enrollment Crisis

Today on the show we talk with Lee Gardner, senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the special report from The Chronicle for Higher Education entitled, "The Looming Enrollment Crisis." Gardner wrote the article "Weather the Storm" in the special report and today we're talking with him on the topic.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined in-studio today, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you? 

Scott Wyatt: Good, thanks Steve. Yeah, it’s a wonderful day.

Meredith: We both remain a little bit under the weather, so we’ll try to keep from coughing in your collective ears. 

Wyatt: Yeah, between your cough and my cough…

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: And Lee’s dogs in the background, we’ll have a little bit of an accompanist. 

Meredith: We might not win the Best Audio award for this particular episode. [Laughter] Anyway, we’re doing a series of podcasts about the changes coming up for higher education, and they are wide-ranging and many. And one of the things that got us started about this was a special report from The Chronicle for Higher Education that is entitled, “The Looming Enrollment Crisis.” And one of the writers that most intrigued us with his particular take on how we can “Weather the Storm,” which is the title of his article in this special report, is joining us today from Baltimore. Why don’t you introduce him? 

Wyatt: Yes, we’re so delighted to have Lee Gardner with us today, a senior writer with The Chronicle for Higher Education…The Chronicle of Higher Education. Lee, thanks for joining us from Baltimore, Maryland. 

Lee Gardner: Thanks so much for having me. 

Wyatt: And we hope that the dogs in the background there at your place make a little noise so that we get that color. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Gardner: [Laughs] Well…

Meredith: Lends a note a realism to the whole thing. 

Gardner: I can’t promise anything either way. [All laugh]

Wyatt: So, what we’re laughing at is that you’ve got three dogs there and you’re working from home today, so hopefully we’ll get a little bit of accompaniment in our discussion today. 

Meredith: We like babies and animals on this show. It happens all of the time. 

Wyatt: Well, thanks for joining us and we’d love to get right into your article about weathering the storm, but bigger than that, it feels to me like every time I open The Chronicle of Higher Education, there’s at least one story about these changing demographics and the challenges that universities are facing over enrollment changes and how that’s affecting all of us. 

Gardner: Well, it some ways it’s become “the” story. Higher education is dealing with a lot of different issues and some of them are very thorny and difficult, but I don’t think that any one of them feels as immediate for a lot of institutions as their worries about their enrollment. That’s critical to the enterprise for private institutions and especially now that state support is not what it once was, it’s critical for public institutions. And we know from the reporting that we do and the people that we talk to that many schools are having trouble making their classes, their missing their classes, they’re not making their classes as easily as they used to and so, this is top of mind for many, many folks. So, it perpetuates, right? If we write a story about enrollment and everybody goes crazy and clicks on it then we know that’s a good story to write to keep in mind for the future. So, we know people are interested, and for good reason. 

Wyatt: Yeah. It feels like at least as we look at the data that’s out there and just looking around us where we are here in Utah that the issue is most pronounced in New England and then the Midwest and as the time continues on for the next five years…between five and ten years, that it continues to move west. And so, we feel in Utah that we’re very fortunate today but we have to expect that there is a fair chance that this issue is going to be at our doorstep pretty soon. So, we’re trying to learn what we can from those that are already in the middle of this. 

Gardner: Right. And there are parts of the country that are projected to see as much as a 15% drop in the number of traditional age college students who are going to go to college. There’s an academic name, Nathan Grawe whose work has been getting a lot of attention because he really ran the numbers that drove home the gravity of the problem for a lot of areas. But, you’re right, there are severe declines projected for the Northwest…sorry, the Northeast and the Midwest and Upper Midwest and other parts of the country are going to lose some of that population, too, because of demographic issues. But you know, the biggest thing that everyone is going to feel is the recession baby bust. Kind of the fact that when 2008 came along and the economy tanked, people had fewer kids for a variety of reasons. And that generation, believe or not, is just getting ready to come to the age of graduating high school and thinking about what they’re going to do next. And so, in addition to all of the other demographic changes that are going on in the country, everyone is going to feel that. 

Wyatt: One of the…yeah, and Nathan Grawe’s book in his projection, he’s projecting that in our region, enrollments will continue to climb for the next maybe six years or so and then they’re going to drop back to current levels. We’re kind of in a bubble according to his data. 

Gardner: Right, and I think that a lot of institutions right now are…actually, I’ve been working on some reporting recently looking at some institutions that are growing and in some cases, growing pretty rapidly, but a lot of folks at those institutions are now sort of wrestling with the idea of, “Well, we have this ability to grow. Do we keep growing knowing what’s coming? That there may be a retraction in terms of the type of students that we’re going to be able to get and that we’re used to getting. Do we hire more tenure lines? Do we build up this infrastructure to accommodate students who in ten years may not be here? That’s another kind of fun aspect of all those is kind of thinking about those issues. 

Wyatt: Yeah, the environment is nervous enough that throughout the whole country, the number of faculty members given tenure has decreased significantly. It’s hard to make it a lifetime investment when you aren’t sure what enrollment will be like in 10 years or 15 or 20 because a tenure decision is a 30+ year decision, a 30 or 40 year decision. We have continued to add tenured faculty members here, we have continued to grow. We’re…at Southern Utah University, we’re up about 51% over five years ago, six years ago. It’s been really great, healthy growth. But everybody in our state is trying to grow and the aspirations of growth at every institution are greater than what the students are going to make possible, actually. 

Meredith: Well, and we’re at the additional disadvantage of being by far the most rural of the universities. So, we’re the most remote, most rural of the state universities in Utah. So, people have to really want to come here and as economies contract or as other issues make themselves known, the tendency is, we think, that people will choose to stay home at university nearer to their home rather than venture out to come see us. 

Wyatt: Yeah. We believe that we’re going to keep growing. 

Meredith: Yes, absolutely. 

Wyatt: But we’re trying to learn what we can about the challenges across the country so that we can be prepared and continue expanding so that we can expand opportunities for students and all that. I was particularly fascinated, Lee, in our article with just a whole bunch of little lines that you’ve written, and one is, “College leaders still pin their hopes more on salesmanship than on reconsidering what they’re selling.” Talk to us about that for a minute? 

Gardner: Well, that came somewhat directly from a very smart person that I talked to several years ago, a consultant, actually, and frankly, I enjoy talking to consultants as sources because they visit a lot of institutions and talk to a lot of different people and so they get a perspective that someone who spends most of their career at one or two institutions don’t necessarily. And this very smart person I was talking to said something that stuck with me, which was, “A lot of institutions spend a lot of money on talking about how they’re different and you don’t see that many spending money on actually being different.”

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Gardner: You know? Most institutions…there’s a lot of talk about finding your niche and what makes you unique and talking about that and that is very, very good advice. But most institutions are pretty much like most other institutions and there isn’t a lot of differentiation above program level. Some places have their special thing and some places have the thing they’re known for and that’s great and that’s important for, again, being able to make yourself special in this market, but I think as conditions get more challenging as they are right now, there’s still a lot of people who are feeling like this is just a marketing problem. That we’re going to be able to basically talk ourselves out of this, to advertise our way out of this. “If people just knew about our great program in ‘X,’ then we would have no problem filling the classes.” And in some cases, that’s just not true. Are there still a lot of students in your area that want to study “X?” Is there someone down the road who has a great “X” program and they charge less money? I think that one of the interesting things that’s happening here, and you kind of touched on this a little bit with the tenure lines, is people are having to rethink what they offer and people are having to rethink what they offer that people want, that students want. For decades, there’s been this assumption and it’s been worn out pretty much every year that, “We offer this particular spread of classes and gen ed requirements and major requirements and this will be something that’s valuable and people will see this value, students and their families and employers, and this will continue to sustain us.” And a lot of those assumptions and a lot of those rules of thumb clearly apply less than they used to in terms of what institutions offer and what it offers students. Maybe that’s kind of general, but I just think that people…students and families are really questioning what a college degree is and what it means and institutions have not perhaps started questioning that as much as they should be right now. 

Wyatt: Yeah. And are you seeing institutions fundamentally change? You’ve got some data here in your article about the fact that the majority of enrollment officers and university administrators are putting money into marketing and a minority are putting money into creating new programs based on student demand. 

Gardner: Right. That was part of the survey that we conducted for this report. And you know, it’s survey data so it’s not necessarily perfect. 

Wyatt: Right. 

Gardner: But I think it does get at something interesting which is that, right, people still think of this as…and marketing is important. For a long time, something I write about a bit as well for a long time, for a really long time, higher ed thought of marketing as something that was beneath it or something that was not done. 

Meredith: Not dignified. 

Gardner: And I think…right, among other things. And now, I think people have an understanding that especially in this environment that marketing is really important. You have to be able to articulate the stuff we just talked about: who you are and what you have to offer. But it can’t just be a marketing fix. I think that the idea of offering new programs and potentially not offering other programs, that’s the tricky part, right? That’s where people start to get nervous. 

Wyatt: Right, yeah. 

Gardner: Especially, frankly, people in the humanities because a lot of the programs that institutions are adding are in healthcare, they’re in data science, they’re in all these areas that are much more career-oriented, are much more pointed at a direct employment opportunity and things like history and other things are sort of getting less traction with people who want to major in them these days. And personally, that makes no sense to me. I was a liberal arts person and I was an English major and I loved all that stuff and still do, but it is not necessarily something that people are voting for with their wallets, so to speak. There are fewer majors in those disciplines and I think that that is causing a lot of institutions to question their mix of programs, and it probably should be. And, again, as much as it makes me sad to say that, it’s just not sustainable to necessarily for many institutions to offer that complete, broad spectrum of things and expect the same subscription if you will that they might have gotten 10 or 20 years ago. 

Wyatt: Yeah. I have an undergraduate degree that’s a liberal arts degree as well, and it’s served me well, very well, but there aren’t very many majors…many students majoring in…

Gardner: Right. 

Wyatt: In those today. Some of our faculty, of course, to describe faculty means to describe people from all walks of life because some of them are teaching philosophy and some are teaching engineering and everything in between. Some of them are actually teaching music, Steve. 

Meredith: That’s right. I occasionally run across an employed musician. [Both laugh] I’m a long-time music professor, Lee, that’s the inside joke. Sorry. 

Wyatt: So, when we talk about what the faculty think, what we’re talking about is what a cross-section of the entire population thinks, which is a whole lot of different things and different ideas, but some faculty think that we should be very, very directly focused on preparing students for careers and some people think that we shouldn’t be preparing people for careers at all. That we should be just teaching them how to love to learn and to just be…to have this wonderful experience but actually, we can accomplish both of those at the same time by bringing students in for training for a career and while they’re here, teach them to love to learn and to read and all those kinds of things. But we have to do it in a way that gets them excited, gets the students excited and makes them feel like there’s a relevance to all of this for them. 

Gardner: Oh, certainly. And I think that that’s kind of the ideal, right? That you want to graduate students who have a deeper, richer understanding of their world and how to learn and how to navigate in it and also who have some marketable skills, as much as probably some classics professor is cringing hearing me say that. But, you know, another piece of this is that we have to do what economically sustainable. I sometimes joke that my job is to write the stories that make professors sad because they’re usually about money and the importance of and the limits of what money can do. And a lot of institutions are finding that they do need to adjust their program offerings. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to offer that broad education, but they can’t maybe spend as much money on it as they once did. They need to spend some of that money, because they probably don’t have more money, on other things. On other programs, new programs maybe. And so, while I think most people in academe would agree with you that that sort of mix of outcomes is ideal and important and maybe even critical, how you do that is something, I think, that a lot of people are having to wrestle with just financially. That those…a lot of how colleges operate these days is not financially sustainable. Many colleges, not all colleges. But a lot of them, they have a lot of things to try to fix or reconfigure. 

Wyatt: Well, it’s very difficult for universities and colleges to make significant adjustments because in order to build a new program, sometimes that means you have to reallocate resources and if things are just a little bit tight then it’s a real challenge. I served in the Utah Legislature a number of years ago and I remember somebody coming to me saying, “WE need more money for this program. We need more money for math for all of the schools throughout the state.” And I remember saying, “You don’t have that money?” And they said, “No, we don’t have that money.” And I said, “Well, what about this and this and this and this where you could reallocate from?”

Gardner: Yeah. 

Meredith: Did they not want to hear that? 

Wyatt: They didn’t want to hear it. They just want more resources so they don’t have to make any hard decisions. And frankly, we all feel that way. We all are that way in all aspects of our lives. We want to be able to expand and grow and broaden and deepen our offerings without having to make difficult financial decisions in doing it. 

Meredith: On that…

Gardner: Right, and I…

Meredith: Go ahead, Lee. 

Gardner: Well, no, I think you really kind of hit on the crux of the current situation there is that everybody wants more money, as several people have told me at various points in my reporting, right? Every department would like more money, every school would like more money, every college would like more money. But that is not going to be realistic for most institutions in the current environment and certainly not looking ahead. And so, then it does become a matter of hard decisions. “This limited pot of money that we have, how are we going to use it? How are we going to make the most of it?” And yes, I think that’s where people are having to make some of those hard decisions. They’re having to think about, “If we need to invest more in this, what can we invest less in?” As we sometimes talk about in The Chronicle Newsroom, “What can we stop doing?” Because if you just keep adding things that you offer and adding things that you do and you don’t similarly expand your ability to do those things, then at a certain point, it’s unsustainable. And I think that that’s where a lot of colleges have found themselves. They can’t rely on growth just because of the enrollment market, and so, doing something different is going to require thinking differently about what you do with what you have if that makes sense. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. And one of the benefits here at SUU for having grown 50% over the last five years is that we’re half bigger than we were five or six years ago, is that with that growth, you can bring in new resources, you can add new faculty, you can open up new programs, so you’ve got those resources to expand, but once the growth stops, then there are no resources to expand. The only way you can create new programs…my heart goes out to the schools that are already in this flat enrollments and declining state revenue support, because there is no way that they can start a new program without canceling one that they’ve got. And eventually I suppose all of us will be there, but fortunately, it’s not as challenging today for us here. We’re actually in a very good spot, but we want to be in a good spot…

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: Forever. [All laugh]

Gardner: Well, right. Everyone would like to have no troubles forever. [All laugh] But that’s not typically how it works. And there are options. I think that a lot of public, regional, and comprehensive universities have not looked to fundraising in the past as much as they could or maybe should, and that’s starting to change. And another way to do things is to find someone with resources to help you pay for them. And so, that is an option…is going to be an option for some colleges going ahead. So, it’s maybe not completely dire but that’s not easy and it takes time and that takes investment as well, right? Having a good fundraising operation takes money. It takes money to make money as the old cliché goes. But it’s true in this case. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Gardner: And so, fundraising can be one way to add new programs or to do new things, but that is not something you’re going to be able to bank on year after year after year. And so, it’s an exception, not the rule. 

Wyatt: Here’s a comment from your article that I thought pointed a finger at everybody in a way. [Laughs] “Especially for private schools, outcome data are emerging as critically important. It is frustrating that lower-cost state schools get praise for their cost and value but frequently don’t get called out on their low, poor outcomes like retention or four-year graduation rates.” It’s easy to say the liberal arts schools are out of touch and they’re in trouble, but it was interesting to put down the other side and say, “What are the state schools doing that they should be doing better?”

Gardner: Yeah, I think that for a long time, public institutions…I can’t say they got a pass, but completion and retention was not necessarily considered their job. Access was the job, right? Giving student an opportunity to go to college and giving them that opportunity and setting it up for them and saying, “Here. Here is your opportunity.” And that did not always lead to good outcomes. In fact, it often did not lead to good outcomes and sometimes in the majority of cases it did not lead to good outcomes. Years ago I spoke with a guy named David Dowell who used to be the provost at Cal State Long Beach, he has since passed away, sadly, but I was still relatively new to covering higher ed and he pointed out that they had had a graduation rate…I forget whether it was six year or four year—I think it was six year—something like 35%. And that it had been that way for a really long time. And I know that there are other Cal State institutions that had similar graduation rates and I know that there are public institutions in other states that had similar graduation rates and for a long time, that was not something people worried about a lot. It was all about access and getting more people access to higher education. Now, clearly, for a variety of reasons, people have a better understanding that if your enrollment is not where you would like it to be, doing a better job with retention can help that. Keeping people in school keeps them from borrowing money if they end up doing that and then leaving with no degree which is maybe the worst outcome of all; owing money on something that you never actually benefited from. And so, there is definitely…and I think pretty much nation-wide, public institutions get it. They understand now and state systems and the people who run them understand now that that is just as important as access if not more important, is providing that support that you need to make it. That you can’t just open the door, you have to help people navigate the path on the other side of the door—not to extend the metaphor too far—which is important and probably long overdue. 

Wyatt: Yeah, we have a state policy maker that referred to this problem as “suspended capital.” To say that students that have invested in getting a degree, the state has invested in them getting a degree, it’s good for them, it’s good for the state’s economy, and when they don’t finish, it’s kind of like suspended capital. It’s just sitting there. But we have public schools in Utah that have graduation rates of 35% and Steve, I remember and maybe Lee you were in a similar situation, you may not be as old as we are, but I remember when I was in college, nobody seemed to notice or care particularly if I finished or didn’t finish. It wasn’t the focus, and today, we are seriously focused about that. 

Meredith: Yeah, retention and completion. 

Wyatt: You can’t drop out without getting a quick little interview about why and what can we do to help you stay in and then we’ll call you after you’ve gone and we’re doing all kinds of work in advance. 

Meredith: Yep. Innovations and outreaches. 

Wyatt: This is probably one of the best outcomes of this enrollment crisis is that all of our institutions will recognize that they best source of recruiting is our own students. And so, we can keep our own students…if we can keep our own students, we have to recruit less in at the front. 

Gardner: Right. And I don’t actually know in terms of affordability which is cheaper, but I’m going to bet that retaining students is cheaper than recruiting a whole raft of new ones, especially now that recruiting is getting tougher. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, one of the things about retaining is you have to be delivering the students what they really want. Because after they arrive, then they really discover what kind of a school you are. 

Gardner: Right. Well, and you’re absolutely right in terms of when I went to school, it was access, right? You were admitted and you paid your bill and you showed up and I remember my first semester in school, literally being pointed to a big room—I’m old enough that this was not something that was screen-based—and there would be printouts on all of these bulletin boards and you were supposed to go around, look for sections of classes that you might want to take and it would have the time and other information and you were supposed to cobble together a schedule like that. And a lot of things were designed that way. And the presumption was, and it’s not a ridiculous presumption, is you’re an adult. Right? You’re a person who has graduated high school, you should have some clue how to do that and I figured it out, but in times past, students were…again, you were given this opportunity and it was up to you to make something of it. And I think that now, people understand that there’s a much better outcome the more you help people make the most of that opportunity. 

Wyatt: We were talking with people in our marketing department a while ago and, “What kind of things do we say about ourselves that would attract students to come?” And we love the idea that we’re a caring campus and that we really take care of students. Our retention, Lee, has gone up by about 16% over the last four or five years, so we really think that we’re got a great story to tell, but when we talk to high school seniors, I think they all think that every school has that same kind of an environment. [Laughs]

Gardner: Right. 

Wyatt: And I think that when you’re a high school student, you’re just so excited to get to college…

Meredith: Well, and…

Wyatt: And you assume that college is an awesome experience. 

Meredith: You very much have a group of people around you at the high school that cares very deeply that you’re in class and where you’re supposed to be and all those things. When those constraints are lifted at the college or university…or maybe you’re presuming as an incoming freshman that you’ll have that same group of people around you and it’s a little different at the university. 

Wyatt: This is going to be a really very, very positive outcome to this enrollment crisis is that we’re all going to think through what we’re doing and how well we’re doing it and “Are we taking care of students needs?” And, “Have we advanced beyond mere, dry lectures?” Some lectures are awesome, by the way, I’ve had some fantastic lectures, but…

Meredith: But you were…while we were off the air, Lee, you were talking about the experience of your children who are teenagers and how different their life and learning experience has been and it…Scott and I thought it was an interesting cautionary tale for those of us in higher ed. Could you share that with us a little?

Gardner: Well, sure. When I first started working for The Chronicle, one of the things that happened was I ended up visiting a lot of college campuses and I was really struck by walking around having this feeling of, “Yeah, right, this is great. I remember this, I remember that.” And I would walk into a lecture hall and I would know what that was and I would have all of these memories and associations with it and it was like it was a very kind of comforting and familiar feeling. But I have two sons who are now both teenagers and even that far back, I started to think, “Well, what does that mean though? What does that bode for my own kids when they are ready for this step?” As we were talking before, I pointed out that my kids have never known a world without Google. They’ve never known a world where they couldn’t reach into their pocket and have access to almost any kind of information you can think of, including probably some that we would rather them not have. And in their own educations, they’ve been taught in a really different way than I was and probably you were. A lot of project-based learning, a lot of group projects…not a lot of sitting in a chair and watching someone standing in front of a whiteboard talking and taking notes for an hour. And it started to occur to me the fact that college seems to operate pretty much the way that it did when I was in school, lo, these many years ago, is maybe not an encouraging sign. That today’ students…and today’s students not only have different expectations in terms of how they might best learn, but they also have different expectations about what the college degree maybe should be for and what it is. And so, I think that colleges sort of continuing to offer what they’ve always offered in the way that they have always offered it unexamined is potentially kind of a dangerous, treacherous way to tread just because I think that if my kids show up and college and every one of their classes is them sitting in a chair being expected to be quiet and listen and nod while sage on the stage tells them what’s what, I think that that’s not going to be the experience that they want or maybe need. 

Wyatt: It’s not the world that they’re moving into. 

Gardner: Yeah, it’s certainly not the world that they’re moving into, you’re right. And I say this with all the affection and respect for the professors that I had that I was in school, I feel like a got a really good education and much of it was in that very traditional format, but I just think that students are different, the world is different and I know that universities are not necessarily designed to adapt quickly or, in some cases, not really adapt at all. But I do think that that’s one of the many things that colleges have to be thinking about and questioning right now is, “Are we offering what people want and need? Are we offering it in a way that is going to be responsive to them?” A lot of people are now talking about hybrid lectures or hybrid classes and there’s still a feeling, I think, that in-person, face-to-face teaching is best and I think that’s probably true, but I think that not looking at things like flipped classrooms or doing more project-based learning with pretty much everything you can do with that…I think bypassing that and not taking that seriously as good options is going to be not only maybe not the best for your institution, maybe a competitive disadvantage before too long as more institutions try to change up how they teach and maybe are able to show some results for that. 

Wyatt: Yeah. And the difficulty, Lee, is that as institutions become more pinched, the least expensive method of teaching is lecture. 

Gardner: Right. 

Wyatt: The most expensive is project-based, collaborative, interdisciplinary, activities, all these kinds of things, those are more expensive. It’s going to be…I think the schools that are most vulnerable moving forward are going to be those schools that get themselves into the spiral down where the quality is pinched because of resources and then it gets worse and then the resources get worse and it just keeps spiraling. And the schools that are going to be really successful are going to be the ones that find a way to keep changing and adapting and finding the more engaging ways of teaching. And then they’ll spiral up. 

Gardner: I think you’re right. And some of the folks that I’ve spoken to…and I’ve written about innovation and how colleges do it and the things that can prevent them from doing it. I actually…that was part of another report that I worked on and there’s a lot of discussion about elite institutions, wealthy institutions, they can probably pretty much do whatever they want and continue to be fine because they’re not going to hurt for applicants, they’re not going to hurt for good students, they’re not going to hurt for future donations and other things like that. At the bottom, sort of, of the spectrum, there are going to be institutions that are reacting because they have to. They’re just going to be doing things out of desperation. But then there’s this big middle area where you have institutions that are doing ok, maybe not as well as they would like to or as well as they once did, but they’re not out of options yet. They still have some resources, they still have some options. And I think that those are the schools particularly that need to be really thinking hard about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and what they might need to do differently while they still have some maneuvering room. Years ago, we used to talk in The Newsroom about what we called “the shakeout” because it was becoming apparent that institutions were going to start to close and people will argue back and forth about whether more institutions close now than they used to and I was just reading something the other day that argued that really there aren’t more institutions closing, but it’s sort of a different level of institution. It’s more of the small, private, liberal arts college that you might have heard of is more in trouble than it might have been in the past. But the issue was we started to think, I started to think, was not so much…so, things are getting intense, schools are going to start closing. It’s not so much that schools are going to start closing because some of them will, but schools are going to start changing. And this is both for private and public institutions and the important question is, “Are you going to change in ways that you want to? Or are you going to change in ways that you have to?” And I think that the schools that can make smart decisions and apply some resources strategically can change in ways that they want to. And I think that schools that are maybe a little more caught unawares by what’s happening right now are going to end up changing in ways that they have to, which is probably going to be less desirable, less fun for everyone. 

Meredith: That’s what we…we recently interviewed the President of the Northeast Commission on Higher Education and she shared those same sentiments. That it’s much easier to change while you still have options than it is to have change forced upon you. And in her area of the country, it probably is the most likely where change is going to be forced upon some institutions. 

Wyatt: What we…nobody likes change being forced on them. 

Meredith: No, they don’t. 

Wyatt: We like to do it on our own time.

Meredith: And make our own choices about what those changes are going to be. 

Wyatt: Yeah. But to the degree that we’re insulated from this problem in Utah and in this Intermountain West region…partly because in Utah, we only have one liberal arts college and we only have two private, traditional colleges here. Most of us are public schools, there’s four regional universities, two research universities, two community colleges and then we have a couple of privates. So, we don’t have that many. But I’m hoping, and I know this doesn’t sound great for a president to say this if any of his faculty and staff are listening. [Laughs]

Meredith: Well, there’s small chance of that so, there you go. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: But we really hope that we get to learn and become better as a result of what’s happening around the country. We’d hate to have all of these stresses that are motivating change throughout the country not help motivate change here for us as well. Because ultimately, even if the high school enrollments continue strong in Utah, a third of our students come from out-of-state. And so, as other states reform and develop their quality experience, if we don’t continue to up the ante here, then we’ll at least see an impact on that and a lot of states are finding that one of the solutions to their problems is to increase their enrollment efforts in places where there’s a lot more students. 

Gardner: Yeah. 

Wyatt: I mean, it’s not a great enrollment strategy to come and start recruiting in a state like North Dakota if there’s a lot of students there because there’s not that many students, even though the high school graduate rates continue to climb. So, they’re not going to solve their problems in the Intermountain West, but we’ll see more and more of that happen. I remember being in Illinois talking to some universities there and I don’t remember the number, Lee, I wish I did, but it was something like 200 universities have full-time enrollment officers in Chicago. 

Gardner: Hmm. 

Wyatt: People are traveling around trying to fill their classes.

Meredith: That fishing hole is played out. 

Gardner: Right. Well, it’s one of the interesting things about covering the stuff I’ve been covering and about working on this report is looking at sort of how people are responding to this. And certainly, especially public institutions and private institutions, too, looking outside their traditional area that they draw from. Everyone is doing that and recruiting international students is just that. Kind of writ large, right? You’re looking outside…

Wyatt: Yep. 

Gardner: Not only of your state, but you’re looking outside of the country. But one of the things I’ve found is a lot of people are talking about the need to look beyond that traditional aged, high school graduate, first-time-full-time student. Period. Looking at doing a better job with all of the folks out there who maybe have some college credit and haven’t graduated. There are about 30 million people in the United States who have some college credit and no degree, which is half, again, as much as the 200…sorry, 20 million people currently enrolled in college. And there are various approaches to that. I think it’s difficult…you know, I talk to people who run colleges and this will come up. It’s like, “Well, what about adult students? What about adult learners?” And almost everyone says, “Yes, we need to do a better job with that.” But not that many people have actual plans in place and are doing things to do a better job with that. And that’s a huge market and a lot of people would argue that the United States is not going to make its education goals, that many states are not going to make their education goals, unless they do a better job with those adult learners. But it’s still something that’s just people are not used to thinking about it, it’s tough, it requires a really different way of thinking about what you do, so it’s certainly not low-hanging fruit. 

Wyatt: Yeah, you have to offer classes when they can take them and you have to do it in a modality that works for them. I’m a perpetual optimist, even though sometimes I don’t talk like it. 

Meredith: You are very optimistic. 

Wyatt: But the great news about this enrollment challenge that is moving across the country is that we are all going to, hopefully, we’re all going to improve the quality of our experience to attract and retain students and we’re going to find students that we typically have not paid enough attention to, like these adult learners, and adapt what we’re doing to accommodate them. This is really good. The easy fishing is over. It’s time to get a boat and launch out into the waters and stop just casting from the shore and collecting what we can. Well, what is the last piece of advice that you would give us? Or what are you seeing that we should be most aware of or concerned about?

Gardner: Gosh, that’s really hard for me to say. I always hate to say it because I get to come in and talk to people and learn things and sort of suggest them and then I get to go back to my office where I don’t have to worry about needing a budget or managing several hundred, a few thousand people sometimes. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Gardner: And so, on one hand, I feel like it’s hard for me to say anything about this. But I guess the general advice would be colleges really need to be thinking hard and examining and questioning how they do almost everything and that they need to be looking at their expenses and how they can better control them because that’s not something generally that colleges are good at. They need to be thinking about their enrollment strategy, and not just in terms of, “Which list are we going to buy?” But, “Are these the students that we can get in the future? If these are not the students we can get, who are they going to be? What are the students that we want? How are we going to offer them something that is meaningful to them that will make them want to make the commitment and make the investment to come here?” And not just say…just as universities used to sort of welcome you in and then turn you loose and leave you to figure it out, the assumption was always that, “This thing that we’re offering was…you can spend a lot of money to have it, but really it’s priceless and it’s a lifetime’s education and it sets you up for all of these things and teachings you all of these things.” And for the most part, that was true, but I think that colleges really need to be examining what their value proposition is. And I know that that’s language that makes people grumpy sometimes, but they really need to be thinking about what they offer and why it matters to someone out there who is considering their institution. Not its intellectual value because that’s not really what we’re talking about here, but the value that the person will get from making that commitment and incurring those expenses. And the intellectual value is part of that, but it can’t be the whole thing. It can’t just be, “You will learn the great books and you will learn how to think.” And all of those things are super important, but it has to be presented in a way, it has to be offered in a way that makes it feel like something that they want to commit that time and money and chunk of their lives to.

Wyatt: Yeah. I’m really proud of the faculty and staff at SUU. There’s been so much work on recruiting, retaining, increasing the value and hopefully we can just keep on it and keep going. 

Gardner: Well, I hope so. I hope so. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever visited a college that didn’t have a lot to offer the people who attend there. And it’s unfortunate that that’s being questioned so much now, but maybe the good outcome of all of this is all that question will, in the end, make what colleges offer stronger and the colleges stronger ultimately we hope. 

Wyatt: Well, and it’s a deep part of our culture. 

Meredith: It is. 

Wyatt: That we believe that questioning leads to learning. So, of all organizations, universities should be the last to be troubled by being questioned. 

Gardner: You said it, I didn’t. [All laugh]

Meredith: That’s right. Just because it shouldn’t be that way doesn’t mean it isn’t. 

Gardner: Right. 

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guest today Lee Gardner, he’s a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Lee joined us from his home in Baltimore along with his canine friends. Lee, thanks for joining us and for our listeners, we thank you for joining us. We’ll be back with another podcast very soon. Bye bye.