Episode 76 - A Turbulent Future for Enrollment

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith are joined by Eric Kelderman, senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, to discuss enrollment projections in the United States over the next ten years. They discuss the growth SUU has seen and the rippling impact decreasing enrollments will have on surrounding businesses, especially in communities where universities are the main economic driver.

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 joining me, as he always does in-studio, is President Wyatt. Scott, how are you? 

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks Steve. 

Meredith: So, in this series of podcasts, we have been talking about changing demographics and changing economic pressures and other things that are going to be putting downward pressure on enrollments. And much of what we are basing this on is a special report from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Now, for those that are outside of our realm, The Chronicle of Higher Education is kind of The New York Times for higher ed. It’s the newspaper that everybody reads. And…I guess I should say Washington Post, shouldn’t I? Since you guys are D.C. based…anyway, it’s the newspaper that everybody reads. And a special report that came out within the last couple of months was entitled “The Looming Enrollment Crisis” and the very first article in there has the title of, “A Turbulent Future for Enrollment” and we have as our guest the author of that. Why don’t you go ahead and introduce him? 

Wyatt: Thank you, Steve. Yeah, it’s our privilege to have with us today Eric Kelderman who is a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. And Eric, I think you’re sitting at your desk at The Newsroom in Washington, D.C. talking to us here in Cedar City. 

Eric Kelderman: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We are here in the heart of Washington close to…if any of your listeners know D.C., we’re in an area called The West End, a few blocks from DuPont Circle and actually, there’s a very well-known building here called, One DuPont. You may be familiar with this…

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Kelderman: Where a number of the prominent higher education associations have their offices and we’re just a few blocks from that as well. So, great to join you and I haven’t been to Cedar City yet but hopefully someday soon I’ll get a chance to visit your lovely campus. 

Wyatt: Well, in the long list of things we could tell you, what you should know is that we are at the heart of the most beautiful national parks. There are seven national parks within a four hour drive and we have one just 20 minutes down the road. So, it’s a beautiful place. 

Meredith: Yeah, nothing to rival One DuPont Circle but…[All laugh] I would say come and see Bryce Canyon or Zion’s and…

Wyatt: Or the Grand Canyon.

Meredith: That’s right, or the Grand Canyon or Cedar Breaks. Anyway, we would love to treat you anytime you’re out here. We’ll take you to lunch and go on a hike somewhere. 

Kelderman: Excellent, sounds terrific. 

Wyatt: Well, tell us…what’s kind of the…let’s jump into this. We’re so thankful that you’re joining us today. It seems like every time I pick up The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a story in there about this enrollment crisis or challenge, the looming problems that we’re facing in the future. Talk to us about what you’re seeing?

Kelderman: Sure. And I just want to say, we wrote this report really, as many in higher education are aware, the projections of enrollment decrease have been around for some time now. You folks are part of the Western Interstate Compact for Higher Education I believe.

Wyatt: Right. 

Kelderman: They’ve been doing projections of high school graduates for a very long time and showed…this trend has been at least under the…has been reported on maybe under the radar for a while, and more recently, a researcher named Nathan Grawe, a faculty member at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, wrote a book that got a lot of attention. It’s called, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. And what Mr. Grawe did was he took these sort of very broad projections that are based on census data and what he did is he overlaid those projections against trends for the typical college going rates. And so, he developed a very much more nuanced, much more sophisticated analysis of the future…what he thought might be future enrollment trends. These are projections, of course, and nobody really can see into the future 100%, but this book in particular got a lot of attention and has been sort of making the rounds. I imagine you may have read it or at least are aware of it I’m sure. 

Wyatt: Eric, I’ve read it more than once. [All laugh]

Kelderman: Yes, I’m sure your enrollment management folks keep it by their bedside. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: Yeah. And in fact, we’ve had Nathan on our show. 

Kelderman: Right. Yeah, so that’s one aspect that sort of got our attention. The other was earlier this year, I happened to write a story about some selective private colleges closer to our region in the northeast here that had trouble meeting their class for the year; places that typically don’t have any trouble filling a class. One is Bucknell, a private college up in…a very interesting private college up in Pennsylvania. And they didn’t meet their class which is somewhat surprising. They fell a little bit short. Now, the nuance to that is that they didn’t spend all of the financial aid money that they had put aside to try and entice students to come, and so there’s some nuance there. But at the same time, what that story told us was that there was an enormous amount of interest in this topic. That story was very, very popular on our website. One of the most popular probably of the year. And it hinted at a broader trend, which is the possibility that colleges in our region and in the Upper-Midwest in particular, are competing for students for a number of reasons on a level that they had never…they hadn’t anticipated. Part of that is enrollment decline, part of that is a booming economy which means that, for instance, adult learners that might be signing up at two-year colleges or public colleges are now in the workforce and are not interested right now in up-skilling as some folks say, right? And part of that is…another economic reason is that price point. So, for instance, the folks at Bucknell found that—they have an engineering school—they found that students who might be interested in their engineering program might also be looking for a more affordable program and willing to pay less to go to a less selective, less “prestigious” institution to get their degree. 

Wyatt: I was listening to…or, I was reading you talk about alternatives that are more affordable…

Kelderman: Right. 

Wyatt: As being one of the dynamics that is at play here. In Utah alone since 2000, if you average the tuition cost from all of the universities in Utah, the public ones…and we’re affordable. Utah is like the second most affordable tuition rate in the whole country, but even in Utah, tuition and fees have climbed 216% since the year 2000. And during that time, general inflation has only increased by 48%. People are considering this. I was reading an article a while ago…I don’t know why, Steve, I think about these things, but it was an article about retirement. [All laugh] Preparing financially for a retirement.

Meredith: It’s in case you can’t weather the enrollment crisis. [All laugh] 

Wyatt: Eric, what you don’t know about us is that Steve and I are gradually…rapidly approaching 60. 

Kelderman: Sure. 

Meredith: I more rapidly than you. 

Wyatt: Yeah, I can’t wait for Steve to tell me what it’s like because you’ll hit it first. [All laugh] But one of the articles on retirement was all of these suggestions about how to prepare yourself financially and one of the subpoints was, “Stop sending your kids to super expensive schools.” 

Kelderman: Uh huh. 

Wyatt: And put that money into your retirement account and send them to a more affordable, public university or something like that. 

Kelderman: Right. 

Wyatt: But the “return on investment” kind of discussion that has been at the forefront since the Great Recession of 2008 is certainly having some impact on…

Meredith: Well, and even those folks that manage to weather that storm very often in order to come up with large tuition payments, student’s parents would dip into the equity of their home or something and even for people that were able to keep their homes, very many people found they didn’t have much equity anymore. There were fewer ways to finance big tuition payments after 2008. 

Kelderman: Right. Yeah, I think looking at this…and one thing I tried to emphasize in this report that we wrote was that this really isn’t just the story of demographic shift, right? Like I said, we’ve known about the decline in…particularly the decline in white high school graduates for a long time. The white birthrate in the country has been flat or declining for some time. I think what’s significant, at least in my thinking, is that this decline is happening at a time when we see really very fundamental challenges to the business model in higher education. The private institutions in particular that have this very weird pricing model, right? Where they list one thing as their sticker price, but of course, most students don’t pay that sticker price. Almost all students don’t pay the sticker price, and they offer some sort of discount, some sort of merit aid, they typically package it. And so, and I’m not sure how many listeners of yours will be as familiar with this, but there’s something called the “discount rate” that’s reported every year by a group that follows the business officers at colleges and the NACUBO - - 

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s right. 

Kelderman: And so, the private college discount rate is now on average 50%. So, if your college lists a sticker price of, say, $50,000 which is now not entirely unusual, most students are paying somewhere in the $25,000 range for their…to attend that school. And so, there’s only so long you can do that, right? You can only discount so much before you’re giving away more money than you’re actually taking in. so, that model is very difficult. State institutions like yours, in particular after the recession, found themselves in a place where the number of students was rapidly increasing but state appropriations were not. And so, again, the students that were coming in were paying a certain amount of tuition and we know that they’re not paying really what it actually costs to attend there, what their education costs. And so, there’s some fundamental challenges, really, to the operating model for most of higher education. And then add to that sort of this…the public dissatisfaction with the rising debt levels…

Wyatt: Right. 

Kelderman: And really questions about, “Does a college degree really prepare me adequately for success in the workplace?” And then we hear rhetoric, right? From people like the President or the Education Secretary or sometimes governors in certain states questioning the value of a college degree, really, and whether colleges are worth the investment. So, all of that mixed together, I think, is what makes this. The enrollment issue by itself is one piece of it, but when you look at the universe of challenges that colleges are facing, I think that’s what makes this sort of a compelling story right now. 

Wyatt: Yeah. And you talked about the discount rate and some of these private schools…what’s interesting is the discount rate or the extent to which schools are scholarship or waiving portions of tuition for students…

Kelderman: Right. 

Wyatt: Based on merit or need or whatever it might be, that continues to grow for the public schools as well as the private schools.

Kelderman: Right. Right, we see that strategy at public schools more often now through sometimes through honors programs or some sort of incentive. I’ll say that I guess my son didn’t get that. He went to the University of Maryland. I guess I must be in an income level where he wasn’t offered that. So, yeah, I think there’s challenges all around. The other aspect to this is you know, you’re in Utah, a state that is actually expected to I believe grow or at least face less of a decline over the next decade. The biggest decline of college students is expected in a place where we have the largest number of private colleges, right? So…

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Kelderman: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania…so, that’s where we see a lot of impact. My home state of Iowa has a large number of small, private colleges. I went to one of those and I know even now, a number of those institutions are struggling—especially if they’re not selective institutions—they’re already feeling some of the effects of this. 

Wyatt: Yeah, our chief financial officer is from Vermont and I think there’s been four colleges close in Vermont just in the last couple of years. 

Kelderman: Right, right. And, for instance, even the University of Vermont is a place where the majority of the students come from out of state and they pay a higher price, tuition, to go there and they’re essentially subsidizing the smaller percentage of in-state students. Vermont puts very little money state appropriation-wise into their public universities because typically, they’ve attracted a large number of non-resident students. And they question really is, as we get into this enrollment decline in the future, will places like that be able to compete with, nationally now, with a fewer number of students to choose from. So…

Meredith: And there’s kind of a trickle down too. You had suggested that Utah is somewhat a little bit immune from this…at least from the demographic plunge, although our birthrates are significantly lower as well than they have been in the past, but our flagship university, our big land-grant university, I don’t think I’m…I don’t think this is wrong to say, President, that they have had a fairly lackadaisical attitude about recruitment. 

Wyatt: Both on the flagship and the land-grant both. 

Meredith: They’ve been…they’ve had moderate growth and that’s just been OK with them and they haven’t really aggressively…because we’re, Eric, just to let you know, Cedar City is quite rural and remote. We’re on Interstate 15, it’s not like we’re completely out in the backwoods or anything, but it’s a small town of 30,000 people. And as the universities in the state of Utah go, we are by far surrounded by the smallest population of any of them, so, it has been our effort at recruitment that has helped us to grow and we’ve grown significantly, especially since President Wyatt’s arrival. Over 50% growth in that time. But we see that, even in Utah, there…our flagship university, the University of Utah has stated they want to grow but 8,000 students and Utah State University has undertaken a really aggressive new approach, and so, even in a place where enrollments have been…where demographics are not quite as much against us as they are in your part of the country, we are anticipating a very competitive field and some belt tightening even here in Utah. 

Wyatt: And we…we’re fortunate to say that we’re kind of lagging behind the country and so, we get to see all the challenges around in other states. But they’re coming here too. 

Kelderman: Well, let me…if I can be the question asker here for just a minute which is typically what I consider myself better at than the answering portion, right?

Wyatt: [Laughs] Yep. 

Kelderman: Tell me a little bit about where your increased enrollment has come from. Is it from the state? Is it from the region? Are you recruiting more internationally or from the coasts?

Wyatt: Our out-of-state has grown and our international has grown and in-state has grown. We’ve just become very, very serious about it. 

Kelderman: And to what do you attribute the increase? New marketing or a new pricing camp gain? Or are you simply reaching out to places you didn’t reach out to in the past? 

Wyatt: I think I would attribute it to two different things. The one is that our retention rate has increased by about 16% over the last four years. And so, some of our growth has been just keeping students that come. I think that’s actually pretty significant in retention increases. 

Meredith: Yeah, it is. 

Kelderman: Yeah. 

Wyatt: And then we’ve been very aggressive on international recruiting.

Meredith: And where that has begun to dip nationally pretty significantly, we’ve actually continued a pattern of growth here, particularly with students from Asia.

Wyatt: We’ve got a pretty ambitious effort in Sub-Saharan Africa and increasing students from Europe. We’re also like everybody else; we’re increasing scholarship and all forms of aid. 

Meredith: The closest major city to us is Las Vegas, Nevada. And so, we’ve always had a pretty significant outreach to Clark County, Nevada as well.

Kelderman: I see. 

Meredith: Although there is a university here whose name we don’t mention on our podcast that’s closer to Las Vegas. But we do…we have recruiting efforts in the Phoenix Metro region and the Los Angeles area and in the Las Vegas area that are pretty significant. 

Wyatt: So, the…

Kelderman: Right. 

Wyatt: To finish the answer to that question, we have worked hard to build the brand and hire new recruiters and develop strategies for recruiting. 

Kelderman: Yeah. 

Wyatt: In addition to retention and out-of-state and international. 

Kelderman: Right. Well, and when I look at the stats, when we look at colleges that have grown in recent years…and I think in the future, too, right? We anticipate that there are going to be winners and losers. The small, non-selective privates are probably the most endangered and we’ve seen several of those close in recent years. As you mentioned, I think the flagships typically tend to feel like they’re buffered from this a little bit and that may be the case and certainly the most selective privates, the Ivies, the Stanfords, places like that, are expected to continue to attract a significant amount of interest and applications to maintain their classes. And then further down the line we’ll see institutions like yours, sort of what we call typically comprehensive regionals, regional comprehensives. And we’ve seen a number of strategies that institutions around the countries have used to sort of try and ameliorate or stave off some of these challenges. In some cases, it’s expanding the places they recruit or the kind of student they recruit. Very often and I don’t know what your offerings are here, but very often of course we’re also seeing even public colleges, the regional comprehensive publics, start to offer a wider array of online courses in particular fields. It’s not clear to me if that’s a sustainable strategy over the long term, particularly if you’re hiring, for instance, a private company to be your online provider and you have to pay them a significant amount of tuition which has been the model in the past, right? You’re paying some of these so-called OPMs 50% or 60% of your tuition. But that’s been another strategy that a number of colleges have used to stay…to keep their enrollment numbers robust. 

Meredith: We should have mentioned we’ve seen significant growth in our graduate programs and many of them are online. 

Kelderman: Yeah, that’s…

Meredith: That’s been another area in which we’ve grown. 

Wyatt: Yeah, and in Utah, most of the students that are studying online…most of the students who are graduate students in Utah are online-only students. 

Kelderman: Right, right. Adult learners, things like that who…and you know, the standard model has been places like nursing, advanced degrees in nursing, or education. Almost every state in the country uses a master’s degree as some sort of marker for increasing your salary if you’re in the public schools. 

Wyatt: Yep. 

Kelderman: It’s part of the step…the civil salary steps. And so, that has been one way that schools have increased their enrollment over the years. You know, one thing we haven’t talked about, and as I follow this enrollment issue further now and into the future, one thing that comes up is the impact on communities. Next month I’m going to go down to Florida for a conference, the Florida Virtual Conference—virtual college—to talk about online programs and then I’m doing a podcast early next month with the International Town & Gown Association. I didn’t even know that existed but…

Meredith: Yeah, I didn’t know that either. 

Kelderman: But their impact is that what they’re looking at…what they’re considering right now is the way this enrollment issue will affect the businesses and communities surrounding campuses. Very often, and I’m sure this is probably the case in Cedar City, you’re probably the largest employer in your county.

Wyatt: Absolutely. 

Kelderman: Probably by far. That’s very often the case with the public regionals and many of these small privates that are in rural areas in particular. And so, as these colleges face dwindling enrollment, you have fewer students coming into the community buy things. If a college closes, heaven forbid, then that might be a couple hundred people in a county that are suddenly out of work and the economic ripple effect of that could be significant for some of these smaller, rural communities. And that’s a very interesting topic that I hadn’t even thought about until these folks contacted me and wanted to discuss this report. And so, it’s not just about higher education, right? 

Wyatt: Right. 

Kelderman: There’s a…and very often when these colleges close, if you’re in, say, the Upper Midwest, if a small private closes, that might eliminate the closest higher education option for the students in that county. 

Wyatt: When I showed up at Southern Utah University six years ago I had to speak to exactly what you’re saying. I had a landlord in town who owns a lot of apartments come pick me up within the first couple weeks and he just drove me around town and showed me all of the empty apartments and practically pleaded that we do something to reverse the enrollment difficulties that we’d had. It had been about ten years of flat or slightly declining…it was up and down, but it had pinched the economy here a little bit. 

Kelderman: Right. Yeah, I mean that makes a big difference. 

Wyatt: Yeah, we talk about all of the things that universities should be doing to help the economy and there’s a lot. We have a Tony Award winning Shakespeare Theater that brings in a lot of revenue to our community and many, many, many things. But probably the most significant thing we’re doing for the economy is just simply growing as a university. 

Meredith: That’s right. Having more students live here and work here buy things here. 

Wyatt: More students stimulates…yeah. 

Kelderman: Here’s another question for you: how…I don’t know about before you, but do you see your university as sort of an economic engine for your region? 

Wyatt: Yes. 

Kelderman: Both in terms of the employment issues and creating an educated workforce that’s going to stay in the county and start businesses, attract other businesses from other places, things like that. 

Meredith: Without a doubt, yes. 

Wyatt: Yeah. We look up I-15 and see all of these really small towns and Cedar City would be one of those really small towns if it wasn’t for the university. So, we are the leading engine for the economy. 

Meredith: Economic driver for this part of the state, for sure.


Kelderman: Right. 

Meredith: This and tourism. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it puts a lot of responsibility…it’s not just how is the university doing, it’s how the university affects everybody. 

Kelderman: Sure. 

Wyatt: So, we take it very, very seriously. 

Kelderman: And do you think business leaders and policy makers, law makers, elected officials in your state and county, do they have a similar view of that or has that been something that you’ve had to reach out and sort of preach to them in a sense?

Wyatt: You know, the good news, Eric, is that I think that Utah night be the state where policy makers, legislators, the governor, supports higher ed more than any other state.


Kelderman: Uh huh. 

Wyatt: And least in some measures. And one is that the state, even though the percent of our budget has decreased from taxpayers funds, we’re still being supported about 50% by tuition and 50% by state appropriations. 

Meredith: Which is a very high number at this point. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it’s huge. 

Kelderman: Yeah, that’s certainly probably I would say on the national average, you’re slightly above that at this point. That’s the other thing ,which is, I wonder how the enrollment issues start to play into appropriations discussions as time goes on. So, in states where enrollment starts to fall precipitously over the next decade, as much as 15% or more, do we start to see state lawmakers say, “Well, look, you’re not getting as many students as you used to and therefore, we need to adjust the amount of state money that we’re sending to you?” Is that a way…and especially in this, knock on wood, we haven’t had a recession since 2008, but especially as if we get into sort of financial downturn, that’s typically a time when you start to see some stabilization of enrollment or an increased enrollment at the same time that you see fewer resources coming from the state and I think that’s going to be a very interesting time to watch. Maybe not in a positive way interesting…

Wyatt: That’s right. 

Kelderman: But I think it will be fascinating to see, “How does this play into the public...the discussion about public resources?” I don’t know how it’s going in your state in terms of as you’ve increased enrollment. Do you start to get…does the message to your state lawmakers start to be, “Look, we’ve got more students coming in, we’re a bigger supporter of our economy in our county and therefore we think our appropriation should go up.” I don’t know how that conversation works in your part of the woods. 

Wyatt: Yeah, our legislature has been very responsive. We’re super fortunate to be here in Utah and they support enrollment growth, not as much as we would love them to, but there is a significant amount of money that has come out most years to support schools that are growing. On the good side, that helps us when we’re growing. On the bad side, it does create competition amongst the schools as we compete for students in order to get funding to support those students. 

Kelderman: Right. 

Wyatt: Because it’s that funding that helps us respond to growth and as much or more so build new opportunities for students, new programs and so forth. 

Kelderman: Right. 

Wyatt: This is actually quite fun, Eric. We’re always asking the questions.

Meredith: Yeah, we’re enjoying this interview. [All laugh]

Wyatt: It’s a nice conversation. 

Kelderman: Well, you know, I contribute where I can but I have a lot of curiosity and so…

Meredith: That’s what makes you a good reporter. 

Kelderman: I’m not used to being on the answering side of the equation and so, very often when I got to panels, to talk at panels, I prefer to be the moderator because it’s an easier role for me in some sense. I think also professionally as a journalist, you want to be a little bit careful about in what kinds of ways you’re offering answers, right?

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Kelderman: I’m not an enrollment management expert. The typical reporter has a knowledge base that’s, as we say, a mile wide and an inch deep. So, I can talk a little bit about a lot of different things, but when I have to talk in depth about any one particular topic, it’s always a little tricky. I’m sort of a very well-informed citizen as it were and not necessarily an expert on things but…

Wyatt: Yeah, right. Before I came into higher education, I was in a business where I was talking to reporters multiple times every single week for years and years and years. And I came to really admire those that get to spend their life in journalism because you’re just constantly talking to people, constantly learning.

Kelderman: Yeah. 

Wyatt: And you have to put a tremendous source of information…

Kelderman: Right, it’s in a way like being a professional student. I mean, you’re constantly learning. 

Wyatt: [Laughs] That’s a good way to say it. 

Kelderman: It’s a great privilege. I have sort of an enormous platform, at least within higher education, when I write about things and that’s a lot of responsibility, but the upside is I get paid really to think and write. Which is a little bit like a scholar or a student, right? 

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s right. 

Meredith: Absolutely. 

Kelderman: But it’s an enormous privilege to be able to do that. So…

Meredith: So, I’m going to ask you a question now. 

Kelderman: Yeah, please. 

Meredith: On that inch deep mile wide thing…

Kelderman: Yeah. 

Meredith: Where do you place—from what you’re hearing around the country and in your interviewing and writing—a shift towards, on the part of students expectations and parent expectations, is it going to be more towards job preparation and, “If you’re going to force me to take a bunch of liberal arts curriculum, universities, you’ve got to make it clear to us how that applies to the rest of my life.” That learning for the sake of learning is a little it “out” and learning for the sake of what it’s going to do for me later, or at least you’ve got to be able to make some sort of compelling argument about it, are you hearing a lot of that? Because there are some quotes in your article, Stefanie Niles, for example…

Kelderman: Right. 

Meredith: We’ve interviewed Stefanie as one of the participants in this report and is that the sense that you’re getting? That this generation of students really does want to be able to draw a fairly straight line to the coursework they’re being required to take and how it will impact their job skills? 

Kelderman: I think broadly speaking, yes. But I think there’s a lot of variation in that depending on what kind of student we’re talking about. So, I think the basic answer to your question is, “Yes.” Especially with the price of tuition increasing, right? I think when tuition was, say, a much smaller cost for your family, you could afford to go like I did, for instance. I got a liberal arts degree at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. I have a degree in music…

Meredith: Hey, me too. 

Kelderman: And I obviously am not working as a musician right now, right? In one sense, it was possible for me to do that without a lot of…I didn’t have to borrow a whole lot to get my undergraduate degree. Now, when I got my first master’s degree, yeah, I had to borrow more money and so in hindsight, that maybe wasn’t the wisest decision, but I think with the price increasing, yes. Parents and students are saying, “Look, if I’m going to put out this much money, I want to know that at the end, I’ve got some skill, some knowledge that I can rely on to go into the workforce that’s going to make it worth that investment.” So, I think if we’re looking, again, big picture, yes. Now, that changes I think with different kinds of students, right? 

Meredith: Right. 

Kelderman: The kind of student that’s in the upper 5% or 10% of the nation in terms of comes from a family that’s relatively wealthy, they’re still going to go to that fairly selective, private college mostly or maybe a fairly selective public like…I’m going to toss out some names here and this doesn’t mean that they’re the be-all-end-all of public colleges, but say a Michigan . . . 

Meredith: Right. 

Kelderman: Where you get to pay $50,000 out-of-state, right?

Meredith: Right. 

Kelderman: Of University of California institution like Berkeley, right? They’re in a place where they can go and their parents can afford that tuition for the most part and they’re going to continue on the path that many of them have already been established. They’re going to end up staying probably within that income range that they’re parents have been in, the quintile, and they’re going to do just fine. As you move down the income scale, then I think the expectations go up, in particular for working adults. And that’s been another emphasis of certainly two-year and public regional colleges is to get a lot of working adults back into the classroom to either get a degree or finish a degree maybe that they started years ago. For those folks, it’s absolutely critical, right? That they get something out of that degree, something that’s worth their time and they’re money. And that’s the other thing I think which you eluded at earlier, your retention rate has gone up significantly in recent years, and congratulations to you for that, I think that’s another way that I think colleges are looking at as a solution to this enrollment issue. Which is to simply keep the students that they have and complete them at a higher rate. That stabilizes your revenue stream over time, it reduces the need to constantly fill empty classroom seats. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Kelderman: And the uncertainty. So, completion, retention and completion I think are really important strategies for combating the enrollment issue. But yes, a return on invest is absolutely going to be crucial for students in the middle and lower income tiers. 

Meredith: It’s interesting because we talk about this fairly regularly, our listeners know that my undergraduate and graduate degrees are all in music and I spent 30+ years as a professor in the music classroom and, like you, I’m now sort of…I don’t do music every day as my job. However, I am going to ask you: you went to Luther College, did you sing in the choirs at Luther? 

Kelderman: I did sing in the choirs. I sang in…I did not get into the top choir which is called The Nordic Choir. 

Meredith: The Nordic Choir, that’s right. 

Kelderman: At Luther at the time was conducted by this lovely little gentleman named Weston Noble, he died a few years ago. 

Meredith: Yeah, he’s an absolute legend in my world. Weston Noble of Luther College. 

Kelderman: Right. But I did get a chance to sing in the choirs. I sang in the choir all four years and I played in the band and the orchestra and the jazz band. 

Meredith: And as a recovering musician, you’ve still been able to make a decent living as a journalist, right? My point…

Kelderman: Well…

Meredith: I guess my point is, there are lots of different ways to get to where you’re going to go. 

Kelderman: Right. Although I will say this, I did go back and get a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Maryland. It’s a very skills-based program, you can do it in a year, which is nice. 

Meredith: That is nice. 

Kelderman: I took a little longer. I had one child and a second on the way when I started that program in 2000, I believe it was. ’99 or 2000 and I finished in 2001. And it was, at the time, I believe it was relatively affordable and I had a job, even before I graduated I was offered a journalism job. And so, it turned out to be a very good investment. I’m…I hate to say this, but I’m a much better journalist than I was a musician. 

Meredith: [Laughs] I’m a much better musician than I am podcast host, so…

Kelderman: But the competition to make a living as a musician is intense, as you know, I was playing trombone professionally in the D.C. area when I moved here in 1996 and I remember going to an audition for the Marine Band. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Kelderman: Now, this is the President’s own Marine Band, this is a…many of your listeners may not know this, this is an elite group of musicians. They’re the only service band that does not have to go through basic training, actually. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Kelderman: And they’re fantastic. And actually a friend of mine from Luther is a clarinetist in the band and has played there for about 25 years and is retiring soon, but I went to an audition for this and this won’t surprise you, Steve, but I show up and this was a job that at the time paid maybe, let’s say $30,000 a year not including military benefits, right?

Meredith: Right. 

Kelderman: And how many trombonists do you think showed up for that audition? 

Meredith: I’ll be there were 50 at least. 

Kelderman: There were probably a couple hundred. [All laugh] So, the competition is steep. Now, journalism, there’s still a lot of competition but it’s still easier, I think, probably to make a living as a journalist than as a musician. And so, I did that for a few years and then used my liberal arts degree to pursue another career and I’ve found that very rewarding. So…And I still have a trombone and play occasionally but…

Meredith: There you go. Once you’re a trombonist…I’m a recovering trombonist myself so…and I still own one. 

Kelderman: Excellent. [Laughs] I actually have two trombones in my home. I have a very nice Bach, you’ll be aware…

Meredith: Yeah, that’s a nice one. 

Kelderman: Bach Stradivarius.

Meredith: Yeah. 

Kelderman: Professional-level instrument that I love, it’s a beautiful horn. I don’t play it as well as I used to, unfortunately, or as much, but it was a wonderful way to spend my time for a few years. 

Meredith: Well, I’m sorry to derail the discussion away from that. 

Wyatt: No, it’s fun.

Meredith: I so rarely get to talk to musicians on this show, so it's nice to be able to catch up with somebody, Eric. 

Wyatt: It is a lot of fun. I had piano lessons for four years and in those four years I had probably six teachers, so that probably gives you all the information you need to know about my current state of piano skills but…

Kelderman: Right. Well, music education is probably a subject for a completely different podcast. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: We’ll remember that. 

Meredith: Yes, we will remember that. 

Wyatt: It’s a good suggestion. 

Kelderman: OK, yeah sure. [Laughs] Well, I think it raises…related to the enrollment issue I think this comes sort of around in a different way, right? Which is as colleges face this declining enrollment and the pressure to keep tuition affordable and make sure that students complete a degree that meets their workforce expectations, what decisions do they make about programs that they keep? 

Meredith: That’s right. Music is an expensive program. 

Kelderman: Music is an expensive program, the odds that you’ll do something besides teach music are fairly small, or make a living doing something besides teaching music are relatively small, it’s highly competitive. There are a number of programs that we’ve seen. I think this is…we talk about some of these as an enrollment issue, but really it’s also an expense issue in terms of, “Do we have programs that are relevant to attract students and keep them long enough that they’re going to graduate and then be able to pay back their loans or make a living?” And music is one of those areas that it’s a lovely thing to offer students and it’s certainly an important topic, it’s very near and dear to my heart, of course as a former musician, but how much relevance does it have as a future…as an option for employment? And that’s going to be an important discussion. 

Meredith: It is. 

Kelderman: And especially for places that have…that don’t maybe have a large and burgeoning music program now. What do you do with programs like that? And I don’t know what kind of discussions you’re having at Southern Utah. Right now, your enrollment’s on the upswing and you’ve been doing very well, but at the same time, you still have to be mindful of your expenses and the kinds of offerings that you have. I don’t know what the discussion there is in terms of…we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks in places like, say, philosophy programs. Or German language programs have been something that have been on the chopping block at a number of institutions. Some of these languages that might not be so popular anymore. 

Wyatt: Well, to your point, philosophy is a new degree here. It was just…it became a bachelor’s degree just several years ago. And then German has gone out but it’s gone out because the demand went to zero almost. 

Kelderman: Yeah. 

Wyatt: We just didn’t have any students in it. But we have invested considerable resources in music. It’s interesting to…as the institutions kind of evolve through all of these things. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Kelderman: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Anyway, it’s been a lot of fun talking and I’m happy that we ended this discussion on bright subject like music. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Kelderman: Oh, good. 

Wyatt: Thanks so much, Eric. 

Kelderman: Well, I hope I brought it around. Maybe you can use some of that question and the dialogue about the program decisions because I really think that’s a topic we didn’t get to too much but I do think that that’s a…

Wyatt: It’s a big part of it. 

Kelderman: A subject that a lot of institutions are going to have to engage in, yeah. 

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 joining us via phone from his office in Washington, D.C., Eric Kelderman, a senior report at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Eric, we thank you for participating and we thank our listeners for listening. We’ll be back again soon, bye bye.